This is Part 29 of of a series on vision. It’s like a serialized book! You can read previous chapters here:
Part 1. Part 2. Part3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28.
In the very first chapter of the bible, we learn that almost as soon as God created man, man transgressed. The original sin occurred when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It was the one tree whose fruits were off-limits to them.
But what, exactly, was their sin?
Shame Culture vs Guilt Culture
As Rabbi Sacks explains it,
In shame cultures the highest value is honour. In guilt cultures it is righteousness. Shame is feeling bad that we have failed to live up to the expectations others have of us. Guilt is what we feel when we fail to live up to what our own conscience demands of us. Shame is other-directed. Guilt is inner-directed.
Rabbi Sacks notes that shame cultures are usually visual. When we feel shame, our instinctive reaction is to hide; we seek to be invisible.
Guilt, by contrast, is internal. We cannot escape it by becoming invisible or running away. You can’t run from yourself. Your conscience accompanies you wherever you go, regardless of whether you are seen by others.
Shame has to do with how we appear in other peoples’ eyes. Guilt is about the conscience.
The Original Sin
In this context, the story about Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden is all about appearances, shame, vision and the eye.
The story emphasizes vision and the desire sparked by vision.
The serpent says to the woman: “God knows that on the day you eat from it, *your eyes will be opened,*and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
That is, in fact, what happens: “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked.”
It was appearance of the tree that the Torah emphasises: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and desirable to the eyes, and that the tree was attractive as a means to gain intelligence.”
As Rabbi Sacks points out, shame is the key emotion in the story.
Before eating the fruit the couple were “naked, but unashamed.” After eating it they feel shame and seek to hide. Every element of the story – the fruit, the tree, the nakedness, the shame – has the visual element typical of a shame culture.
Our Vision and Shame Culture
As previously discussed, we clearly live in a vision-focused culture. Our language is teeming with visual references and metaphors, and images are increasingly dominant forms of communication.
Where vision rules, shame exists in the shadows. As Brené Brown says, shame that is spoken aloud loses its power. What we bring into the light can’t imprison us.
The original sin was a sin of vision. More specifically, a sin of giving into the desire that vision creates. The first humans based their actions on what they saw; they followed their eyes and not their conscience. As a result, they were filled with shame.
Two Later Sins of Vision
Judaism stands in contrast to the secular Western shame culture. As Rabbi Sacks notes, and as anyone with a Jewish mother can attest (💜 you mom!), Judaism is a guilt culture.
The central tenet of Judaism is that God is heard, not seen. There is no visual symbol for the Divine presence; idols are prohibited. The key command is the Shema, which means to hear or listen.
In this context it is informative to look at the two big sins of the Jewish people in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Both can be construed as sins of vision.
The Sin of the Golden Calf
The first was the sin of the Golden Calf, where the people made an idol as a visual representation of God.
Why did they make an idol? They gave into fear when Moses didn’t come back down the mountain on the day they thought he was scheduled to return.
Fearing that their leader was dead, they sought to create something they could worship.
When Moses came down the mountain he smashed the tablets with the Ten Commandments. Those who had participated in the Golden Calf were killed.
The Sin of the Spies
The second was the sin of the spies. Moses sent the spies to the land of Canaan — the promised land — to scope it out. When spies returned, all but two — Joshua and Caleb — described what they saw as a land they would be impossible to conquer:
The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there were of great size. We saw the Nephilim there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them. — Numbers 13:31–33
Cantor Josee Wolff writes that the ten spies who gave this report lacked the self-esteem and courage to step into the unknown of the promised land. Their limited self-view distorted their vision and narrowed their perspective of what was possible.
What Do These Stories Teach Us?
Taken together, these three stories teach us that cultivating vision based on what we see with our eyes is dangerous and short-sighted (another language example).
The original sin of the first humans in the Garden of Eden showed us that what we see with our eyes can distort our true desires by blocking the voice of our conscience.
The sin of the Golden Calf shows how our fears of what we can’t see or don’t know can cause us to mistake the visual and tangible for what’s real.
And the sin of the spies shows us how our self-beliefs and trust influence our perspective and what we see.
Vision is the least reliable of our senses. It distorts and can be distorted by a shift in our mindset and emotions. When we conform to the culture of appearances we enroll in the culture of shame.
Choosing to stand out, to be seen, requires courage. It requires that we cultivate vision and initiate action from our conscience and from what we “see” with our hearts.