Rabbi Yaakov Haber
The Rivers Out of Eden, Choices, and Return to Eden
Our Parsha (Chapter 2) describes the terrain of the Garden of Eden and its surroundings which was to serve as the physical and spiritual environment in which Adam and Chava were to live out the challenge of existence - "l'avda ul'sham'ra" - both to physically work the land and, as Rashi quotes from Chazal, "l'avda - zo mitzvos 'asei, l'sham'ra - zo mitzvos lo ta'aseh", to serve their Creator through the fulfillment of His positive and negative commandments. Not surprisingly, commentators assume, based on Midrashic tradition, that all aspects of the Garden have deep symbolic significance beyond their simple, physical reality.
R. Meir Leibush Malbim, in his Torah commentary, provides two such fascinating insights into the deeper significance of aspects of Eden.
And a river flowed from Eden to water the Garden, and from there it split into four fountain-heads. The name of one is Pishon, which surrounds the entire land of Chavila where the gold is. And the gold of that land is good; b'dolach and stones of shoham (precious stones) are also there. And the name of the second river is Gichon, which surrounds the entire land of Kush. And the name of the third river is Chidekel (Tigris), which flows to the East of Assyria; and the fourth river is P'ras (Euphrates) (B'raishis 2:10-14).
Malbim suggests a possible symbolism behind these rivers based on the fact that rivers throughout history have always been the roads guiding migration and settlement in new lands. Thus, the rivers flowing out of Eden also symbolize the various pathways which would be open to Adam and his descendants even in the eventuality that Adam would be chased out of the Garden, as indeed occurred. R. Elazar HaKappar teaches us in Pirkei Avot (4:21) that three cardinal negative qualities, "motzi'in es ha'adam min haolam" - cause one to lose his eternity: envy, desire, and pursuit of glory. It is precisely these three negative qualities which are symbolized by three out of the four rivers. The path of Pishon, leading to the Land of the Gold, symbolizes the pursuit of wealth which is primarily based on envy of the property of others. Why would people pursue gold, valuable only because of its relative scarcity and not because of its intrinsic utility? Because the precious stones - themselves also only valuable because of their scarcity and not because of their utility - are also there! Man pursues wealth in order to acquire additional symbols of wealth! The useful staples of life, food and clothing, by contrast are relatively abundant. The road of Gichon, leading to Kush near Mitzrayim, is associated with ta'avah, pursuing physical desire. The Egyptians and those in the surrounding region were infamous for being sh'tufei zima, steeped in physical immorality (see Rashi Lech L'cha 12:19). Chidekel is the way to glory leading to Assyria, famous almost from the beginning of history (see B'raishis 10:11) for their pursuit of additional conquest and world-domination. These three roads all would tempt Man after his exile from Eden.
But a fourth path exists represented by the river P'ras. This river led to the Holy Land and is repeatedly given as its border (Lech L'cha 15:18 and Rashi ad loc. and D'varim 1:7). Man is not fated to fall into the three cardinal vices leading him to distance himself further and further from the ideal of Eden and the nearness to G-d it represents. He can choose the Good - as is his Destiny - and journey down the path of 'avodas Hashem symbolized by the river leading to Eretz Yisrael.
Perhaps we can add to the Malbim's approach. Interestingly, the Torah, at this point, does not indicate that P'ras leads to the Land of Israel. It simply names the river with no further description. The message might be that at first, the other pathways - to riches, fame and desire - seem much more rewarding. The road to k'dusha, at first, seems to lead nowhere. Only upon deep reflection of the world and study of the Torah can one arrive at the conclusion that the only true path is that which is symbolized by P'ras, the road ultimately back to G-d.
In a similar symbolic manner, Malbim interprets a different section of B'raishis. After Adam's exile from Eden, Hashem places two fearsome objects in front of Gan 'Eiden "lishmor es derech eitz hachayim", "to guard the road leading to the Tree of Life": k'ruvim and a fiery turning sword (B'raishis 3:24). Although Man, due to his spiritual failure, was chased out of Eden, he can still come back to the state of nearness to G-d it represented in two ways. The first way back is by following the path of the k'ruvim later to be placed on the Aron Kodesh which housed the luchos and the Torah and also served as the conduit of the Divine Presence granting prophetic visions to the Jewish Nation's prophets. By adhering to the Torah and scrupulously following its message as well as the guidance of G-d's emissaries, the n'vi'im and Torah leaders, Man can return to the state of Eden. The second approach back to the state of Divine bliss is death symbolized by the fiery sword. At that time, the soul, detached from its earthly existence, returns to its Creator to enjoy the euphoria of the Gan 'Eiden shel Ma'ala, the afterlife, based on its actions in this world. In addition, the very thought of death inspires us to utilize our stay in this world to gain our eternity by following the Divine commandments and not chasing after transient, purely physical matters (see B'rachos 5a). (See commentary of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch for a similar approach).
In his book, God is Proof Enough, Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger records an eye-opening story of his conversation with a prospective convert. Following the halacha that prospective converts should initially be discouraged, Rabbi Wurzburger, aware of the woman's erudition, asked her that, in light of the fact that she clearly was aware of our Torah tradition that righteous Gentiles also receive a share in the World to Come, why, then, would she want to assume the additional responsibilities of Judaism? To this the woman replied, "I don't want to wait for the World to Come for Heavenly bliss; I want to have it in this world too!" May we all merit to follow the pathway of the P'ras river and the pathway of the k'ruvim symbolizing the Torah to return to the state of Eden in our lives.