This week, we start the annual Torah cycle again with the Torah portion of בראשית (Genesis 1:1-6:8). When I read this passage, it's amazing the frequency with which I wonder why Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Many Orthodox Jews, as well as Christians, believe that the reason they were evicted (Genesis 3:23-24) was due to their disobedience regarding eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17).
Looking at Torah, as well as subsequent post-biblical Jewish writings, there is certainly a place for the idea of obedience within Judaism, although there is also a place for questioning and defying from time to time. But that supposed dichotomy is not what renders me unconvinced of the argument. The reason why I don't remain convinced is because if that was the reason behind it, G-d would have just rendered justice and given Adam and Eve their eviction notice for disobeying the one commandment He gave them. However, that is not what took place. There is a vital dialogue that takes place prior to their eviction that sheds light on the reason behind it, which is why I argue that based on the Jewish hermeneutical tool of juxtaposition (סמוכים), it is the reason why Adam and Eve are ultimately evicted. So with that, I provide a recap what happened in Genesis 3:
After Adam and Eve ate from the tree, G-d appears from them and asks them איכה. "Where are you," He asks. The question isn't meant to be taken literally. After all, G-d is omniscient and omnipresent, so this isn't a question about physical locality; it's a philosophical question. "Now that you know what good and evil are, what is the state that you find yourself? Where are you headed?" With this new knowledge [of good and evil], it was meant to give them pause about the gravitas of what they just consumed. Adam points out his nakedness, which is the point that G-d has Adam confront what he did. What was Adam's reaction? He played the blame game and pointed the finger at his wife, Eve (ibid, v. 12), which is hardly the sign of a solid marriage. What does Eve do in the following verse? She blames the snake for coaxing her into eating from the tree. The snake interestingly doesn't get a chance to explain himself, but that might have something to with the fact that was not created "in His Image," and thus is not endowed with the free will to change his character. G-d subsequently punishes all the parties involved.
This story is much more than just being about a tree. It's even more than a statement of what results from disobedience (if it weren't G-d would have not even bothered with the aforementioned dialogue). It is about the human's default mode of denial when confronted with doing something wrong. Since G-d evicted Adam and Eve after they attempted to evade and conceal their shame by blaming others, it is also a story of what happens when you do not take personal responsibility for your actions, which is why G-d kicked them out immediately after this exchange. As Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks states in his book To Heal a Fractured World, it is the birth of ethics. G-d gave Adam and Eve a chance to explain themselves in hopes that they would do teshuva and turn away from making mistakes. Alas, instead of owning up to their mistakes, they did what was the least discomforting thing and tried to shift the admonishment elsewhere.
I think there are two important lessons to take from this insight. The first is that with free will to do whatever you want comes consequences, whether those consequences are good or bad. The second is that when we do something wrong, we don't point fingers and blame other individuals or external forces like the economy or upbringing. We learn to point the fingers at ourselves, figure out our imperfections and inconsistencies, and thus learn how to better ourselves. This is the way we can avoid the spiritual emptiness that Adam and Eve experienced as a result of their incapacity to admit their mistakes, learn from said mistakes, and move up the spiritual ladder in order to be better human beings.