The Midrash disrupts many ideas that we may not have reexamined since we were in sixth grade. Let’s ask another question which will force us to more precisely define what the “Tree of Knowledge” really represents.
What kind of God-consciousness did Chava have that she could not defend herself against the serpent’s far fetched arguments? Chava and Adam must have had some sense of God’s grandeur in having just created the whole world. Granted, it’s hard to appreciate life in the Garden of Eden when you never lived anywhere else. However, there must have been something Chava could have said to challenge the snake’s audacious assertions. As we mentioned*, the snake claimed, according to the Midrash, that God himself only became God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. (Midrash Rabbah 19:4) This means that the tree predated God. The snake also warned Chava that God is likely to create a more powerful being that would dominate her and Adam. The snake made God out to be – God forbid – evil, and power hungry. Did Adam and Chava have no sense of God’s righteousness and compassion? None at all? At the very least, why would God leave a tree unguarded that could leave God vulnerable to a battle with other Gods?
The spirituality of Adam and Chava before eating from the tree
One of the major commentators to Midrash Rabbah, Yiffei Toar, describes the difference between Adam and Chava’s spiritual DNA and ours. In Mankind’s current condition, our heart chooses what it desires based on input from our senses. Our needs and our ego are integral to every choice we make. However, Adam and Chava had their needs רצון aligned with those of God. They were guided by one principle. What does God want from us, how can I fulfill God’s mission?
The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:2) has a similar approach regarding Adam and Chava. They saw the world in terms of the objective criteria of “right and wrong.” Their own desires and personal interests did not cloud their judgement. The Rambam gives an example about whether the world is round or flat. The fact that the world is round is a scientific fact that is either “right or wrong.” The terms “good” or “bad” don’t really apply because your personal feeling about the shape of the Earth will absolutely not change the facts.
This begs a question, which the Rambam dealt with head on. Doesn’t it seem like God was trying to hold Adam and Chava back from a wonderful world full of emotions and desires? The Rambam states that Adam and Chava actually gave up a tremendous amount when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. They lived in an amazing dimension of pure truth that we cannot fathom. The only way we can understand, in the slightest way, what that world was like is to read a news story today. Wade through the innuendos, half truths and outright lies. Can you now appreciate a world of absolute truths?
My last attempt to envision the lost world of Adam and Chava before eating from the tree is from a statement in the Talmud:
אָמַר רַבִּי אַחָא בַּר חֲנִינָא: לֹא כָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, עַל בְּשׂוֹרוֹת טוֹבוֹת אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב״, וְעַל בְּשׂוֹרוֹת רָעוֹת אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ דַּיַּין הָאֱמֶת״. לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, כּוּלּוֹ ״הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב״.
“Rabbi Acḥa bar Ḥanina said: ‘The World-to-Come is not like this world. In this world, upon good tidings one recites: Blessed…Who is good and does good, and over bad tidings one recites: Blessed…the true Judge. In the World-to-Come one will always recite: Blessed…Who is good and does good.”’ (Talmud Pesachim 50a)
The Talmud is saying that in this world we struggle to understand God’s justice in the world, How do we explain all the seemingly “bad” things that happen. Especially death. Therefore, when we are confronted by the death of an immediate family member, we declare that God is a דַּיַּין הָאֱמֶת, the “true judge,” even if we can’t understand why the death had to happen. However, in the next world it all suddenly becomes clear. We no longer have to declare that God is דַּיַּין הָאֱמֶת, the “true judge,” because it will be self evident. Everything God does is הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב good.
Perhaps, if this is the state of affairs for those of us who, after 120 years, merit Gan Eden, maybe this is the way it was in Gan Eden of old. Adam and Chava saw everything as הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב – it’s all good.
The snake turned the prohibition into a Mitzvah
All the explanations about the spiritual state of Adam and Chava don’t really answer my original question. Why did Chava, who was born in an exalted spiritual state accept a characterization of God as a divine being capable of doing ‘bad’. There is a novel opinion that may put this in a whole new light. The commentary to Midrash Rabbah, Eished Hanechalim, (published 1843 in Vilna) says that the snake may have positioned eating from the forbidden fruit as a “Mitzvah.” He convinced Chava that it was an obligation and expectation of those who are the pinnacle of creation to experience everything that God put into the world until this point:
זה היה פעולת הנחש ופיתויו להסבירו איך שהוא הבריאה האחרונה . ואם כן מוכרח להרגיש בקרבו קבוץ כל המדות , כי אלולי זאת יהיה מוכרח לברוא עולמות אחרים . כלומר , בריאה אחרת כוללת מכל הכחות .
“The method that the snake used to entice Chava was to explain the responsibilities that come with being the pinnacle of creation. (Namely, that it is God’s will that as the last one to be created she fulfills God’s will and eats from the Tree of Knowledge in order that) she experiences the sum total of all the sensations and emotions (that God endowed the world with). if she fails (to do God’s will and eat from the Tree of Knowledge), then God would be compelled to bring forth a new creation that would reach the experiential heights (that Chava failed to reach).”
A new way to look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
It would follow that one of the moral lessons of Garden of Eden is to be vigilant about recognizing “evil” even when it’s disguised as something “good.” Perhaps this is the true definition of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” It was the tree that imbued in people the ability to perpetrate evil while making it look like an act of righteousness. As Maimonides mentioned, Adam and Chava were wired to distinguish between “right and wrong.” To Chava it seemed “right” to eat from the tree because the snake positioned it as a way to fulfill God’s will. However, once Mankind was forever degraded by the idea of camouflaging evil as good, it’s no wonder they had to lose their immortality and be expelled from the idyllic Garden.
* In my previous essay/video entitled “Was the serpent a heretic or just a snake oil salesman.” https://youtu.be/8WwRZkeUSAE