With the fall holidays now over, we’ve begun to read the Torah from the beginning. Determined to have a new beginning myself, I attended services on that first Shabbat of the new Torah cycle. Following along the reading I came across a very puzzling character: Enoch. After Googling around, I am still quite perplexed about him. Did he die or not? What does it mean to be taken by God? Is there another Enoch who is in later books, such as the Book of Enoch?
Given the almost unfathomable nature of the six days of creation, the Garden of Eden and angels falling from heaven, I am impressed that you noticed the diminutive episode of Enoch. I share your curiosity and find myself oddly drawn to Enoch as well. Though an extremely minor character in the Bible, he takes on an unforeseen second life, when he returns almost center stage in the Second Temple era to star in several apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works, including, of course, the Book of Enoch.
He is a Zoharic mystical figure and is listed in Derech Eretz Zuta as one of those who entered the Garden of Eden while yet alive. Actually, what with the rumor of remarkable removal from this world, it is, ironically, quite fitting for him to enjoy a pronounced literary comeback. Yet his name does not appear in either of the Talmuds and the sages in Bereshit Rabbah are quick to denounce Enoch. He is far from perfect and certainly not supernatural. The world seems to be divided: Enoch devotees vs. Enoch detractors.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go to the source; time to open the Enoch files. Consider the verses starting from the beginning of the fifth chapter of Bereshit. Notice that in this seemingly methodical rote listing of one begat after another, there is a surprising, abrupt deviation: Generation number seven. Here we learn that Adam lives 930 years, Sheth 912, Enosh 905, Kenan 910, Mahalalel 895, Jared 962, Enoch 365, Methuselah 969, Lamech 777 and Noah 950 years. Of the 10 generations, seven live into their 900s, one into his 800s, and another into his 700s.
Yet Enoch lives a stunted 365 years, a stark contrast and almost a third of that of his own son, Methuselah, the longest-living human ever. The others listed have no storyline, just quick data: How old at the birth of their child, how many years lived, and then end of story. But suddenly, with Enoch, our begat list is interrupted with perhaps the shortest of short stories: “And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.”
This terse tale has led to much spilled ink, and for good reason. Our biblical ears perk up when reading enigmatic expressions such as “Walked with God,” “And he was not” and “God took him.” The parsing of each individual phrase is the key to our unlocking Enoch.
First, “and Enoch walked with God.” He was the first, but certainly not the last to walk with God. We know of others who “walk” with God. There is Noah, then Abraham, whom God specifically instructs to walk with him but ends up walking before God.
Walking before God is something decidedly different than walking with God. According to Rabbi Amnon Bazak, an Enoch detractor, there is walking and there is walking. He theorizes that Enoch walked with God, to the exclusion of others and was therefore taken from the world before his time. Noah, too, walked with God without being involved with the world around him and was secluded on the ark while the rest of civilization perished. It is only Abraham who walks before God, as if showing the way for others and can then become the patriarch of the People Israel.
The expression “and he was not” stands out for Dr. Avivah Zornberg. She links this notion of “einenu” related to the word, “ein” none — “and he was not” — to the sale of Joseph, where the same expression is used by brother Reuben, and then later to Prophet Jeremiah describing the weeping of Rachel for her children, because they too “were not.” “Were not” feels very different from a more definite and unequivocal expression, such as “died.”
Why say of Enoch that “he was not,” if it could have been stated as directly as all the others? Why the pronounced switch to this demure poetic expression? Is our say-it-like-it-is Bible going euphemistically Victorian?
Zornberg explains the phrase in her book, The Beginnings of Desire, “it does and does not mean death. All one can speak of is the surprise, the shock, the speculations, the hope, that ‘not being’ evokes.” Enoch’s age should provoke us and wake us up to the reality that even when the numbers are drastically out of the ballpark relative to our lifespans, 365 is dying young — and that is not okay, even biblically speaking. It is riveting, poignant and should feel as if it cannot quite be the finality that the word death would bring. “And he was not.” Enoch “was not” — he was taken before his time.
The third phrase: Is there more to “being taken” than decorous niceties? There must be. The Torah has no compunction of offering the full rawness of life and the leaving of it. If the word death could be used but was not, there must be more going on. For some, it conjures up Elijah — like chariots of fire and being translated up to the Divine sphere. Apotheosis central, folks. We’re talking full-scale transformation to an all-spiritual being of an angelic nature. Indeed, an early translation of the Torah, the Targum Yonaton renders the verse way beyond the basic removal to Heaven and has Enoch becoming the angel Metatron, the great scribe of the upper world.
This “being taken” is the base upon which all of the mystic legends of the Second Temple period are built. That this very language “being taken” is used in other biblical verses to describe uncomplicated everyday death is irrelevant to those who wish to see here a supernatural mystical movement heavenward, certainly irrespective of staunch rabbinic dismissal of such approaches.
For them, Enoch is the elusive character whose short life is extended through Divine intervention. A tempting approach, but in this case the Torah is teaching something still greater: Even at the very start of the world, we need to get used to the painful reality that there are those of us who leave this world before their time. That they are taken up to God might be our only comfort.