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Breishit and the Tree of Knowledge

By Ayala Wasser - 13 October 2020

Jewish tradition likes to speak of two different types of mitzvot, or commandments. On the one hand there are mishpatim, injunctions that make sense and are rooted in reason. Absent the gift of Torah, individuals and communities hopefully would have figured out that prohibitions against murder and theft are necessary to create a civil society. Our tradition also acknowledges chukkim; injunctions that clearly transcend the boundaries of rationalism altogether. For instance, our Torah prohibits the wearing of a garment made of wool and linen together. The rabbis said, there is no way we would have thought these rules up, nor designed such legislation on our own. Maimonides insists that even these chukkim are rooted in reason – it’s just that we haven’t discerned the details yet. Of course, God would not command us to do something for no reason.

As we begin the reading of the Torah this Shabbat, we encounter rules that at first glance may not make sense. As Hashem plants Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they are given one simple instruction, one test of loyalty; “From all the trees of the garden you may eat, but, of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you may not eat thereof”.

Such a test was clearly doomed to fail. As human beings, we naturally seek knowledge, we try to pursue moral discernment. How can human beings be told not to learn, not to grow, not to seek advancement?! Clearly, we have to push ourselves to understand this initial rule. Nahama Leibowitz, offers the idea that eating is interpreted to symbolize indulgence, the eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents the forsaking of contemplation. By choosing to eat from this tree, she argues, the first human beings prioritized material pursuits and vanity over relationships and meaning.

Her explanation is not merely about the condition of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but a challenge specifically to us, who live in the most material society arguably ever known to mankind. She argues that the prohibition regarding the tree exists to remind us that indulgence is the root of many evils, a temptation that might lead us away from the pursuit of holiness.

This insight warns us against the ills of indulgence that we face every day in the world in which we live, a world of material blessing. We have food, shelter, and disposable income. Kids today are constantly faced with opportunities of indulgence. Media and advertising at every turn suggest that we not only possess the basics, but that even those necessities become the object of profound excess. When do we reach the point of enough in such pursuits? Could our material blessings be spent better, with more lasting spiritual effectiveness elsewhere?

This very first portion in the Torah is prescient on many levels. It’s set in the Garden of Eden, but it’s talking about every society that might possibly exist. It’s addressing Adam and Eve, but it’s talking to every human being ever to be created. It’s talking about the contemporary context more than ever. When God commands our primary forbearers to refrain from the tree of knowledge, the directive is not about restraining learning and growth. The commandment instead, as Leibowitz points out, is fundamentally warning us against indulging too much in any pursuit that is only material or ephemeral in nature. It alludes to the truth that instead of indulging in material wealth, we would do better to indulge in relationships, connections, spirituality, exercise, kindness. The Torah tells us that moderation and balance should ever be present in our lives, in everything we do. By remembering this simple yet important advice, we might very well be capable of building legacies that would be worthy of being compared to any Garden of Eden.

Shabbat Shalom

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