The Torah in Parashat Bereishit tells the famous story of Adam and Chava’s partaking of the forbidden fruit in Gan Eden. We read that the snake approached Chava and falsely claimed that God forbade them from eating the fruit of the forbidden tree because “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” (3:5).
Rashi explains this verse to mean that eating the forbidden fruit would – according to the snake’s false claim – invest Adam and Chava with creative powers, the ability to create universes just as God had. The snake alleged that God was afraid of Adam and Chava becoming creators capable of competing with Him, and for this reason He warned them to abstain from the tree. It is unclear according to Rashi’s interpretation how the phrase “yod’ei tov va-ra” (“knowers of good and evil”) should be understood, as it does not appear relevant to the snake’s claim.
Others – including Rav Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra, the Radak and Chizkuni – explain the word “elohim” in the snake’s remark to mean “angels.” According to this interpretation, the snake claimed that partaking of the forbidden fruit would endow Adam and Chava with the wisdom and knowledge of angels, and this is what tempted Chava to partake of the fruit. The snake sought to convince Chava that God wanted to ensure that Adam and Chava would remain inferior to the heavenly beings, and this is the only reason why He warned them not to eat the tree’s fruit.
An entirely different explanation is offered by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (to 2:2-3), who suggests that to the contrary, that snake lured Chava by persuading her to become animal-like. Rav Hirsch writes that animals are “like God, knowing good and evil” in the sense that they, in Rav Hirsch’s words, “have innate instinct, and this instinct is the Voice of God, the Will of God for them.” Lacking the intelligence to make willed, moral decisions, to distinguish between good and evil, animals always do precisely what God wants them to do. Everything they do is determined by Divine Providence, and therefore is, by definition, good, whereas everything they refrain from doing by force of their God-given instincts is, necessarily, bad. The human being, by contrast, does not have this kind of Godly instinct, whereby he unconsciously lives according to the divine will. We humans need to use our intelligence and muster the powers of self-restraint and submission in order to follow the divine will. Rav Hirsch writes:
Animals do no wrong, they have only their one nature that they are to follow. Not so Man. He is to decide for the good and eschew evil from his own free choice, and from the consciousness of his duty… Sensual enjoyment for him is to be a moral free-willed act, he is never, and in to ways whatsoever, to be an animal. For that purpose he has both, sensuality and godliness, within him, that which is good and right must often oppose his sensuality, bad and evil must often appear attractive and tempting to him, so that for the sake of his high godly calling he practices the good and eschews the evil with the free-willed energy of his godly nature… That is why the Voice of God does not speak in him, but to him, to say what is good and what is bad…
The purpose of the forbidden tree, Rav Hirsch proceeds to explain, was to convey this precise message – to serve as a model of something tempting and alluring which the Voice of God has designated as “bad.” Adam and Chava’s innate nature told them it was “good,” but God had told them otherwise. Rav Hirsch writes that the tree “was to be…the model, the pattern and the rule for all good and bad for mankind,” showing us that our senses’ designation of “good” and “bad” do not necessarily correlate to God’s designation of “good” and “bad.”
The snake lured Chava by inviting her to be like an animal, by submitting to her instincts and senses, insisting that they are the “Voice of God” just as they are within all other creatures in the animal kingdom. The lure of the forbidden tree was the opportunity to live like animals, freed from the need to make conscious, rational decisions rather than follow sensual instincts. The snake was, in fact, correct – God indeed prohibited eating from this tree in order to prevent Adam and Chava from living like animals, following their instincts. Unfortunately, Chava succumbed to the temptation to be freed from the constraints of conscience, to allow her instincts to dictate her conduct rather than exercise control over her instincts in submission to the divine will. Her failure marked the failure to accept the disparity between our senses and our conscience, between our instinctive “voice” and God’s “voice.” And this failure teaches us that what we intuitively and naturally sense as “good” is not necessarily “good,” and that we must study and listen attentively to the “Voice of God” as expressed by the Torah so we can always accurately distinguish between “good”’ and “evil.”