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Parashat Bereishit

October 27, 2016

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

Parashat Bereishit: The Ever-Turning Sword

“YHWH Elohim sent out the human from the garden of Eden, to work the earth from which he was taken. So YHWH Elohim expelled the human and caused to dwell east of Eden the cherubim and the flame of the ever-turning sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” (Gen. 3:23-24)

I often have found myself fascinated by the ever-turning sword, the herev mithapekhet, that keeps humans from returning to Eden. Does one of the cherubim hold it, or does it turn on its own? Is there already an ever-turning sword in the divine treasury, or does God need to forge one for the occasion? Why is it described as lahat, a burning flame? What would happen if a human confronted the ever-turning sword? Is it possible to get past it and enter Eden, as some of the Hasidic rabbis claimed?

The parallel between Eden and the Tabernacle, the mishkan, has long been established. Cherubim, winged guardian figures, watch over the Tabernacle, just as they watch over Eden. The menorah reflects the image of the Tree of Life. This is even hinted at in the Genesis text, which says that God causes the cherubim to “dwell” (vayashken) east of Eden. But (unless we count the ritual guardianship of the Levites) there is no ever-turning sword in the mishkan. That element of the Eden story seems to be reserved exclusively for the original garden. What is unique about the guarded gateway to Eden?

The root mithapekh, to turn itself, is used only rarely in the Bible, and when it is used, it is used to mean a supernatural overturning. In Judges 7:5, a soldier in a Midianite army attacking the Israelites dreams of a loaf of barley bread that whirls into the Midianite camp and turns the camp upside down: mithapekh b’mahaneh. His friend interprets his dream, saying that the barley bread signifies the sword of Gidon ben Yoash, for God is delivering the camp into Gidon’s hands. Another instance of the word mithapekh appears in the book of Job, where God is creating storm winds, breathing ice, and scattering lightning clouds. Vehu mesibot mithapekh b’tachbultav –– God “turns circles” around God’s events (the word for event can signify labor pains or birth), “that God’s works may accomplish all that God commands them on the face of the earth.” In both of these texts, God ordains a transformation of events, an overturning of the status quo. There is a terrifying nature to these overturnings by sword and storm. The word lahat, flame, has similar connotations: in the Bible, a lahat or flame can consume a mountain (Deut. 32:22), or travel before God as a messenger (Psalms 104:4). Unlike an eish, a regular fire, a lahat is always kindled by God.

This language analysis suggests to me that the sword that guards the way to Eden is not just an ever-turning sword; it is an ever-overturning sword, a sword that thwarts human expectations. It is a reminder of the limitations of our physical existence: we are subject to the storms of nature and the storms of history. The events that overtake human lives bar us from the experience of Eden, the perfect garden of our mythic origins. The overturning sword, as I would translate it, is a fact of our existence.

Yet the story of the cherubim and the sword holds out an interesting paradox. The purpose of the sword, Genesis tells us, is lishmor et derekh etz ha-hayyim: to guard the way to the Tree of Life. This can mean, of course, to block the path to the Tree of Life, the fruit of which would give humans immortality. Yet it can also mean “to keep the way to the Tree of Life.” Just as Jacob “shamar et ha-davar” — kept the matter of Joseph’s dream in mind — so too, the overturning sword guards the way to the Tree of Life, as a bright reminder to us that we must remember Eden. The sword bars the way, but it also lights the way. As we face the storms of our lives, the vision of Eden — a place of sustenance and nurturing, where we can walk with God — still guides us, even if we cannot completely touch it. We can still see it, just beyond the cherubim. We can still hold it as a potent vision of how the world can be when we care for one another as Adam and Eve tended the garden.

And maybe the sword also exists within us, in the inner storms only we can feel. Maybe, if we can quiet the chaos within, if we can lessen the churning of our own minds and hearts, we can find the garden in ourselves. One goal for meditation and prayer is to quiet the ever-turning sword of consciousness and find serenity for a moment. This is perhaps why Sefer Yetzirah says: “If your heart runs to ruminate and your mouth runs to speak, return to the Place.” There are moments when the sword is stilled and the path to Eden opens. And it’s in those Edenic moments that the swords are beaten into ploughshares and we can meet the world with compassion and trust.

As we read Parashat Bereishit, may we be blessed with the courage to find the path to the Tree of Life.


Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR.  She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.