The Tree of Knowledge (Part 2)

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Noach – The Tree of Knowledge, Part 2

By Rav Michael Hattin






Last week, we began our study of Sefer Bereishit by reading the account of the creation of the world.  We noted that the Torah in fact preserves two perspectives on the story.  The first of these describes the seven days as a general progression from chaos to order and from amorphous matter to complex life, and relates the fashioning of the first human beings as the final, climactic act in the drama.  The second account, which Rashi (11th century, France) describes as a more detailed expansion, focuses our attention upon the creation of the human beings and tells of their fateful placement in the idyllic environment of the Garden of Eden.  In this well-watered garden, all manner of luscious fruit trees grow, while two of them stand out with particular emphasis.  These are, of course, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, both of which are crucially located in the midst of the garden. 


The first account – that comprises thirty-four verses – is unabashedly positive in content.  Towards it conclusion and in the aftermath of the fashioning of man, the Creator Himself proclaims all of His work to be "very good."  The second account, in contrast, numbers forty-six verses, and describes in detail the formation of man and woman, their placement in the garden "to work it and to guard it," the Divine decree enjoined upon them to eschew the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and their failure to observe the dictate due to the wiles of the serpent – with disastrous consequences.  We concluded our discussion last week with a series of penetrating questions that are advanced by the Ramban (13th century, Spain), but provocatively left unanswered by him:


            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).


While the Ramban clearly felt that the true solution to the mysteries that surround the account were to be sought in the mystical teachings – hence placing them beyond the reach of the average student of the text – we will advocate this week the pursuit of a more rational approach.







Let us begin our investigation by noting that according to the narrative, the Tree of Knowledge had no obviously magical or supernatural features.  While it was surely "good to eat and desirous to look upon" (3:6), so were all of the other trees in the garden of Eden, as the earlier verse clearly indicates and as the name of the garden itself implies ("Eden" means "pleasant"): "God Lord caused to grow from the ground all manner of trees that were desirous to look upon and good to eat…" (2:9).  Rashi, in fact, echoes an early Rabbinic tradition in asserting that the Tree of Knowledge was nothing more than a common fig tree! This is implied by the fact that after their transgression, Adam and Chava, now conscious of their nakedness for the very first time, fashioned the girdles to cover themselves out of the leaves of the "fig tree" (see Bereishit 3:7).  This was to suggest, avers Rashi, that the crime of consuming the forbidden fruit might yet be rectified by utilizing the very vehicle of the sin to begin the process of effecting repair (commentary to 3:7).  While the Rabbinic tradition preserves many other opinions concerning the identity of the Tree of Knowledge, all of them without exception refer to familiar and unremarkable species (see Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 15:7). 


Thus it is that both the Biblical texts as well as the Rabbis fail to indicate any miraculous qualities to this tree, nothing unusual about its appearance or else the nature of its fruit.  There is, in fact, only one thing that according to the narrative set this tree apart from all of the others:  THIS ONE TREE ALONE WAS DENIED TO ADAM AND CHAVA BY DIVINE DECREE!  In other words, what made the Tree of Knowledge utterly unique was that it was off-limits, separated and inaccessible only because God had so enjoined.  The narrative is quite emphatic on this point: "You may surely eat from ALL OF THE TREES OF THE GARDEN, save for the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil…" (2:16-17). 


We may of course speculate about the need for such a command, but we realize immediately that God's particular formulation of the matter could do nothing but heighten the humans' curiosity about the specified tree.  After all, He could have simply forbade its fruit, quite apart from the status of the other trees of the garden; the introduction of the Divine prohibition in the context of all of the other trees being permitted tended to highlight the proscription placed upon the particular fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, thus making it even more attractive.  As for the nature of the command itself, it pertains of course to the act of consumption: "You may surely eat from all of the trees of the garden, save for the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die" (2:16-17).  Why should God's first command to humanity have related to eating and why should it have been introduced in a provocative manner?





Concerning the laws of Kashrut (forbidden foods) that are spelled out in VaYikra 11 and Devarim 14, the commentaries advance a number of explanations.  The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) offers a rationalistic view, maintaining that the primary thrust of the Kashrut laws is to foster physical health (see his Guide to the Perplexed, 3:48).  Those creatures that the Torah permits are healthy for the body while those that it forbids are injurious.  Other thinkers, especially the Abarbanel (15th century, Spain), roundly rejects the Rambam's thesis, believing instead that the matter of Kashrut had little or nothing to do with the health of the body and much to do with the health of the soul.  That is to say that the Torah forbade the consumption of certain foods because such consumption impacted negatively on the state of the soul, filling it with coarseness and desensitizing it to spirituality. 


But while these thinkers may have debated the ultimate goal or objective of these laws, it is clear that they have crucial value as well insofar as process is concerned.  That is to say that the formal act of abstention from certain foods, irrespective of the ultimate purpose of that abstention, is in and of itself a meaningful and worthwhile exercise in the development of self-control and steadfastness.  The avoidance of non-kosher food items, as a function of adherence to God's command and for no other reason, provides a critical tool for the promotion of self-discipline, this self-discipline being the most important component for the fostering of the higher moral will.  It stands to reason that one who has consciously trained himself to exercise self-control in the service of God, holding back even when basic and physiological drives impel forward, is better equipped to apply that very restraint in perhaps more challenging situations that pertain to preserving the integrity of his fellow's body, feelings and possessions. 





Perhaps, then, we are to regard God's command to the first human beings in our context, that they should eschew the consumption of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, as a sort of "proto-Kashrut."  This earliest expression of the dietary laws preserved by our tradition encapsulates the kernel of the matter.  By its observance Adam and Chava secure their place as God's most special creations, for they alone, from among all of His works, are thereby able to exercise the moral will!  To be autonomous is to be in control, in control of the passions that otherwise hold sway.  And the exercise of self-restraint is the foundation stone upon which the noble edifice of moral development is built. 


Why this unremarkable tree, simply a ficus vulgaris in disguise, should be referred to as the Tree of Knowledge, ought to now be more clear.  The Torah is suggesting, by introducing here at the outset of the saga of human history, the vital principle of self-restraint in the service of God, that true knowledge of the Creator is in fact predicated upon adherence to His will.  Even the august principles of theology can be studied much as one approaches any other branch of learning: in a remote and impassive manner that champions intellectual rigor and the unbiased application of the analytical method.  But such study can never be transformative, because its starting premise is that "knowledge of God" need not imply any limits or restrictions upon human behavior.  In essence, he who fears God and adapts his deeds accordingly, he who is able to overcome his inclinations because he accepts upon himself the principle of Divine sovereignty, has understood better than the detached scholar the objective of "knowing God." 


This observation should not be misconstrued as a defense of simple folk religion, as if to fear God in a literal and unexamined manner is the final aim of religious living.  Quite the contrary.  Our tradition demands profound study, celebrates acquisition of knowledge and values the attainment of wisdom as perhaps no other does.  In the famous Rabbinic formulation advanced by Hillel, the "ignoramus can never be fearful of transgression" (Mishna Tractate Avot 2:5), because he does not know what transgression entails.  If I do not know the parameters of what constitutes theft nor care to understand them, for example, then I can hardly avoid its pitfalls.  But at the same time, if I am unwilling to recognize any brakes on my behavior, if I am not able to acknowledge as my starting premise that all moral development is founded upon a self-limitation that proceeds naturally from a recognition of a Higher Authority and His law, then God and knowledge of Him become meaningless abstractions.  The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, then, must remain off limits in order to emphasize the primacy of God.  To seize it as our own, even while all else is already permitted to us, to fail to accede to the Divine will even while we of all creatures are created "in His image," is to unleash a dynamic that in the end destroys.





"Silver has a source," thunders Iyov (Job), "and gold a place from which it may be refined!" (28:1).  In this poignant meditation on the problem of human misery, Iyov seeks understanding.  He has come to realize that his three friends, who "comfort" even while accusing him of wrongdoing, who condemn his dismal state as if his painful suffering was a direct and uncomplicated consequence of his failure to fulfill God's wishes, will not be able to shed any light on his predicament.  In his mind's eye, he sees the earth mined for its precious metals, as diligent human beings search out its bowels for glittering riches.  "Iron is removed from the dust, and stone shall yield molten bronze" (28:2).  Iyov sees man's heroic efforts to descend to the depths, to stem the underground streams that impede the mining process, even while they are precariously suspended upon scaffolds and rigging: "The stream shoots forth far from habitation, for those forgotten by the wayfarers, those that hang by ropes and are removed from men" (28:4).  But sapphires and gold await the industrious (28:6), precious and hidden riches for those that toil (28:10,11). 


In spite of the daring search, however, that tests the limits of human ingenuity even while highlighting man's insatiable desire to overcome the technological challenges of the operation and to prevail, Iyov realizes that wisdom will not be found in these heroic efforts:


But as for wisdom, where shall it be found, and where is the place of understanding?  A man knows not its worth, nor shall it be found in the land of the living.  The deep (tehom) says: "it is not in me," while the sea (yam) says: "I do not have it."  Precious gold shall not be exchanged for it, and silver cannot be weighed out for its price.  It shall not be celebrated with the gold of Ofir, with precious onyx or the sapphire.  Gold and glass shall not approach it in value nor shall vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it.  Coral and crystal shall not be mentioned with it, for the worth of wisdom is more than pearls.  The Nubian topaz cannot match its value, finest pure gold cannot compare. 


Where then is the source of wisdom and whence does understanding come?  It is concealed from all of the living, and hidden from the birds of heaven.  The netherworld and death do declare: "in our ears, we have heard the reports of it!"  The Lord understands its ways, and He alone knows its place.  For He gazes upon the ends of the earth and sees all that there is under the heavens.  He weighs out the winds, and gauges the waters by a measure.  He sets the limits of the rains, and plots the path of the thunder storm.  Then did He see it and count it up, He prepared it and did fathom its limits.  He said to man: "BEHOLD, THE FEAR OF GOD IS WISDOM AND DESISTING FROM EVIL IS UNDERSTANDING!" (28:12-28).





Who could fail to see in Iyov's portrayal the vibrant description of our own garden's fabled landscape, Eden crisscrossed by life-giving rivers and blessed with deposits of "good gold, bdellium and the onyx stone" (Bereishit 2:12) ?  Who could mistake his reports of the dark depths below the earth, of the "deep" and the "sea" denying their familiarity with wisdom, as anything but a reference to our first account of creation, in which God overcomes the gloom of chaos and the churning waters that cover the face of the earth (Bereishit 1:2)?  And who could fail to hear in his impassioned words the echo of our story's most abiding truth, the recognition that in the final analysis true wisdom and understanding is not measured by intellectual attainment or even by the uniquely human pursuit of overcoming, harnessing and shaping nature to our will, but rather by acknowledging the supremacy of God?





It may in fact be the case, as the Ramban surely implies, that God sets the stage for humanity's failure by placing Adam and Chava in a garden of delights, in close proximity to the object of their desires, even while He proscribes it.  If so, then the story of Eden points to another profound insight: it is often difficult to appreciate the power of our moral decisions and their impact until we have unleashed the consequences of our bad choices.  We fail to realize the responsibility inherent in the exercise of the moral will until we have chosen badly.  But that failure is itself the precious opportunity to grow and to develop, to mature and to progress, to nurture our respect for God's authority so that we might choose better the next time.  To eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, then, is to come to the realization, by our own experience, that God has bestowed upon us a most precious gift: the ability to acknowledge Him so that we might repair the world, so that we may yet bring relief from the great suffering that human beings continue to inflict upon each other by selfishly appraising themselves as "gods" that are their own arbiters of "good and evil" (Bereishit 3:5).


Shabbat Shalom


For further study:


"The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom" maintains the famous Proverb (1:6), in a formula then repeated many times in course of the book's early chapters (1:29; 2:5-6; 3:7; 9:7) and echoed more than once in other places in Tanakh.  In perhaps another reference to our story of Eden, the wisest of all men here also portrays the search for wisdom.  But unlike Iyov who described it as a precious commodity beyond the reach of most, the book of Proverbs personifies it as a noble voice that must wrest the hearts of men from the clutches of more sensual and seductive temptresses.  Might this not be reference to the more sexual aspect of our story, the wiles of the serpent that play upon the naivetי of Chava and his honeyed words that increase the humans' passion and ardor for the forbidden fruit?