Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge?

With the days of Rosh Hashana completed and Yom Kippur fast approaching, we are currently in the intermediary period between the two festivals, aptly named the Ten Days of Teshuvah (Repentance).

God’s sovereignty is a central aspect of Rosh Hashana, and this theme prevails on Yom Kippur, where we continue to add to the third blessing of the Amida, the affirmation of God’s sovereignty in the world: “Hamalekh HaKadosh” (“the Holy King”). This takes me to Bereishit (Genesis), specifically to the story of creation, which frequently declares God as ‘King’ and His will is performed without question. If I am frank, until recently I considered Bereishit akin to a children’s book, containing some enjoyable stories about both creation and the ancestral figures of the Jewish people, but never much more. Upon closer inspection of the text, I soon realised that Bereishit contains vast ideas about not only God but also humanity. Personally, the entire story surrounding the Garden of Eden is the embodiment of the hidden beauty contained within the pages of Bereishit:

The “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad” (Genesis 2:8) are presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The “Tree of Life” is placed at the centre of the Garden of Eden and as Rabbi Zvi Grumet comments, “The tree of life is the symbol for the path of meaningless immortality”.[1] Assuming that they do not eat from the “Tree of Knowledge”, man and woman are permitted to enjoy the fruits of this tree in the form of eternal life and consequently such an existence is heavenly and perhaps even angelic, but one that is ultimately starved from human choice. In direct contrast, the forbidden “Tree of Knowledge” represents moral discernment and free will- the ability to both know and choose between good from evil.

A fundamental feature of human nature is that so often we yearn for the forbidden. Therefore, when God tells Adam and Eve that every tree “you are free to eat” (Genesis 2:16), except the “Tree of Knowledge”, it is almost as if God is aware that mankind will inevitably eat from the forbidden tree. We are even told specifically that God creates the “cunning serpent” (Genesis 3:1), further supporting this idea that He actually wanted humanity to delight in the “Tree of Knowledge.”

Ultimately the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Even tells us of a fundamental change that took place in the human condition. Before Adam and Eve ate from the “Tree of Knowledge” we are told that they roamed naked in the Garden of Eden and significantly, “felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:25) Adam and Eve lived in an unparalleled state of comfort and peace. They were like children frolicking around naked, possessing immortality and placed within an incubator of heavenly protection. Yet, crucially without the “Tree of Knowledge”, mankind did not possess free will- the cornerstone of our existence. By Adam and Eve choosing to eat from the tree of knowledge, their “eyes were opened”. (Genesis 3:7) Therefore, whilst by disobeying God’s one request, Adam and Eve lose an aspect of their godly status, namely eternal life, in doing so, they free themselves from their ‘naked’ child-like state in Garden of Eden and become adults able to choose right from wrong, good from evil. This idea cannot be understated and represents a significant and crucial step in the evolutionary process of mankind’s existence.

The Garden of Eden and the choice between the two trees is a representation of the human condition. Whilst at times we wish to be just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, running around naked with not a care in the world and protected by God’s heavenly garden, such an existence is not one of long-term sustenance nor happiness. As we enter adulthood, we no longer want to be nurtured and protected to the extent that we lack choice and moral discernment. Rather, we desire free will and the power to choose between good and evil. Ultimately, without evil, goodness is not possible. Moreover, as noted by Eliezer Berkovits, “in a world without temptation, man could never be holy.”[2]

The Garden of Eden thus represents the ultimate transformative experience for humanity. It declares that whilst we are created betzelem elokim- “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), humankind cannot have access to both the “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of Knowledge” because ultimately this is what God possesses.

Rather, we are given access to the “Tree of Knowledge” as a testament to God’s recognition of our evolutionary spirit. When Eve decided to eat from the forbidden “Tree of Knowledge”, she made an eternal decision for all of humanity to leave the comfortable realms of the Garden of Eden and be set free in the sense that mankind must now accept complete responsibility for their actions. No longer are we creatures of an automated angelic existence. Rather, each human is provided with a nitzotz elokim (divine spark), with the ability to choose good or evil.

Hazal teaches that on Yom Kippur, the only day in the year in which the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and stand before the Ark of the Covenant and utter the Ineffable Name of God, the High Priest would literally tremble before God as he presented himself on behalf of all of Israel and their sins. As we stand in synagogue this Yom Kippur and tremble before God as we consider all our inequities, shortcomings and sins of the past year may we have in mind the “Tree of Knowledge.” This metaphysical tree is perhaps God’s greatest gift to humanity.

Ultimately, as Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, since our banishment from the Garden of Eden, our proximity to the Shekhinah (divine presence) will never be the same, and we are destined to spend all our days locked in an endless battle of “longing to find a way to Him.”[3] However, as we eagerly and perhaps nervously count the days until Yom Kippur and the utterance of the famous Kol Nidre liturgy, we are provided with the perfect reminder that “the craving for God has never subsided in the Jewish soul.”[4]

The High Priest entering the Holy of Holies: Temple Institute
The High Priest entering the Holy of Holies: Temple Institute

 

[1] Zvi Grumet,’Genesis’, From Creation to Covenant, (Jerusalem, Maggid Books, 2017), 43

[2] Eliezer Berkovits, ‘God, Man and History’, (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2014), 81

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘God in Search of Man’, A Philosophy of Judaism, (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1955),  25

[4] Ibid. 29

About the Author
Samuel Brygel is a student in Melbourne, Australia. He is studying Arts and Law at Monash University. He is employed at Yesodei HaTorah College as a teaching assistant.
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