Few motifs are as familiar as that of the “forbidden fruit:” the fruit that grew from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Hashem commanded the world’s first man and woman, Adam and Chava, not to eat this fruit, but they did eat it, and were exiled from Eden as a result.
We must remember, however, that the “Tree of Knowledge” is not the only tree in Eden that the text explicitly identifies:
And the Lord God caused to sprout from the ground every tree pleasant to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:9).
The same verse that introduces us as readers to the Tree of Knowledge also calls our attention to a second tree—the “Tree of Life.” Granted, in the verses that follow, this tree will disappear almost entirely from the plot; man and woman will essentially ignore this tree, focusing instead on the Tree of Knowledge. Yet the tree’s special mention in the passage’s opening verses indicates that it must contribute something of significance to the narrative, be it symbolically, thematically, or otherwise. What, then, is the role of the Tree of Life in our text?
In fact, a careful reading of the verse cited above would appear to yield that it is the Tree of Life that ought to have attracted the bulk of our attention: it is this tree that is listed first, and it is the one placed “in the midst of the garden;” the Tree of Knowledge, by contrast, is almost mentioned as an afterthought. Thus, it is the Tree of Life that is central in Eden, both literarily and geographically. In relative terms, the Tree of Knowledge is peripheral.
Consider, in this context, Hashem’s instructions to man vis-à-vis the trees of Eden:
And the Lord God commanded man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you shall eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall die” (Gen. 3:16-17).
Here is the well-known prohibition on eating the fruit of Eden. Remarkably, the Tree of Life is not included in the prohibition. Indeed, Hashem formally commands man to eat from every tree of the garden, except for the Tree of Knowledge. Moreover, the reason Hashem provides man for why he may not eat from Tree of Knowledge—viz., “on the day that eat thereof, you shall die”—strongly suggests that man should search for the tree whose fruit bestows life. Altogether, the data points to a nearly inevitable conclusion: Hashem did not want man to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but He did want man to eat from the Tree of Life!
If this reading is correct, it emerges that the Torah’s first account of human activity features a deliberate contrast between “knowledge” and “life,” with Hashem directing man away from the former and towards the latter. How are we to interpret this curious contrast?
Perhaps it is useful, in this regard, to invoke the celebrated typology of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”). In an essay on the early chapters of Bereshit entitled The Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav distinguishes between two fundamental modes of human interaction with the world—that of “Adam I” versus that of “Adam II:”
The most characteristic representative of Adam the first is the mathematical scientist who whisks us away from the array of tangible things, from color and sound, from hear, touch, and smell which are the only phenomena accessible to our senses, into a formal relational world of thought constructs, the product of his “arbitrary” postulating and spontaneous positing and deducing. This world, woven out of human thought processes, functions with amazing precision and runs parallel to the workings of the real multifarious world of our senses. The modern scientist does not try to explain nature. He only duplicates it. In his full resplendent glory as a creative agent of God, he constructs his own world and in mysterious fashion succeeds in controlling his environment through manipulating his own mathematical constructs and creations… Adam the second does not apply the functional method invented by Adam the first. He does not create a world of his own. Instead, he wants to understand the living, “given” world into which he has been cast. Therefore, he does not mathematize phenomena or conceptualize things. He encounters the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur, and studies it with the naïveté, awe, and admiration of the child who seeks the unusual and wonderful in every ordinary thing and event. While Adam the first is dynamic and creative, transforming sensory data into thought constructs, Adam the second is receptive and beholds the world in its original dimensions. He looks for the image of God not in the mathematical formula or the natural relational law but in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the in the stillness of a starlit evening.
For the Rav, a key difference between Adam I and Adam II is their degree of separation from God’s creation. Adam II inhabits the “living world” whereas Adam I ensconces himself in the “world of thought.” The former interacts directly with natural phenomena while the latter preoccupies himself with abstractions thereof. Or, as we might put it: Adam II draws sustenance from the Tree of Life; Adam I, from the Tree of Knowledge.
Each of these modes, argues the Rav, is essential to the human condition. Yet both the Rav’s essay and the text upon which it is based seem to subtly suggest that of the two modes, the one that is more vital, spiritually, is the one that places vitality itself, i.e. life, at its center. Part of this, as mentioned, has to do with the fact that to “know” a given reality, one is required to remove oneself from it, whereas to “live” is to encounter reality from within. In “the world of thought,” then, some are subjects, and some objects, speaking to each other in the language that Martin Buber referred to as “I-It”; but in the “world of life,” all are equally subjects, speaking the language of “I-Thou.”
Thus we return to our Parshah. Hashem’s call to humanity, at the dawn of creation, is to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19)—to embrace it, to experience it fully, to appreciate it on its own terms—before aspiring to analyze it from a distance; in this sense, it might be said, the imperative of Eden is positively “existentialist.” At first humanity rejects this call, opting for “knowledge” instead. But there is no value to “knowledge” that is divorced from “life,” and thus, in the aftermath of the sin, Hashem restricts access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24), and imposes a limit upon the span of human life (3:19), so that the only way humanity can continue is if humans choose to place their “knowledge” in the service of “life.” Hence our narrative’s resolution, “And Adam knew his wife, Chava, and she conceived, and bore a son…” (4:1): the measure of true “knowledge,” intimates the Torah, is the degree to which it results in the sharing and giving of “life.”
How appropriate that this lesson is situated at the very beginning of the Torah, for us to review each year before studying it anew. To approach the Torah in search for “knowledge” alone—be it moral, theological, legal, psychological, or historical—would be to miss the point. That is why Shlomo HaMelech, the “wisest of all men,” referred to the Torah specifically as “a Tree of Life” (Prov. 3:18): for Torah study, properly performed, does not climax in astute observations, clever interpretations or profound insights, but in the conduct that animates and elevates “life,” in its totality.
May we merit to realize this ideal in the course of our study together this year.
This article originally appeared at www.WhatsPshat.org.