The Tree of Knowledge (Part 1)

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Tree of Knowledge, Part 1

By Rav Michael Hattin





            Welcome back to another year of introduction to parasha.  Let us hope that this year will bring all of us blessing, success and fulfillment, and much growth in our learning and spiritual development.  Once again, with renewed vigor and optimism, we begin the reading of the Torah.  The inspiration of the High Holidays still lingers in the air, now tinged with the promise of the onset of the rainy season, as the haunting narratives constituting the first chapters of Parashat Bereishit are solemnly intoned.  God, supreme and transcendent, subdues chaos to bring forth order and creates complex life from inert and inanimate matter.  In a teleological process infused with forethought and deliberation and characterized as unfailingly good, light is separated from darkness, dry land from the seas and noble humanity from all other creatures.  The first human beings, special objects of God's concern and love, are fashioned in His "image" and after His "likeness" to possess intelligence, consciousness and the capacity to choose.  Like Him, they are to exercise their dominion over the earth responsibly, and to wisely fulfill their Divinely-enjoined mandate to subdue.




            This initial account of the creation, a purposeful progression that unfolds over the course of seven days, is climactically concluded with the report of the blessing and the sanctity with which God infuses the Sabbath.  On that final day, God ceases from His creative works in order to demonstrate His utter mastery over all, for only an Omnipotent Being who transcends the cosmos can freely elect to arrest the overwhelming forces responsible for its formation.  Thus it is that the story of Ma'aseh Bereishit concludes, with each precious component of the grand scheme in its proper place, the motion of every individual element in perfect synchrony with all of the others, and a spirit of harmonious structure, order and completeness enveloping the whole.  The reader of the passage must surely conclude that it comes to proclaim Absolute God sovereignty over His pristine and flawless universe, forever and in supremacy.  


            There is, of course, a second account of creation that is preserved in Parashat Bereishit, a lengthier story that concerns the fashioning of the first man from the dust of the earth, his naming of all of the other animals, the subsequent preparation of Chava as his companion, and the fabled garden of delights into which God Lord then invites them.  "The listener assumes that this is a different account," avers Rashi, "but it is nothing more than the expansion of the first narrative" (commentary to 2:8).  This time, however, the story ends less favorably, for the first humans are soon tempted by the mysterious serpent to abrogate God's command, and they eat of the redolent but forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  God then banishes them from idyllic Eden so that they must henceforth eke out their sustenance from the arid and obstinate earth, until such time as they succumb to the mortality that God has sternly decreed upon them.




            This week, we will direct our focus to this second account, considering the significance of a story that is obviously deeply symbolic.  At the outset of our investigation, we would do well to bear in mind that for the ancient Rabbis, the chapters that constitute the beginning of Sefer Bereishit are to be regarded as particularly esoteric and obscure.  So much so that when they came to categorize some of the more challenging specialties of Torah learning and to discourage dangerous speculation, they declared that Ma'aseh Bereishit (literally "the work of creation") was not to be taught in any public forum at all:


We do not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relationships to groups of three or more, nor Ma'aseh Bereishit to even groups of two, nor the matter of the Merkava (literally "chariot" but referring broadly to theosophic speculation) to even a single student, unless he was wise and was able to comprehend the matter on his own.  Whosoever gazes upon these four things, it would have been better for him never to have been born: what is above, what is below, what was before and what will be after.  Whosoever takes lightly the glory of his Creator, it would have been better for him never to have been born! (Mishna Chagiga 2:1).


Our account properly begins obscured in literal as well as figurative haze, with the as-yet uninhabited earth blanketed with fructifying mists (2:4-6).  The human is then fashioned by God from the moist dust of the earth, infused with a living spirit, and placed in a garden located in "Eden" (that literally means "pleasantness") in order to work it and to guard it (2:15).  In that garden are all manner of trees both "pleasant to look upon and good to eat from," including two that stand out with particular emphasis: the Tree of Life located in the midst of the garden and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil (2:9). 




            The fertile garden is watered by a river that emanates from Eden, and this river in turn resolves itself into four main tributaries (2:10).  Two of these, the Pishon that flows in the region of Chavila (Egypt?) where there is both gold as well as precious stones (2:11), and the Gichon that encircles Kush (Ethiopia), may be cautiously identified with the headwaters of the Nile River (2:12-13).  These are respectively known today as the White Nile and the Blue Nile, two mighty systems that course their way through the northeastern quadrant of the African continent and meet up at Khartoum in the Sudan.  The other two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, can be more confidently located in the east, for they together delineate the fertile Mesopotamian flood plain that is so-called precisely because it is situated between them (2:14).


            Having thus described the fantastic and luxuriant landscape of the garden, the Torah then relates the placement of the human in its midst, and the special command placed upon him by his Creator:


God Lord commanded the Adam saying: you may surely eat from the fruit of all of the trees.  But from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die (2:16-17).


In the account that follows, the existential loneliness of the first man is at the outset accentuated, when God confers upon him the task of assigning names to all of the other animate things (2:18-20).  In so doing Adam is made to realize that there are no other creatures that share his essence, so that his painful solitude can only be relieved by the Divine fashioning of Chava from his very body (2:21-25).  And though both of them are naked like all of the other animals, they are not ashamed.




            Enter the serpent.  This stealthy and furtive animal, "more crafty than any of the other creatures that God Lord had fashioned" (3:1), engages unsuspecting Chava in conversation concerning the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Soon he whets her appetite for it by promising her enlightenment and Divine powers rather than death (3:5).  Suddenly she sees that the tree and its fruit are desirable and reaches forth to consume it, now sharing it with her husband as well (3:6).  The rest, as they say, is history.  Though the two now hide from God's approaching presence in disgrace (3:8), He gently calls to them and offers each one of them in turn an opportunity to admit their lapse (3:9-13).  But this they brazenly refuse to do, instead attempting to deflect the blame and to shamelessly assign it elsewhere.  As a result, they are cursed and then banished from the garden, with the approach to the Tree of Life now ominously blocked by the angelic keruvim with their fiery swords, lest they attempt to "take from its fruit as well so that they will eat it and live forever!" (3:22).


            The basic contours of the story seem straightforward enough, for it is nothing less than a cautionary tale of stoked and misdirected human desires that lead insidiously but unswervingly to the exercise of poor and self-detrimental choices.  It is an account of the evasion of responsibility even while endeavoring to justify obvious failures.  It is a story of harsh and unforeseen consequences that overwhelm not only the perpetrators but the much larger circle of those whom they love.  In short, it is the terribly perennial tale of human crime and culpability with which we are familiar from time immemorial, a destructive drama that has wearily played itself out on innumerable occasions, whether in the lives of individuals or of nations.




            At the same time, the specifics of our narrative are far more intriguing, for they clearly seem to implicate God in the chain of events.  As the Ramban cryptically but perceptively comments:


Those things that are referred to in the upper worlds as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge are profound and awesome secrets.  The human transgressed by consuming the fruit of the upper Tree of Knowledge as well as the lower one, in both deed as well as in thought.  If the fruit of the tree was beneficial for man to eat and desirous for increasing knowledge, then why would He have withheld it from him?  Is not the Lord good and a bestower of good, who will not withhold goodness from those that walk in perfection?  As for the serpent, it does not possess the power of speech at the present time; if in fact the serpent could talk at the outset then it surely would have indicated at the time of the curse that it should henceforth become mute, for that would have constituted the most serious imprecation of all.  But all of these matters have double meanings, the revealed and the hidden are both true! (commentary to 3:22).


In the above passage, the Ramban emphasizes that our story cannot properly be understood without recourse to the mystical traditions.  At the same time, he informs us that the revealed reading of our text is true, though it may raise uncomfortable questions.  Why would God not allow the first humans to partake of the fruit if it was beneficial to them?  While the serpent was cursed for its role by being destined to "crawl upon its belly and eat the dust" (3:14), there is no record of God eradicating its power of speech.  But the account surely implies that the serpent addressed Chava and engaged her in conversation.  Ergo, the serpent could talk.  What then became of its verbal capacities?


            Perhaps we may add to the Ramban's questions with some of our own.  What was God's purpose in highlighting the Tree of Knowledge, only to make its succulent fruit forbidden?  Would it not have been better for all concerned to have dispensed with it entirely?  Why was the serpent so severely punished for indicating to the woman that which was true?  Did they not, in point of fact, after partaking of the fruit achieve the very enlightenment that the serpent had promised?  What precisely was the relationship between the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, these two peculiar denizens of the garden that inexplicably occupied such a prominent place?  And why didn't God forbid the fruit of the Tree of Life from the outset, just as He had curtailed the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge?  Why did He make its produce inaccessible only after the banishment from Eden?


            There are of course many other questions besides, and next week, God willing, we will continue our discussion concerning the Tree of Knowledge.  Along the way, we will discover that some of the issues raised have particular relevance to the themes of Parashat Noach as well.


Shabbat Shalom