There is something eternally fascinating about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are endlessly amazed by Adam and Eve’s foolhardy giving-in to temptation and eating of the forbidden fruit. In many ways, it’s the perfect story. Every time we circle back to it, there’s some part of us that wants to shout out to Eve—‘don’t do it!’ It’s an eternally relevant story because we know that we’re just like Adam and Eve. Somehow, just like them, we eat of that Tree too, despite our better judgment: we mess up, we stumble over ourselves, we fail—just missing the perfection we almost had. It’s also a perfect story because it allows us to get angry at God: what was God thinking? Why put that tree right there in the Garden and then forbid it? It’s the perfect set-up! It’s the proverbial placing-of-the-cookie-jar right in front of innocent hands and eyes, after all. And yet, despite the maddening frustration of this story, it is the perfect typology for our human condition. Plumb the depths of the Tree of Knowledge, and you unlock the key to what it means to be human.
In the Talmud in Sanhedrin (38a), there’s a story told of how God created various groups of ministering angels just as God was about to create humankind. To the first group of angels, he asked, “Na’aseh et ha’adam betzalmenu?” “Shall we make humankind in our image?” “What will be his deeds?” the angels ask. “Well,” said God, “he’ll do this and that [this good deed, and that sin], etc.” Indignantly, the angels said ‘What is man that Thou are mindful of him” (Psalm 8:5) [In other words, why bother to create such a fallible, sinning creature in your image, O God!]. What did God do? God stretched out his little finger and consumed all those angels with fire. The same scenario happened all over again when God created a second chorus of ministering angels. Finally, a third group of angels said, “The whole world is Yours, and whatever You wish to do therein, do it.” When God came to the generation of the flood and to the generation of the dispersion of mankind, whose deeds were so corrupt, the angels said: ‘Lord of the universe, did not the first [company of angels] speak justly [when they said, ‘don’t bother creating humankind?] God retorted “Ad ziknah…ad seivah ani esbol…” “Until old age…until gray hair I will put up [with humankind].(Isaiah 46:4)”
This wonderful and important midrash says it all: God has absolutely no patience even for his ministering angels who would talk good sense to God: why create human beings so very fallible, so prone to temptation, to sin, even to evil itself?! Even to the point of wiping out the world and starting over again, God here remains steadfast to one thing, to humankind just as we are, in all our fallible glory. If we put this midrash together with the Garden of Eden story of the Torah, we see that our destiny was never to stay in that Garden of perfection. The poignant irony of our humanity is that somewhere, way back in our primordial psyche, we know that we once had a taste of perfection, but perfection was never our destiny. Banishment from the Garden is our destiny. Imperfection is our destiny. Loss and separation is our destiny. And yet, somehow, that Garden, despite its flaming swords blocking our re-entry, always beckons for us to yearn to come home once again someday…
The Tanzer rebbe used to tell a story about himself: “In my youth, when I was fired with the love of God, I thought I would convert the whole world to God. But soon, I discovered it would be quite enough to convert the people who lived in my town, and I tried for a long time, but I did not succeed. Then I realized that my program was still much too ambitious, and I concentrated on the persons in my own household. But I could not convert them either. Finally, it dawned on me: I must work upon myself, so that I may give true service to God... But I did not accomplish even this.”
Oy! What’s brilliant about this story, like so many great Hasidic stories, is that it builds you up, and then defies expectation. We would all like to think that the Tanzer rebbe finally figured out the great path of wisdom: mend your own soul, find your own happiness, your own inner perfection. But no: we get no satisfaction from this story. Even this great Tzadik couldn’t quite manage it. It looks like there’s nothing but utter failure for him, and for all of us—or is there indeed? Not quite. What the Tanzer rebbe doesn’t say is ever-more profound than what he does say. There’s an unspoken insight in this story that the rebbe knows, that each of us must discover for ourselves, and that insight begins when we probe the story of the Tree of Knowledge itself.
When we investigate Kabbalah, the treasure-trove of Jewish mystical insights, we learn something astonishing. R. Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona wrote a Midieval kabbalistic text known as Sod Etz HaDa’at (The Secret of the Tree of Knowledge). In this text, Ezra ben Solomon reminds us that there are not one, but two forbidden trees in the Garden: the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. And yet, while these trees appear as two separate trees in the story, they are actually one entity. They represent the two polarities of human nature itself: the Tree of Life represents what we call our Yetzer HaTov, our Inclination to goodness and altruism and compassion. The Tree of Knowledge on the other hand, represents what we call our Yetzer HaRa, our propensity to selfishness, to arrogance, to evil. Gershom Scholem, a great scholar of Jewish mysticism explains: “[The two Trees] grow from a common root, in which masculine and feminine, the giving and the receiving, the creative and the reflective, are one. Life and knowledge are not to be torn asunder form one another: they must be seen and realized in their unity.”
But of course, what did Adam and Eve do? What do we all do? We can’t resist the urge to eat of the tree that’s all about temptation. We throw that harmony, that unity, out of balance. But it can’t be any other way. It’s the nature of our Yetzer HaRa, our ‘Evil Urge.’ It’s the part of us that seeks disharmony, that is tantalized by what’s just beyond our reach. But remember, this so-called Evil Urge, isn’t ultimately “evil.” It’s ultimately not separate from our so-called Good Urge. It’s the part of us that always seeks and strives. It’s the part of us that always endeavors to understand, to probe, to move beyond the apparent limits of our experience. It is the source of our lusts and desires and addictions, yes, but also of our very creativity, our drive to overcome and to transcend. It is part of what makes our humanity so noble, so much more than other creatures of this world. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, and they woke up to the condition of the human mind, a mind that experiences a world of separations and dualities: male and female, giving and receiving, good and evil. The fruit of that tree is what makes us essentially human, as beings with a mind and heart that experience such heights of spirit and insight, as well as depths of despair and travail.
This brings us back to the Tanzer rebbe. He realized, finally, that even the striving to perfect himself was a failure. Is this a depressing story? Is this a story meant to leave us in despair? No. It’s just the opposite. He realized, once and for all, that the very desire to perfect—whether it’s the world, his town, or himself—is all the same desire: it’s the Yetzer HaRa. It’s all Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree over and over again. He realized that his human condition is defined by that yearning and striving, and never quite making it. The Tanzer rebbe’s fallibility is all of our fallibility. We are all limited by our very humanity that makes life worth living in the first place. We are all defined by our magnificent minds that weave our endless stories about our striving to overcome the dualities of me verses you, good verses evil, separation verses homecoming. The story of Adam and Eve and the Tree is the first such story of duality and separation and yearning. Every other story of every other human being since then is just another version of the same Adam and Eve story. The story of your life is also a story of separation and the yearning for a return.
But the final, unspoken irony of the Adam and Eve story; the final unspoken irony in the Tanzer rebbe’s story of all our stories, is that when we eat of that tree and slip into the drama of separation and loss and yearning—in Truth, that tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and that Tree of Life, and that whole Garden, is still there, still in its natural, simple, harmonious perfection. It still lives within you. It’s just that now, you have eaten the fruit, so you can’t perceive the simple harmony and perfection so easily anymore. But that Garden never went away. It’s still there. It’s still ‘in here.’ It never left you. The deepest, most poignant message of Adam and Eve and the Garden, is that you really are okay. Despite your mistakes, despite your limits, despite your worst failures—God will stay with you ‘ad ziknah, ad seivah,’ ‘until old age, until gray hair,’—your very fallibility is your purpose. Enter deeply into that fallibility, accept it with all your heart, and the Tree of Life, and the Garden itself, once again becomes your birthright. May we all merit this great insight into our humanity. May each of us finally come to the wisdom that our eating of that fruit is our greatest blessing.