Why did Hashem place the Etz Hada’at in Gan Eden only to tell Adam and Chava that they must not eat from it? Would it not have been simpler not to have created it at all? In our attempt to answer this question, we will pose a somewhat weighted dilemma – do we really want to return to Gan Eden? We imagine an idyllic lifestyle eating from the delicious fruit in the paradisiacal setting whilst acting as the guardians of God’s garden. Yet, could we honestly envisage ourselves in that role?
Let us return to our first question. Adam is commanded by God that he may eat from all the fruits in the garden except those of the Etz Hada’at. One way to explain this prohibition is that it gives man a choice. He now has to decide for himself whether to eat or not to eat from the forbidden fruit. Rambam discusses the principle of free choice as a crucial component of man’s existence in several places including in Hilchot Teshuva. In discussing the timeless conundrum as to how God can, on the one hand, control the entire universe and all therein and, on the other, allow man to exercise his free will, Rambam writes:
“How is this [apparent contradiction] resolved? Just as the Creator desired that [the elements of] fire and wind rise upward and [those of] water and earth descend downward, that the heavenly spheres revolve in a circular orbit, and all the other creations of the world follow the nature which He desired for them, so too, He desired that man have free choice and be responsible for his deeds, without being pulled or forced. Rather, he, on his own initiative, with the knowledge which God has granted him, will do anything that man is able to do.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 5:4)
Whilst it is beyond the scope of this shiur to discuss the complex relationship between Divine Providence and man’s free will, it is clear from the words of Rambam that he believes free will to be an integral part of what makes a living being human. It therefore follows that if man has no opportunity to exercise his own free will he is not really functioning as a man created in the image of God. In order to infuse man’s role in the world with meaning already in Gan Eden, Hashem gave man a choice. Adam and Chava could eat as much fruit as they wanted bar one. It was the fact that they had to choose which gave meaning to their existence.
We could, however, add another dimension to this discussion. The rationale given in the Torah as to why Adam and Chava may not eat from the Etz Hada’at is that “on the day you eat from it you will die” (Bereishit 2:17). While it is unclear as to whether this would be a consequence or a punishment, it is seemingly something which cannot be understood by man. In other words the reason for the prohibition is unknown; it is simply a Divine decree.
The challenge to the newly created man is whether he will hearken to God’s word even if he does not understand it. Will Adam and Chava be able to ignore the attitudes of their environment, withstand the temptations of the surrounding culture and avoid transgressing the words of The Almighty? That culture is represented by the nachash which, in a clear act of deception, portrays an alternate reason for God’s prohibition. The nachash states that “God knows that on the day you it from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, with knowledge of good and evil” (Bereishit 3:5). Although this same idea is hinted at by the Torah later on (3:22), at the point when the nachash says this to Chava, man was unaware of such a reason for the prohibition. This then, was the test from God; could man obey a Divine decree, even one that he did not understand?
The Torah describes Chava’s emotions prior to actually eating from the Etz Hada’at: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat, that it was desirable to the eyes and that the tree was pleasant for intelligence” (Bereishit 3:6).
The words used to describe Chava’s feelings are tov, ta’ava and nechmad. These all seem to relate to a form of desire. Based on this observation, it would appear that the challenge to man, to Adam and Chava, was whether they could avoid succumbing to their physical, and possibly intellectual, desires and passions.
In addition, we find a strange comment of the Midrash cited by Rashi as to the similarity between two terms employed by the Torah in this story. Adam and Chava are described as being “arumim”, naked; the nachash is termed “arum” which can be translated as cunning. The Hebrew word however is the same in both instances. The Midrash tells us that the nachash saw Adam and Chava having marital relations and felt sexually attracted to Chava. (Rashi, Bereishit 3:1). Similar ideas are expressed even more explicitly in other midrashim.
What led the Midrash to introduce sexual undertones to this episode which are not obviously apparent in the text? We could suggest that the Torah portrays the two strongest physical desires known to man as part of this formative episode in the development of man. As stated above, the dilemma placed before man was whether he would succumb to his human desires. The ability to channel those carnal longings is what allows man to triumph over other living creatures and demonstrate that he is imbued with the “tzelem Elokim”.
In summation, we have proposed three different but complimentary answers to our original question. Hashem placed the Etz Hada’at in Gan Eden and then commanded man not to eat thereof. This was done to enable man to express his humanity by exercising his free will. It challenged man to obey the Divine word even if he did not understand it and it required man to limit his physical desires. All of the above had to be achieved while those around Adam and Chava, as symbolized by the nachash, were urging them to do otherwise.
We know how the story ended – Chava, and subsequently Adam, ate of the fruit of the Etz Hada’at and were exiled from Gan Eden. But the challenges and tests are still there today. In Gan Eden all of the “nisayon” was focused on one prohibition, one tree which was to be avoided. Now, living in the outside world we confront these challenges wherever we turn. We attempt to make calculated decisions in often complex situations. We are called upon to obey God’s command which we often do not fully comprehend. And we are bombarded with opportunities to fulfill our most basic carnal desires and have to endeavor to do so in a correct and moral fashion.
We could say that we are living in an expanded from of Gan Eden. We are constantly being tested. How we respond to these challenges defines us as human beings. All of the above distinguish us from other living creatures and give us the opportunity to act based on our Tzelem Elokim.
Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan
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