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Updated: Mar 28, 2022

In the very first story in the Bible, humans’ “fall from grace” follows our first transgression, eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Upon eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve immediately become self-conscious, realizing their nakedness. Interestingly, what they seek to cover in shame is their sexual organs, the difference they perceive in themselves from each other. Thus difference (noticing that others have something we don’t), sex, and shame are deeply linked in the story, as they often have been throughout history. For when others have something we don’t, we become distraught and defensive. When there’s an “other” we can't understand, we try to denigrate it. Without empathy, there is only rivalry. And instead of marveling in the perceived difference, or examining our own sense of lacking, we start attacking. This pattern is evident in many contexts, be it due to racial, religious, or physical differences. And it is especially pronounced in how we approach differences in gender and sexuality.

Prior to their sin, Adam and Eve lived in a natural state of purity and innocence, in harmony with each other and with nature. They had no notions of a separate or a unique self, or of good or bad. Following their sin (the original Hebrew word for "sin” translating into “missing the mark”), they sense the hovering presence of “Truth”—one of God’s names in several traditions—and they seek to hide from it. Try as we might to hide from Truth, it is always there, hovering, even if only in our unconscious. Indeed, when God calls out to them, instead of taking responsibility, they “pass the buck.” The man blames the woman (“She tempted me”), and similarly the woman blames the snake. In interpreting the story, the biblical sages have commented that if Adam and Eve had taken responsibility for their “missing the mark” and repented, they would have been forgiven by the merciful God. But, refusing to own their transgressions, they were cast out of Eden, whereby the story of human suffering begins. In this way, it is not our mistakes that are the cause of our ongoing suffering, but rather our attempts to hide from the truth and our failures to take responsibility or learn from our mistakes.

From there, we can see the cycle beginning to take shape. With Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence, human rivalry with the so-called “other" begins. The violence between and towards other men follows when Cain kills Abel, his more successful brother. These themes of difference, jealousy, competition, and lack of empathy leading to sibling rivalry continue throughout the book of Genesis, from Isaac and Ishmael, to Jacob and Esau, to Joseph and his brothers. And though less explicitly violent, women and their sisters are not immune to jealousy and competition, as is the case between Abraham’s two wives, Sarah and Hagar, and the two sisters, Rebecca and Leah.

Fortunately, we receive some hope towards the end of Genesis, when Joseph and his brothers reconcile through the power of forgiveness. And we are given an even better example to follow with the next story, about Moses, Aaron, and their sister Miriam. It is Miriam who along with Pharaoh’s daughter—an Egyptian woman and therefore a rival from the “enemy” tribe—saves Moses’ life. Later, it is the three siblings, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, who without animosity or competition collaborate, jointly leading the Israelites out of their oppression into freedom. Thus, the story suggests that men and women within and across tribes can and must cooperate in our journey into liberation.

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