It’s been said that the first chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) contains polemics against just about every worldview common in the ancient world. I want to focus here on just one of those worldviews: the notion of destiny, that a person’s fate is written in the stars. Au contraire, says the Torah: as soon as humans enter the world of B’reishit, they encounter choice.
All is foreseen, but freedom is granted
Some readers may recognize the headline above as R’ Akiva’s famous paradox on human free will. How can humans have freedom of choice if God knows everything? For that matter, how can free will exist at all in a deterministic universe? While modern physics is not deterministic, and in fact contains unpredictability, self-creation remains one of the more mysterious aspects of the human condition.
“Let us make man in our own image,” says God. To whom was he speaking? I once heard it explained by Rav Ish-Shalom: “God was speaking to human beings: Let us, you and Me, create human beings who will live in My image.”
But what does צלם אלו-קים—the Image of God—actually mean? Surely it can’t mean a physical likeness, as God is completely unlike anything in the created world. I would like to explore an option championed most clearly by R’ Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, usually referred to by the initials of his name: RaMbaM).
“Free will is given to all men,” writes the Rambam. “If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.” As a proof text, the Rambam cites our Parashah: after Adam eats of the tree of knowledge, God says: “The human has become one of us, knowing good and evil.” But the Rambam reinterprets this verse by means of a subtle shift in punctuation. He puts the period in a different place, giving the verse a whole new meaning: “The human has become one—has become unique, a new kind of being. Memenu—from within himself—he knows good and evil.”
In eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we became capable of anything. But did we not have that freedom prior to the eating? After all, we freely chose to disobey a Divine command! Perhaps what was changed was not our essence, but simply our awareness of it: suddenly we were conscious of our ability to be other than we are, and of our responsibility for our actions.
Thus, the taking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge “completed” the creation of human beings. By giving humans the freedom to disobey, God allowed us to decide what form human beings would take. By reaching for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the decision was made, for better or worse. The “curses” that followed were simply the natural consequences of that choice: larger brains meant more difficult childbirth and a prolonged period of dependence on parents, which eventually lead to the cultivation of agriculture and settled societies…one condition following another, but all inexorably linked to that one first action—the decision to willfully take control of human destiny.
What type of fruit does knowledge bear?
But what exactly was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? Was it a real fruit, or “merely” a metaphor? I’ve explored the metaphorical option in A Glimpse of What Might Have Been. Here I would like to take a closer look at the fruit as… well, fruit!
וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל וַתִּתֵּ֧ן גַּם־לְאִישָׁ֛הּ עִמָּ֖הּ וַיֹּאכַֽל׃
When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
This passage describes the tree as both tasty and beautiful, but gives no hint of what type of tree it was. The Talmud provides a few speculations:
רבי מאיר אומר: גפן היה, שאין לך דבר שמביא יללה על האדם אלא יין, שנאמר (בראשית ט) “וישת מן היין וישכר”.
רבי נחמיה אומר: תאנה הייתה שבדבר שנתקלקלו בו נתקנו, שנאמר (בראשית ג) “ויתפרו עלה תאנה”.
רבי יהודה אומר: חטה הייתה שאין התינוק יודע לקרות אבא ואמא עד שיטעום טעם דגן.– תלמוד בבלי, מסכת ברכות, דף מ’, עמוד א’
Rabbi Meir says that the Tree of Knowledge was a grapevine—”for nothing causes more heartbreak than wine….”
R’ Nehemiah maintains that it was a fig tree. The Torah tells us that after the sin, Adam and Eve “knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles.” Rabbi Nehemiah maintains that “that which caused their downfall was then used to rectify them.”
R’ Yehuda says it was actually wheat stalks For “a child knows not how to call out to his father and mother until he has tasted grain [ie, he begins to be weaned].”
A tree that tastes like its fruit
Midrash Rabbah on Parshat B’reishit adds a fourth opinion, that the fruit was an Etrog (citron):
רבי אבא דעכו אמר: אתרוג היה, ההוא דכתיב (בראשית ג) “ותרא האשה כי טוב העץ למאכל”, אמרת, צא וראה איזהו אילן שעצו נאכל כפריו? ואין את מוצא אלא אתרוג.
– בראשית רבה פרשה ט”ו פסקה ז’
R’ Abba of Acco said: The verse states that “the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” This implies that not only did the fruit of the tree have a good taste, but the wood of the tree itself had a good taste. This is true only with regards to the etrog tree.
R’ Abba hangs his interpretation on a peculiarity of the language in this verse: “the tree was good to eat” even as the fruit was good to eat. This notion, that a tree and its fruit may both be edible is the focus of an intriguing passage in Midrash Rabbah: Why was the earth cursed along with Adam after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge?
ר”י בר’ (שמעון) [שלום] אמר שעברה על הצווי שכך אמר לה הקב”ה תדשא הארץ דשא וגו’ מה הפרי נאכל אף העץ נאכל והיא לא עשתה כן אלא ותוצא הארץ דשא וגו’ הפרי נאכל והעץ אינו נאכל
R’ Yehuda b. R’ Shalom said: Because it disobeyed [God’s] command. For the Holy One, blessed be He, said: “Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit” Just as the fruit is eaten, so should the tree be edible. [The earth], however, did not do this, but instead, “the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit” . the fruit could be eaten but not the tree.
Rav Kook references this midrash in his book, Orot HaTeshuvah:
מתחלת הבריאה ראוי היה טעם העץ להיות גם הוא כטעם פריו. כל האמצעים המחזיקים איזו מגמה גבוהה כללית ראוים היו להיות מוחשים בחוש נשמתי באותו הגבה והנעם, שעצם המגמה מורגשת בו כשאנו מציירים אותה. אבל טבע הארץ. התנודדות החיים, ולאות הרוחניות כשהיא נסגרת במסגר הגופניות, גרם שרק טעמו של הפרי, של המגמה האחרונה, האידיאל הראשי, מורגש הוא בנעמו והדרו, אבל העצים הנושאים עליהם את הפרי, עם כל נחיצותם לגדול הפרי, נתעבו ונתגשמו ואבדו את טעמם. זהו חטא הארץ, שבעבורו נתקללה כשנתקלל גם האדם על חטאו. וכל פגם סופו לתקון. ע”כ מובטחים אנו בברור, שיבאו ימים שתשוב הבריאה לקדמותה, וטעם העץ יהיה כטעם הפרי, כי תשוב הארץ מחטאה, וארחות החיים המעשיים לא יהיו גורמים לחוץ בעד הנועם של האור האידיאלי, הנתמך בדרכו ע”י אמצעים הגונים, המחזיקים אותו ומוציאים אותו מן הכח אל הפועל. התשובה עצמה, המזרמת את הרוח הפנימי, אשר נטבע במצולות תהום של ההעדר והפך המגמה האידיאלית ע”י נתינת רוח לרוח הצדק, שנתן בתחלה במועקה, תתן עז . לרוח האידיאלי לחדור בתקפו גם בחלקי כל המכשירים הרבים, ומכולם יוטעם טעמו של הזיו המגמתי, ולא ישא עוד האדם חרפת העצלות בדרך החיים האמתיים.
—אורות התשובה ו ז
“At the inception of creation it was intended that the tree have the same taste as the fruit (Genesis Rabba 5:9). All the actions that support any worthwhile spiritual goal should rightly be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and delight as the goal itself is experienced when we first envision it. But earthly existence, the instability of life, the weariness of the spirit when confined to a corporeal existence have all brought it about that only the fruition of the final step, which embodies the primary ideal, is experienced in its pleasure and splendor. The trees that bear the fruit, while necessary for the growth of the fruit, have become coarse matter, and have lost their taste. This is the failing of the earth, because of which it was cursed when Adam was also cursed for his sin.
But every defect is destined to be mended. Thus we are assured that the day will come when creation will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit. The earth will repent of its failing, and the practical life will no longer obstruct the delight of the ideal, which is sustained by appropriate intermediate steps on its way to realization, and will stimulate its emergence from potentiality to actuality.
Teshuvah itself, which activates the inner spirit that had sunk in the depths of the chaotic and the antithetical to the ideal goal, will enable the aspiration of the ideal to penetrate all the conditioning influences, and in all of them will be tasted the splendor of the ideal goal. It will do this by enlarging the scope of action for the ideal of justice. Man will then no longer suffer the disgrace of indolence on the way of the true life.”
—Orot HaTeshuvah, 6: 7
Fall or ascent?
And so we gain a new consciousness of… our own consciousness. Most animals aren’t overly concerned with means and ends. If the tree tastes the same as the fruit, then why work harder for the fruit? Just take a bite of the tree! Means and ends are the same, without conscious differentiation between them. But Chava looked at the tree of knowledge and made a conscious choice: the fruit is the goal; the tree is just the means to the fruit. In making that choice: to consciously differentiate between the means and the ultimate goal, she set the course of human history.
And God? What was God doing all this while? We tend to see our choice as a fall from the innocence of pre-human, pre-conscious existence, and so we see only the angry face of God, reflected in the consequences of our choice.
But there’s another possibility. After all, our parashah is not the only case in our Torah in which humans decided and God reacted. I like to think that, just as in the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, had anyone been privy to God’s mood at the time, he would have reported back to us: “He was laughing and saying, ‘My children have defeated Me. My children have defeated Me.'”