Towards the end of the blessings enumerated in the parsha if the Jews follow the Torah is God’s promise of “vehithalacthi betochechem” (26:12) – which might best be translated as, “I will walk around among you” (see Sforno). The Rabbis in Sifra (Bechukotai 3:3), however, pick up on the fact that this is a rather fearsome blessing – while we all want contact with God, we tend to prefer that it only be on our own terms and when we are fully prepared.
And so the Rabbis compare this to a king who wants to inspect a field together with its sharecropper. The latter naturally recoils at the thought and tries to hide from the king, at which point the king tries to reassure him by saying, “Why are you afraid, I am just like you?” The Rabbis go on to say that this parallels what will happen in the future to the righteous ones in the Garden of Eden. Like the field’s tenant, they will recoil at God’s desire to walk around among them. But like the king, God will respond to them, “I am just like you!”
By placing this promise specifically in the Garden of Eden, the midrash is noting one of the extremely few places about God walking around with people – in the Garden of Eden immediately after the sin (Bereshit 3:8). And the reaction to God’s walking around was indeed fear and an attempt to hide. But then the two scenarios diverge. First God scolds Adam and Chava and punishes them. Yet once that is over, God reflects (Bereshit 3:22) that man has indeed “become like one of Us!”
What did God mean and how is that meant to reassure us in the future?
Firstly, one senses that our resemblance to God will not always put us at ease. In Bereshit, God sees it as a reason why Adam should be cast away from Him, and not for the continuation of close contact. But this is really not so difficult. It is only once man is like God that there is a value to God’s closeness to man – that value, however can be positive or negative. In other words, if there were monkeys or wolves in the Garden, they would neither be afraid of God nor be of any great interest to Him. For they – after all – do not know the difference between good and evil, but rather simply act according to God’s blueprint.
Not so man. Because man has the ability to choose, God is interested. Hence when we do wrong, two things happen. The first is that we have good reason to be afraid of God. The second is that God does not really want to “walk around” among us.
But what about when we are not doing anything wrong? In that case, we are still afraid, but then God does want to walk among us. While our fear is natural and related to an appropriate awe, the midrash tells us that the Garden of Eden will never be brought back if we are not prepared to live in front of God.
Living in front of God – of course – is easier said than done. On a much lower scale, I remember the dread I sometimes felt when the principal came to sit in unannounced as I was teaching a lesson. Whether human or divine, we are afraid of our bosses. That is because we see them as having interests that conflict with our own. In the case of a principal and a teacher, their educational goals may often coincide. But not always – what I think is best for my students is not always in agreement with the principal’s opinion. Moreover, I have a financial interest which never fully overlaps with the principal’s – I want to secure as much legitimate remuneration for my work as possible, whereas the principal has a more immediate interest in keeping down the school’s costs.
But what happens if we actually become partners? As the Rabbis well understood, that should be a game changer. If we all run the school together, our interests automatically merge. Likewise, if the sharecropper is doing his best to cultivate the field, he and the king are actually partners. They both know the difference between doing things in a proper way and an improper way and they have both chosen the former in order to maximize the field’s return. As such, the king’s greater power, resources and sources of expertise do not put him in opposition to his tenant. Just the opposite. If the king sees something wrong with the tenant’s work, his natural response would be to help him.
In this regard, our job is to welcome God’s constant presence. For He is better and more loving than any human partner. He will always know the extenuating circumstances for why we are not doing better and what is required to help us actually do better. And so the Rabbis wanted us to understand that God is not just our Father and King – He is also our ultimate Partner!