This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
בְּרֵאשִׁית ~ Bereishis
“Like G-d: Knowing Good & Evil…and Creating Worlds”
Although the Torah’s narrative of Bereishis contains worlds’ worth of mysteries from the moment it opens up with the esoteric description of Creation, even the seemingly more relatable part which we’d think we should be able to conceive of, namely, the narrative of man has a seemingly endless pool of mysteries in its own right.
Mankind’s story begins in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, and the apparent theme of this story is the origin of all human desire to sin [Bereishis 3]. Ultimately, in this account, the first humans, Adam and his wife, later named Chavah, capitulate to the counsel of the Primordial Serpent and eat from the fruit of the forbidden Eitz HaDa’as Tov VaRa, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The broad question surrounding this story is: What does the Torah want to tell us about man’s battle against sin?
Surely, that’s a loaded question, and the idea is not going to be as simple as G-d saying “Don’t do X,” whereupon man goes ahead with his impulses and does X. If only it were that easy… Not sinning would then be a no-brainer. If we really wanted to decide to follow G-d’s Will, we could find ways to tie ourselves down and not sin or condition ourselves not to sin. The fuller answer to our question would undoubtedly be made up of a largely complex analysis of the story which could take countless days to truly cover. We won’t do that now. The point is that a Divinely written narrative about the inner machinations of man’s thought process, especially in relation to his Avodas Hashem, service to Hashem, and his fight against the Yetzer Hara, or Evil Inclination, would have to be somewhat relatable to us.
The issue we’ll look at is the subject and focal point of desire in the story, the Eitz HaDa’as Tov VaRa. What is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What about it made it so enticing, and yet, so forbidden? We don’t have any literal forbidden trees to compare this one to today, so we have to understand what about it made man tic, so that we, today, can defeat sin today. So, what was it that made this tree so illegal, and what was it that made it so appealing?
Was it just an incomprehensible decree of G-d, that G-d said “No” and that’s it? It could be. We have commandments of the nature today. One could then argue, that as a result—by dint of the fact that it was forbidden, man wanted to eat from it. It was appealing because it was forbidden. Many might suggest that much as per Shlomo HaMelech’s famous axiom [Mishlei 9:17], “Mayim Ganuvim Yimtaku”-“Stolen waters are shall be sweet,” that we always desire that which we cannot have.
However, why then, did this tree need to be dubbed “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”? Let it just be plainly a “Forbidden Tree.” What is the relevance of the knowledge of good and evil? Did this tree have some other power associated with it? What was apparent power of this tree?
The Serpent actually reveals that information when he advertises some of the special effects this tree has on a person; it apparently makes man, in a sense “like G-d,” giving him palpable knowledge of good and evil (hence the name), opening man’s eyes to his insecurities or his “nakedness” [3:5]. And for anyone who thinks that he Serpent is just outwardly lying, just read the story further [3:7, 3:22]. Exactly what he said would happen, happened. But, why did these powers appeal to man? Who cares about knowledge of good and evil? Ignorance is bliss, no?
However, Rashi [to 3:5 citing Bereishis Rabbah 19:4], adds a new detail to the story, an added feature concerning this tree which the Serpent advertised, a feature not referenced in the text, that apparently, if man and his wife would eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they could fashion worlds just like G-d could. That sounds like power worth having, no? But again, the text says nothing outwardly about this feature. So, we have to ask: Where did the Serpent, or really the Midrash, get this information from? In truth, it sounds like a blatant lie. The Torah doesn’t tell us that the Serpent said this, and the Torah does not say that this tree enabled one to create worlds. We don’t have man creating worlds at any point in this story (but we do have man realizing that he is naked, and we do have G-d admitting that man has become like G-d). So, where did the Midrash get this point from? And what does knowledge or discernment of good and evil have to do with creating or forming worlds anyway?
In truth, the answer to both of these questions is that if one looks at the narrative of Creation, discernment of what’s good and otherwise apparently has quite a lot to do with creating worlds.
Hashem Himself creates the world by separating—differentiating and discerning—between many things, based on what He sees as “good”: “Vayar Elokim Es HaOr Ki Tov Vayavdeil Elokim Bein HaOr U’Vein HaChoshech”-“And G-d saw the light that it was good, and G-d separated between the light and between the darkness” [1:4]. But it’s not just light and dark G-d differentiates between and separates. G-d precedes to use His understand of what’s “good” when He divides between upper waters and lower waters [1:6-7], between ocean and land [1:9-10], between different species of trees [1:11-12], between times of day using luminaries [1:14-18], between differing species and roles of fish and bird [1:20-21], beast and man [1:24-28], and finally, with Shabbos, between holy and mundane [2:1-3].
So, the Serpent—based on the Midrash—was evidently on to something. But, how would man have an ability to create worlds as a result of eating from this tree? Again, we don’t see that detail directly in the story. But, maybe, what the Serpent meant was that man, in a sense, could create worlds if he ate from this tree. Surely, man can’t literally be exactly like G-d. But, man could theoretically be independent and have his own ambitions—kind of like G-d—so, that if man had his own will by which he could discern and make decisions for himself, he could accomplish basically anything he wants and conceive life around him, or “fashion worlds,” as he pleases. Man could do this if he asserts his own independence and defies the word of G-d.
With this deeper understanding of the Serpent’s argument, apparently, this tree was not merely the subject of a prohibition, symbolic of the general desire to sin. After all, it’s not the “Tree of Evil.” It’s the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” That means that this tree was representative of something more fundamental. It itself somehow provided man the wherewithal to act—either for good or for bad. Having experiential knowledge of good and evil means having the ability to make decisions subjectively and independently instead of simply being told what to do and complying. So, why did humans ultimately eat from this tree? Because they apparently wanted this ability.
Why, though? Why did man want the wherewithal to act on his own volition? And why did G-d want to deprive man of this ability?
To give mankind the benefit of the doubt, we can suggest that while man may have wanted to be like G-d, in a sense, he desired to do so altruistically. After all, man was created “B’Tzelem Elokim,” in G-d’s metaphoric image [1:26-27]. Accordingly, the idea that man would want to be like, or emulate G-d, is not a completely farfetched concept. To emulate G-d, we believe, is man’s essence. And although he cannot do that literally, we argued that, in a sense, yes, man can be “like G-d.” We certainly wouldn’t deem such goals, to emulate G-d as much as possible, as outrageous or forbidden. Accordingly, we argued that man can—with the help of the Tree of Knowledge—be a little more like G-d so that he, in his own way, could “create worlds.” Until eating from the Tree of Knowledge, although Man could think and speak like G-d could, man did not have the unbridled capability to do whatever he pleased because man did not have his own ability to discern what was good and bad as G-d would do that for him. With the taste of knowledge of good and evil, man could now figure it out himself. Why then, was this tree, in fact, off limits? What was wrong with the Serpent’s pitch? Where did the man go wrong? Right, “G-d said ‘No,’” but, why did He? Based on what we’ve said, what was intrinsically wrong with eating from this tree?
The answer, that man might not have realized, is that although, yes, it is apparently a G-d-like quality to have the power to discern and independently make decisions, there is a more fundamental G-d-like quality that man was supposed to emulate. What was that other quality? What was wrong with quality of independent decision-making?
Indeed, we said already that man, like G-d, could think and talk. Those were G-d-like qualities that man was created with. Yet, we argued as well, that there are G-d-like qualities that that man was not created with. Man could not literally create worlds in the same exact way that G-d could. That level of G-dliness, G-d never afforded man. That power, G-d withheld from man, because apparently, man, for his mission on this world, does not need to create other worlds. In fact, man should not be creating other worlds. Even in the metaphoric sense, man was not put here to fashion this world into whatever he wants it to be, because it is G-d’s world. But, that is the danger of subjective “Knowledge of Good and Evil.” On the contrary, man was charged not to compete with G-d, but to comply with G-d. That means that man needs to live in this world—G-d’s world—and play by G-d’s rules.
Man apparently thought, as per the Serpent’s counsel, that he could only have true G-dliness by being assertive, audacious, and independent enough to defy G-d. However, although being able to assert “power” is a component of G-dliness on some level, the other, more important quality of G-dliness, which was more relevant for man to emulate, was the quality to withholding power, the humble limiting of one’s power, knowing when not to assert power, knowing when to submit to a higher and a more selfless calling! This is what Chazzal had in mind when they said [Avos 1:4] “Eizehu Gibor? HaKoveish Es Yitzro”-“Which one is powerful? He who conquers his inclination.” Indeed, true Divine power is the ability to withhold power, fighting the urge to assert one’s own independent power! In the same vein, death of desire does not mean feeding and fulfilling your desire, but rising above and conquering your desire, dealing with the situation when you do not have what you want.
This quality is the most relevant of G-dly qualities for man’s purposes in this world, because this world was only created by G-d’s careful restricting of His own power! Although, as we’ve argued earlier, G-d used a lot of power of decision making in the Creation process, the masters of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teach that G-d actually created the world by way of a method called “Tzimtzum,” literally, precise restriction. In other words, G-d needed to limit His own power and Presence, humbly creating a void so that there would be “room” for the world to exist. Ironic as it may be, although G-d created the world, in part, with His ability to assert His power, it was apparently only with His ability to hold back His power that the world could possibly exist at all. What emerges is that G-d, the ultimate Gibor, the true Power, withheld His own power. This more fundamental G-dly ability was for man to emulate.
The true kicker is that G-d actually gave this very ability to man, the ability to withhold his own independent power, by limiting man’s power and by giving him a decree which would theoretically force him to submit to a higher calling and need greater than himself. “Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Man had the ability to be like G-d by knowing specifically when to withhold his ability to act and not exact his power. G-d made it easy; He said “Don’t do it.” G-d was telling man: Know where limits are necessary. Thus, one emulates G-d not by having power, but by controlling his power. Indeed, if man truly wanted to create worlds as the Midrash suggests, he should have truly followed G-d’s methodology all the way through and restricted his power.
But of course, what happened is that man, that sneaky and selfish part of man, focused more on his own independent power, because he wanted to be like his Father, making tough choices all on his own. The problem is that this independent power to choose is only necessary when one in fact have a choice to make! Here, in a world where G-d has decided what’s right and wrong, there was no choice to make. When G-d said “Don’t do it,” it is not a time to assert your power and see for yourself. It is as Mufasa said to Simba in the movie Lion King, “I’m only brave when I have to be…being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.” In the same way, man fulfills his mission of emulating G-d’s abilities and powers by recognizing when not to use them!
In the end, the message that the Torah wanted us to take away is that we truly can be like G-d in the way G-d intended it. We can conquer sin if we understand what it truly means to be like G-d and have the humility to emulate the G-dly quality that entails holding ourselves back.
But at this point, the challenge is still great if not greater. Man has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and man has the desire and ability to assert the power vested in him. The answer is to look to the Torah, to know when to assert our power when to withhold. If we do that, we truly will become partners with G-d in Creation of this world and emulate that G-dly ability which we were intended to from the very beginning.
May we all Zocheh to know when to assert our power and when not, to emulate and serve Hashem to the best of our abilities, and He should accept our hand as we partner up with Him in Creation of this world once again with the coming of the Geulah, in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Bereishis!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂