Day 18: From the Garden to God

It has been a pleasure joining you on the 18 Days to a Better You. As I share in the sermon below, G-d will not ask us why we are not perfect but G-d will ask us why we did not grow?

May you merit to seize every day for personal growth and may G-d grant you and your families a year of peace success and joy!

If you want to stay in touch, also visit my website or send me an email [email protected]

Wishing you all the best,
Rabbi Cohen

From the Garden to God

Yom Kippur 5755

Would you like to overhear the first conversation between G-d and humanity? What did G-d say to Man and Man respond to G-d? The substance of the dialogue reveals the secret to spiritual greatness and the essential nature of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

But first allow me to ask you a simple question from the Torah, a Bible quiz. What was the sin for which Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden? What transgression brought trouble to Paradise and mortality to the world?

I would venture to say that most of us would answer the sin was Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Good and Evil. God encouraged them to partake of all of the fruits of the garden except for the produce from one tree. We all know the rest of the story. Once eaten, Adam and Eve were punished and banished.

Yet, listen carefully to the story in the book of Genesis. There is more than meets the eye.

The Torah records: Adam and Eve ate from the tree. Towards evening, they heard the sound of G-d in the garden and they hid from G-d amidst the trees. G-d spoke to man. The very first words uttered by the Almighty to mankind. “Where are you?” Adam responds that he heard the sound of G-d and was scared and hid. G-d furthers the questioning by asking directly if Adam ate from the tree. Adam responds. “The woman who You gave me, she gave me of the tree and I ate.”

When we examine the text, we notice that G-d does not immediately punish Adam and Eve for eating from the tree. He gives mankind a chance to admit his mistake and take responsibility for his transgression. He gives man an opportunity. Instead Adam hides, Adam denies and Adam blames Eve. Eve in turn blames the snake.

Had Adam responded to G-d’s simple question in the affirmative, he still would have been in the Garden of Eden.

G-d is telling us a stirring and counter intuitive idea. It is not our sins that matter as much as how we respond when we stumble. Are we afraid to admit an error? Do we deny we made a mistake? We all make mistakes. The challenge is acknowledging them and growing from them.

Adam and Eve sowed the seeds of denial in man. All too often, we fail to take personal responsibility for our actions and as a defense mechanism we blame others. The consequences reverberate until today. We live in world of excuses. Leaders fail to own up. People would rather lie than admit a mistake.

Here is an actual list compiled by Reader’s Digest for not showing up to work or not doing homework:

  • I dreamed I was fired so I did not want to get out of bed.
  • I was not thinking and accidentally went to my old job.
  • I was up all night arguing with G-d.
  • I did not do my homework because I did not want the other kids in the class to look bad.

But perhaps the most creative, and disappointing excuse I found was one that was offered for not filing taxes. The offender was Charles J. O’Byrne, the top aide to New York governor David Paterson. He neglected to file tax returns for five years. His excuse: He suffers from a medical condition called late-filing syndrome, which is caused by depression. And even though this depression did not stop him from being a highly functional professional or enjoying an active social life, it did seem to affect his ability to pay taxes—five years in a row.

For too many of us, admission suggests weakness. In fact, according to the Torah, admission is strength and the key to spiritual success. It is no wonder that Maimonides writes that the first step of Teshuva, repentance is acknowledgement of sin. We must verbally admit to G-d we made a mistake.

G-d understands we are not perfect.

But on Yom Kippur, he is calling on us to admit our failures. He is beseeching us to take responsibility for our actions. He is reminding us that the primordial sin was not in eating of the tree but in not facing reality.

We ask ourselves today on the holiest day of year, a day when we are all seeking closeness to G-d, do we own up to our mistakes or do we deny them. Do we hide from reality like Adam and Eve? Do we blame others instead of accepting personal responsibility?

When we pause to reflect, we realize how true it is that denial, blame and avoidance fosters financial corruption, relationship erosion, spiritual corrosion and even death.

What are the consequences of failing to accept our mistakes?

First, we foster a society of non liability. How many times do we hear people say it is not my fault. It is not my responsibility. As a result, we lack urgency to act and the consequences can be devastating.

As we all know, General Motors produced a flawed ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt. The part has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 crashes. The “Valukas Report,” named for former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, blamed a culture of complacency for the more than decade-long delay before the company recalled millions of faulty vehicles. It described employees passing the buck and committees falling back on the “GM nod”—when everyone in a meeting agrees that something should happen, and no one actually does it. As Valukas wrote in the report, “Group after group and committee after committee within GM that reviewed the issue failed to take action or acted too slowly. Although everyone had responsibility to fix the problem, nobody took responsibility.”

Second, in such a world, one unleashed by Adam and Eve and perpetuated by us, we cover up our transgressions. As we see time and again, the cover up is often worse than the crime. One small mistake can be compounded the more we lack the courage to admit our mistakes. With each compromise, we become immune to the gravity of our actions.

Listen to the “final” words of Peregrine Financial Group Chief Executive Russell Wasendorf Sr. which he penned in a suicide attempt note. In his letter, he confessed to bilking customers out of over $200 million.

“I had no access to additional capital and I was forced into a difficult decision: Should I go out of business or cheat? I guess my ego was too big to admit failure. So I cheated; I falsified the very core of the financial documents of PFG, the bank statements.”

One choice altered his destiny.

How many lives are ruined when people cannot admit a mistake? The fallout shakes the foundations of our families, businesses, government and schools.

On Yom Kippur, we come to terms with human nature born from Adam and Eve. The process of Teshuva starts with personal responsibility. This is best illustrated by a famous story in the Talmud about a man named Elazar Ben Durdia who was steeped in immorality. Suddenly, he realized the error of his ways and tried to seek G-d’s forgiveness. He sat between two mountains and asked them to beseech G-d on his behalf but they refused. He then asked the heavens and earth to request mercy but they too refused. Finally, he turned to the sun and moon to pray on his behalf but they refuse to help him as well.

What is meaning of this cryptic story?

Each one of the places he turned symbolizes his attempt to shift responsibility for his actions. The mountains, horim, represent his family upbringing. They are responsible for his behavior. If only he would have had better role models. How can he accept the blame? However, they refuse to accept guilt.

He then turned to the heavens and earth, which represent his environment and tried to blame that for his actions. He grew up in a bad neighborhood. His friends influenced him negatively. It was not his fault. Yet again, they also would not accept responsibility for his sins.

He finally turned to the sun and the moon who represent his mazal, his natural inclinations, and claimed that it was impossible to avoid sinning because of his nature. He was born with genetic make up to get angry or lie. But again, they would not accept culpability for his behavior.

At that moment he proclaimed, “This thing is only dependent on me.” He finally acknowledged that there was only one source responsible for his transgressions – himself. He could not blame his parents, society or natural tendencies. He realized that he had the power to change his ways and he did. The ultimate responsibility for our behavior lies only with us.

In this realization lies the essence of Yom Kippur. If we can muster the courage to admit our failures and do our best to mend our ways, we will grow, the world will be changed, and the light lost in Eden will return. More than any other day, Yom Kippur affirm the power of our free choice. Only when we do not blame can we bless. Only when we do not hide can we be holy.

Sometimes as parents, this is the most important lesson we can teach our children. I am the beneficiary of such a lesson from over 50 years ago. This past Sunday, Elisheva and I visited the graves of my paternal grandparents, David and Johanna Cohen. Upon my return, I called my father and asked him to share some memories about my grandparents. He told me that as a teenager living in Mt. Vernon he was not the most careful driver. His family did have a lot of money and they had just purchased a new car. My father thought he could maneuver his way down a street with a car on one side and a garbage truck on the other. Well, you can imagine what happened. As he drove, his car scraped the other cars. My father was mortified and afraid of what his father would say to him. My dad will always remember my grandfather’s reaction. He did not yell or blame my father. He knew that my father on his own would realize the error of his ways. He allowed my father to accept personal responsibility on his own. A lesson learned for my dad and me for all time.

When we accept the consequences of our choices, we affirm life. We are not victims but victors. G-d tells us on Yom Kippur, I understand you will make your mistakes but I expect you to take ownership of them and grow.

Imagine living in a world where no on laid blame on anyone else. Imagine a world where everyone took personal responsibility for their actions. Imagine a world where the priority was on attacking the evil in ourselves and not in others. What a world it would be.

It starts with us.

When we start with ourselves, we can slowly change the world.

A great sage Rabbi Tzadok reflected that Yom Kippur is only 10% about our past and 90% about our future. From G-d’s perspective, he is willing to forgive our failures but not our lack of effort to move forward and improve our lives. The Vilna Gaon states very succinctly, “Man was created in order to refine his negative character traits. If a person does not do this, then why is he alive?”

Each one of us possesses a Divine voice which calls on us, motivates us and inspires us to be our very best. Let us not be afraid to admit the past. G-d is waiting for us to accept our failures, admit our flaws and plan vigorously for our future. He will be waiting to receive us with open arms and with his love.

This is the essence of Yom Kippur. This is the essence of knowing that our father in heaven welcomes us home.

The story is told of Rabbi Nachum Yasser from Russia who immigrated to Israel. He came with his entire family. One child who left Judaism and became a Communist decided to stay behind. The Rabbi was deeply disappointed. A student once approached Rabbi Yasser and asked him to explain the perplexing idea of Maimonides about the power and potency of teshuva, repentance. The student asked the Rabbi, “I do not understand how one day a person can be despised in G-d’s eyes and the next day beloved.” The Rabbi explained, “You know I have a child who has abandoned our faith. It causes me great grief and pain. Yet, what do you think I would do if he walked in the door right now? Do you think I would do anything other than jump with joy at his arrival and hold him tight? He is my son and I will always be his father.”

So too it is with us. G-d awaits our return to him. He will be there ready to embrace.

Our future in is in our hands. Regardless of our families, our environment or our instincts, we can sow the seeds of the Messianic age.

We began with G-d’s call to man and man’s denial. I end with our answer to G-d and charge to you.

G-d asks us every day – Ayeka? Where are you?

This year, let us not hide. This year, let us remember that today G-d will not ask us why we sinned. G-d will ask us why we did not do teshuva, return to him.

If each us lives as if the world is in our hands and it is our personal responsibility to do so, we will restore the light of the Garden of Eden and merit to perfect the world under G-d and a time when G-d’s name will truly be One.

Wishing you and your families a Gemar Chatimah Tovah, may we all be sealed in the book of life in the year to come.

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