THIS Saturday, Jews throughout the world will be spending almost the entire day in the Synagogue marking Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. One of the most stirring prayers of the High Holidays is Shema Kolenu. One of its stanzas reads: Renew our days like days of old.
This verse is commonly interpreted as a prayer for a return to the “good old days,” to a lovelier, simpler and happier life. In the Hebrew original however the words of old are read as Ke-Kedem, and these words have two meanings: “old days” and “east.” The Sages of the Talmud tell us that the kedem of our verse refers not to “old days,” but to a specific place – to the area just East of the Garden of Eden.
After Adam and Eve sin, God expels them from the Garden of Eden, and places them “East of the Garden of Eden.” The sages’ translation of the word “kedem” as “east” leads us to a remarkably strange and striking understanding of this prayer. We are asking God to restore us not to the “good old days”, but rather to the days following the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, not to Paradise but to a place of trauma and transition.
Strange though it may seem, the sages’ understanding gives marvellous depth and relevance to this prayer. Every person has a private Garden of Eden, the Paradise of his or her dreams. We all start out with dreams of how our lives will turn out and of course dreams are the only place where we can achieve perfection, because life, by definition, is imperfect.
So sooner or later our dreams are shattered. Many of us react by spending our lives idealising the past and living in it. Since we cannot return we become disillusioned wanderers, searching for our lost paradise, stuck in a painful period of limbo where we cannot go back but also cannot move forward. We find ourselves East of Eden.
But now we must remember that Adam and Eve did not despair when they found themselves outside the garden. Instead, they learned to survive, to raise children and to give rise to the entire human race. What a monumental feat of hope and striving this must have been – to build lives in the real world after losing the bliss of paradise and to move on rather than perish in a memory of the past.
And this is what the prayer is telling us. Give us the strength to throw ourselves into battle for a deeper and more meaningful life, to build a new paradise, after being expelled from the Eden of our dreams.
Rabbi Yehuda Pink MSc
Solihull & District Hebrew Congregation