‘Tree of Life’ Bereishit 5784

After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, G-d banishes them from the Garden of Eden. The reason for their banishment is clearly laid out in the Torah [Bereishit 3:22-24]: “G-d said, ‘Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.’ G-d sent him out of the Garden of Eden… He drove man out, and He stationed from the east of the Garden of Eden the Cherubim and the blade of the revolving sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” In short, G-d banished Adam from the Garden of Eden so as to prevent him from eating from the Tree of Life.

What kind of tree was the Tree of Knowledge? Our Sages in the Midrash offer several suggestions, from grape to wheat to fig. What kind of tree was the Tree of Life? What kind of fruit did it yield? Here our Sages are silent. Another question: Why did it suddenly become important that Adam not eat from the Tree of Life only after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge? And if G-d was so adamant that Adam was not to eat from the Tree of Life, why did He not just simply tell him not to eat from it? Had G-d completely lost trust in Adam after he had violated His order not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge[1]? Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[2] proposes an answer to our third question – why eating from the Tree of Life became problematic only after Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Rabbi Hirsch teaches that Adam was originally offered two paths. He could choose right from wrong either according to G-d’s definition or according to his own human understanding. Rabbi Hirsch refers to the first path as the “Path of Life” and the second path as the “Path of Death”. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam chose the “Path of Death”. Adam was created outside of the Garden of Eden. The only reason he was placed in the garden was so that it could serve as the venue for the ultimate test – the choice between the two paths. Adam could merit remaining in the Garden of Eden if and only if he passed the ultimate test. Once he had failed the test, he was summarily booted out of the garden and the only way he could return there was through endless blood, toil, tears and sweat. His life could be redeemed only by his death. Eating from the Tree of Life, while gaining him eternal life, would have resulted in Adam never meriting a return to the Garden of Eden. And so G-d, in His infinite Mercy, prevented Adam from eating from the Tree of Life for his own good.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin[3] takes Rabbi Hirsch’s idea a few steps further. Rabbi Sorotzkin adds a few more questions to our list: Why did G-d have to place watchmen at the gate of the Garden of Eden? Why didn’t He just hide the garden the same way He hid Moshe’s grave[4]? For that matter, how come we never hear about some person who accidentally discovered the Garden of Eden but, thanks to the diligence of the Cherubim, his assault on the garden was thwarted? Finally, why should we think that the Garden of Eden had only one entrance? What if there existed some back door into the garden that bypassed the Cherubim? Rabbi Sorotzkin answers his question by pointing to two verses that we recite when returning the Torah scroll to the ark [Proverbs 3:17-18]: “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” Ostensibly, these verses are talking about the Torah scroll that we are returning to the ark. The only way for man to re-enter the Garden of Eden is by scrupulously keeping the Tree of Life that is the Torah. The Cherubim that guard the entrance to the garden represent the Cherubim that were placed on top of the Ark of the Covenant, in the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and in the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash).

The problem with the explanation of Rabbi Sorotzkin is that it is slightly inaccurate. We only associate the “Tree of Life” with the Torah because that is what we sing when we return the Torah to the ark four times a week. A closer look at the verses shows that the “Tree of Life” is referring to something else entirely. The “Tree of Life” verses are preceded by this verse [Proverbs 3:13]: “Fortunate is the man who has found wisdom and a man who gives forth discernment”. The “Tree of Life” is actually wisdom. The “Way to the Tree of Life”, at least according to the Ralbag[5], is referring to the Torah, whose laws are “pleasant”. We acquire wisdom by studying Torah. But wait a minute, if the Tree of Life is “wisdom”, what, then, is the difference between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge?

To answer this question, we must first understand some core concepts of Hassidism. And what a better way to explain them than via some good old-fashioned 21st century geopolitics. Let us try to clarify the Hebrew terminology. The Hebrew word for “knowledge” is “da’at” while the Hebrew word for “wisdom” is “chochma”. These two forms of knowledge (for lack of a better word) are very different. Imagine a statesman investigating Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians claim that the program is for peaceful use only. Suddenly, the statesman has an insight: The Iranians have been shouting to anyone who will listen that they will eradicate the State of Israel. Could it be that the Iranians are engaging in duplicity and that their “civilian” nuclear program is really a fig-leaf for a clandestine military program?

This flash is known in Hassidism as “chochma” – “wisdom”. The flash has no dimensions: it is a mathematical point of potent light. Like a bolt of lightning on a rainy night, chochma lights up the sky only to be immediately replaced by darkness. Now let us assume that our statesman notices that Iran has begun protecting its nuclear fuel enrichment facilities in underground bunkers in Fordow and Natanz, hidden from satellite surveillance and protected from attack. At the same time, Iran has been investing heavily in its ballistic missile program, particularly in its development of solid rocket motors that enable a missile to be launched quickly without needing a lengthy fuelling process. These facts reinforce his initial suspicion. Once he has amassed a sufficiently large amount of evidence, he concludes with a high degree of confidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon along with the means with which to deliver it. This is “binah” – “perception[6]”. Binah is the process of investigating and understanding the implications of that first flash. The final step in this logical progression is putting two and two together: Will our statesman, certain that Iran is heading towards nuclear breakout, try to prevent this from occurring by cobbling together a global alliance and levying heavy sanctions against Iran until it dismantles its nuclear program? Judging from the recent rapprochement of the U.S. with Iran, maybe not. Our statesman lacks “da’at” – “knowledge”. Da’at means absorbing the information attained through chochmah and binah to affect a permanent change. Robert Kremnizer summarizes: “Intellect is chochmah, binah and da’at. In order to complete an intellectual grasp of any matter, all three ingredients must be there”. Chochma without da’at is not only incomplete, it is downright dangerous.

Now we can return to the Garden of Eden. When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he chose his own defective da’at over G-d’s perfect da’at. Any wisdom that he would subsequently acquire would be distorted and incompletely absorbed. To enable his survival in an adversarial world, G-d gave mankind a pristine source of wisdom: His Torah. If and only if we follow its path can we rejoin the Path of Life and re-enter the Garden of Eden.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] We addressed these questions in our shiur of Bereishit 5766. Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to revisit old questions with new points of view. In addition, after the recent passing of my father, the concept of a “Tree of Life” has become much more meaningful to me.

[2] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century.

[3] Rabbi Sorotzkin lived in Pinsk, Belarus, and in Israel in the previous century.

[4] The Torah tells us [Devarim 34:6] “No person knows the place of his burial, unto this day.”

[5] Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, known by his acronym “Ralbag”, lived in France in the 14th century

[6] The Hebrew term for Artificial Intelligence (AI) is “Binah Melachutit” – “Artificial Perception”. This is an excellent description of what AI does: it uses large amounts of data to perceive hidden patterns.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts