The Real Sin in the Garden of Eden

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath Bëréshith (Genesis I,1-VI,8)

The name of the Book of Genesis is borrowed from the Greek word for “origin” or “beginning,” the name by which it is known in the Septuagint, echoing the first word in the Hebrew original, Bëréshith, by which name the book is conventionally known among Jews. However, as the Talmud reminds us (‘Avoda Zara 25b), the book was known to the prophets of Israel as the Séfer haYashar (“Book of the Straight”), as we know from two verses in the prophetic books, Joshua X,13 and II Samuel I,18.

Rabi Yochanan, in the Talmdic passage cited above, explains the name in terms of the Patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchaq, and Ya‘aqov, whom Bil‘am called yësharim when he prophesied tamuth nafshi moth yësharim, “may my soul die the death of straight ones” (Numbers XXIII,10

The Nëtziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin), in the introduction to Séfer Bëréshith in his Ha‘améq Davar, explains Bil‘am’s use of the word yësharim, rather than tzaddiq (“righteous”) or chasid (“pious”), in light of the fact that it is possible to be a tzaddiq or a chasid in terms of one’s Torah study and observance and still miss the point, if, by exaggerating every slight difference of opinion or custom, one comes to suspect the worst of one’s fellows and thereby foments division and strife needlessly. The lives of the Patriarchs provide lessons which exemplify, even in the face of real failures and offenses, the subtle trait of “hating the sin, yet loving the sinner” necessitated by the mitzva of ahavath Yisra’él, loving one’s fellow Jew. Thus, we find it said: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Avraham. ‘You have loved justice and hated evil. [Psalms XLV,7]; you have loved to justify My creatures and hated to convict them” (Bëréshith Rabba XLIX,20).

 This, then, is the quality of yashruth which the Torah wishes to teach us in Genesis even before it relates the granting of the Torah itself, and is what the Rabbis meant by their assertion, “Elemental decency preceded Torah” (VaYiqra Rabba IX,3). The existence of this quality was necessary before the Torah could come into the world. Our parasha relates the beginning of the struggle between tzedeq (“justice, righteousness”) and resha‘ (“wrongdoing”).

Every school child knows the basic story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, but there are some vital details which need to be clarified in order to understand what happened there and why subsequent human history has taken the course which it has done.

When the first man was placed in the garden, he was given two jobs, “to work it and to preserve it,” (Genesis II,15) and admonished: “From every tree of the garden, eating, you may eat; and from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you should not eat, for on the day that you eat of it, dying you will die” (ibid., 16-17).

Afterwards, we learn of the forming of the first woman, Chava, and of her encounter with the mysterious being called the nachash (“snake”), described as “more devious than any animal of the field” (III,1). In response to a slyly worded query from this remarkable creature, the woman is prompted to say, “We may eat of the fruit of the garden’s trees. And from the fruit of the tree which is within the garden, G-d said, Do not eat from it and do not touch it, lest you die” (ibid., 2-3).

From Chava’s words we can deduce two things:

  1. That she did not now the name or location of the forbidden tree (or else she would not have used the vague phrase “the tree which is within the garden”).
  1. That she did not know the precise parameters of the prohibition. G-d had said nothing of “touching” the tree, and at any event, she had not been present at the original pronouncement. The Ha‘améq Davar suggests that her husband interpreted the peculiar double language of the prophecy, “from the tree…from it,” to mean not only a prohibition against eating the fruit, but also a prohibition of any benefit from the tree, to include touching it, as a sëyag lamitzva, a protective “fence” to prevent violation of the main prohibition. Similarly, he had not told her where it was located, lest the fascination of the forbidden lead her to it, and she be unable to stand the temptation.

From her phrase “and you will not touch it,” the Rabbis deduced (Bëréshith Rabba XIX,4) that the nachash nudged Chava so that she stumbled against the tree, and then reassured her that, just as touching the tree had not led to her death, neither would eating of it. To the contrary, eating of the tree would make man uniquely wise among earthly creatures; it would lead to a knowledge and wisdom hitherto the province of G-d alone (cf. ibid., v. 22, Rashi ad loc.)

 Now encountering the tree for the first time, Chava was entranced by it: “And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was an urge for the eyes, and the tree was delightful to enlighten” (ibid., v. 6), and we all know the rest.

But, familiar as the story is, it raises some disturbing questions.

First off, the common notion that man was intended to live a life of ease in the garden is obviously not so; from the very beginning, as we have seen, man’s task was to work the garden and preserve it, whence the Rabbis (Avoth dëRabbi Nathan XI) derived the fundamental principle that man must work: “For even the first man did not take anything until he had done work.” If so, what was the novelty in “By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread” (III,19)?

Secondly, who or what was the creature called the nachash? We are told that for its effort it was made to crawl on its belly and eat dirt, a likely enough description of a snake’s life, but the Torah tells us in so many words that it spoke to Chava; yet nowhere in G-d’s curse (ibid., 14-15) do we find that it was deprived of the power of speech. Moreover, talking animals are the stuff of fables. The Torah itself tells us that man’s uniqueness lies in his exclusive use of language. The Torah’s characterization of man as a nefesh chayya, “living soul” (II,17), is translated by Onqëlos as “speaking spirit,” and Rashi elaborates that man’s nefesh is “the liveliest of all, for knowledge and speech were added in him.” What happened to the nachash?

 Lastly, it is necessary for us to understand what changed in Creation as a result of the actions of the first couple. For all of the incident’s characterization as the “sin of the tree of knowledge,” the fact is that the tree is described not as seeming but as being good” and “wonderful to enlighten,” being part of the world which G-d Himself had pronounced “very good.” This world was created in accordance with Torah (Bëréshith Rabba I,2), on the condition that Torah would come into it and be observed by mankind (‘Avoda Zara 3a, Shabbath 88-89). Surely the knowledge of good and evil, the fundamental moral sense, is a necessity for a ben Torah. What was the sin?

The Rabbis long ago deduced from the unusual spelling of the word vayitzer (“and he formed” in II,7) which is written with two yudin, as opposed to its appearance in II,19 where it is written with one yyud, as indicating that man was created with two yëtzarim, two natures. In contrast to the animals, which are physical creatures wholly rooted in this world, man also has a spiritual component, which the Torah terms a nëshama, rooted in the infinite “world of truth” which surrounds and contains this world (Rashi on II,7, after Bëréshith RabbaXIV,4; cf. also B ërachoth 61a).

Rabbi Yoséf Yozel Hurwitz, known as the Alter of Novaradok, one of the great pioneers of the modern yëshiva movement, describes in his Madreigath ha’Adam the first man’s nature at the dawn of Creation as that of a spiritual being encased in a fleshly envelope. Man was aware of his body, of its needs and wants, but it did not have a direct input to his essential being. It was a lëvush, a garment only, which needed to be cared for, to be sure, but could readily be ignored when higher things beckoned.

At this point, the Madreigath ha’Adam tells us, man faced a choice. He could choose to remain in this pristine state, serving the Creator as His junior partner in utilizing the physical world to fulfill His mitzvoth, preparing the way for Torah to enter the world, and receiving the commensurate rewards for the preparations and for the Torah’s fulfillment. Or he could enter this world fully, his two natures fused into one indissoluble whole; by standing against the now much more urgent demands of the body in the Creator’s service he would merit a vastly greater reward, since the effort would be so much greater.

This was the choice which the nachash placed before the first couple. Note well the name of the tree: not the “tree of the knowledge of good from evil,” but of “good and evil” together, unified. The Madreigath ha’Adam characterizes the nature of the choice and its consequences with a startlingly modern metaphor: it was, he says, rather like drug addiction.

We know intellectually that the drug addict had an almost irresistible craving for his drug, and that this craving could drive him to any depth of depravity and degradation necessary to satisfy that craving. We know this intellectually. But we don’t know it the way the drug addict does. He feels the sting of his chemical master’s whip, the dull ache which deprives the world of color, texture, and taste without his “fix.” If he can stand against it and overcome that craving, his reward is great indeed; but a glance at the headlines shows how very high the casualty rate in that war is.

Similarly, the first man “knew” that he would subject to the stormy demands of his physical nature, its hungers and lusts, but he did not yet know it as we have come to know it. Simple prudence should have dictated leaving things as they were, but it is the nature of this world that reward comes with the presence of free choice, and so man had to be free to choose.

The spiritual essence which inhabited the being called the nachash, the tempter who presented man with his choice, prompting and urging the nobility of choosing the tree (“You shall be as G-d”) was originally external, his insistent whine could be ignored. But with the exercise of the fateful choice, the snake became merely a snake; its spiritual master, its “guardian angel,” with its offers and persuasions, became internalized in humankind. The yétzer hara‘ has been nearly impossible to ignore ever since.

In choosing the option of the tree and its consequent integral nature, man created the potential to achieve great things indeed; but the road to those accomplishments is fraught with danger.

This being said, we must still answer the question: What was the sin? If man is free to choose, and in exercising the choice he gains the the opportunity to achieve greater nobility and its concomitant reward, what did he do wrong?

The Ozherover Rebbe in the Bë’ér Moshe reaches a very similar conclusion to that of the Madreigath ha’Adam, but by a slightly different path. He cites the Zohar Chadash 18b that “the Holy One, Blessed is He, placed the first man in the Garden of Eden and gave him His Torah to work with and keep its mitzvoth, as it is written, ‘and the tree of life was in the garden’ (Genesis II,9) and it is written, ‘the Torah is a tree of life to those who cling to it….’ (Proverbs III,18).” The tree was planted in the garden because the knowledge it contained was inevitable. It was part of the plan from the beginning that it would be introduced into this world. Man’s sin, then, was one of presumption and impatience: Had he shown proper submission to the Divine will, had he not insisted on “pushing the envelope,” then with experience and practice in keeping the mitzvoth he would eventually have been in a far stronger position to achieve the union of his natures and negotiate its pitfalls. By being unwilling to wait, and accepting the challenge before he was ready, man sinned.

With this we can answer the next question: Man came into this world “to work it and to preserve it.” The Earth was indeed created for the purpose of Torah observance. Had he waited for things to mature in their own good time, he would still have been employed, but the employment of carrying out the Creator’s will would have been far less onerous. Now he had the same task imposed on him, but with suffering, sweat, and anxiety.

This can be mitigated to the extent that we develop our powers of emuna and bittachon, of faith and trust that the Holy One, Blessed is He, runs the world, that if we keep our end of the bargain He will surely keep His, however bleak we think the picture is.