We must reach for Eden, knowing that we can never arrive there

Genesis 1:1-6:8
Isaiah 42:5-43:10

A businessman summoned for judgment before the celestial court was elated to learn the judge’s verdict: “You may have everything your heart desires simply by desiring it. All your wishes will be fulfilled instantly.”

“What more could anyone ask for,” he thought to himself. Now he could have uninterrupted leisure and the absence of any worry.

However before long, dissatisfaction began to gnaw at him. All of the perfection began to weigh heavily on his soul. A longing for something different brought heaviness to his heart. He became restless and depressed, whereupon a heavenly courtier questioned him: “Aren’t you satisfied with this place?”

The man replied, “I am sick and tired of everything being perfect and never having a care or a worry. I would like something to do, something to explore, to strive for.

“I am so tired of this easy life,” he continued, “that I would rather be in hell.”

The attendant looked at him with pity and then asked: “And where do you think you are?”

This fictional narrative points to a tension that defines our modern age. We search for perfection, strive to acquire our hearts’ desires, and then we realize that when we achieve it, we are bored. John Steinbeck asked this paradoxical question: “Where does discontent start? You are warm enough but you shiver; you are fed yet hunger gnaws at you.” George Bernard Shaw further observed: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”

Reflection on such emptiness in the midst of abundance is not limited to the modern age. Centuries before Shaw and Steinbeck lived, the Psalmist pondered this problem: “He gave them what they asked for but He sent a hunger into their souls.” (106:15)

Today, the greatest complaint lodged by children surrounded by TVs, computer games, CDs, DVDs and DSL connections is: “I’m bored.” Boredom has emerged as a universal complaint at home and in the workplace.

Boredom has even infected worship. Unless it is packaged like the evening news in 15-second sound bites, delivered by pretty faces, pitched to people on an elementary school level, and measured by the Nielsen ratings, worship and sermons are often unacceptable — people are bored.

“Keep it short, rabbi” is the mantra of our age of speed-dialing and high-speed Internet connections. If it is short, even if it is bad, it is good. And if it is long, no matter how good it is, it is bad. Should the clergy have to lure Jews to the synagogue by competing with the entertainment industry?

That the biblical author records the efforts to find an idealized place of abundance should not come as a surprise. The story of the Garden of Eden sets the tone for a longing for a perfection that can never be achieved because, as Immanuel Kant’s observed, “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built.”

Nevertheless, in spite of our imperfections, the dream of Eden is a recurrent yearning. Like Adam and Eve in search of Eden and the Israelites in search of the Promised Land, we, too, ultimately discover that there is no perfect place, and even if we were to find it, we would not be content.

Judaism is centered in repetition. That is what the Hebrew word shanah — year — means, just as the Hebrew word for the high holy day prayerbook, machzor, means another go-around. We return to the starting point year in and year out.

Repetition, monotony and boredom are not enemies, they are opportunities. They must be embraced if we hope to accomplish anything. We have insufficient time, a limited number of years, repetitions to learn, to get it right. Repetition keeps us focused on the brevity and preciousness of life. We do not have forever. There is real urgency in what we set out to achieve.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the 5765th repetition. As we begin the reading of Bereisheet, we have a new opportunity to begin again, to get it right this year. We may reach for Eden, but we must settle for finding satisfaction in the simple Jewish mitzvah opportunities that help us get a little closer to Eden than we ever were before. That is the nature of the Jewish mission — to reach for Eden, knowing that we can never arrive there, but that we can settle for coming a little closer than our parents were able to.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.