Every so often, watching a scary scene in a movie, I find myself yelling at the screen. Don’t go in there! Don’t you know he’s hiding in the shadows waiting for you? And why can’t you hear the creepy music playing in the background?
The same feeling comes over me in rereading the beginning of the Torah. I’ve seen this one before. Eve knows she shouldn’t eat the fruit, but the Snake is going to tempt her. And then … line by line … she falls for it. Again. The mistake is made, and what ensues is exile from the idyllic Eden along with hard work and suffering.
And yet again I am confused. In the Garden of Eden there were two trees: one of life, and one of knowledge of good and evil. Why pick the latter? The Tree of Life sounds pretty good to me! Furthermore, Eve openly admits that she was told that she would die upon eating from the tree. If she knows that, why go ahead and eat its fruit?
Tempted as I am to blame Eve for falling prey to the Snake’s schemes and tricks, I know the story well because it is the story of humanity and temptation; we repeat it every day. The classical commentators offer competing views of the exact method the Snake used to entice her, each revealing a different facet of how human beings (like Eve) fall into making bad choices even though we knew better before we started. The following are several for consideration.
Saadia Gaon explains the line (3:1) “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as trying to sow seeds of doubt. Knowing that Eve wants to eat, he plants the question of whether this is really problematic. Maybe it is actually OK! Accordingly, Rashi explains that the Snake pushed Eve into the tree and she didn’t die from that contact; a fact she took as further confirmation that in truth it was harmless. The Ramban picks up on this and notes that when she sees that the tree (3:6) “looks good,” she is noticing that it appears to be harmless. This is an issue of desire clouding judgment: I so badly want this to be reality that I will fool myself into thinking that this course of action will not hurt me.
In contrast, Radak explains: “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as a suggestion that HaShem must hate us to deny us so. We are despised by the one that created us. We are worthless. The one who brought me into this world sees no value in my presence. In this reading we make the self-destructive choice to eat from the tree in despair and self-loathing.
Chizkuni takes a different approach, explaining the sentence “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as tempting rebellion. Who is that HaShem to be telling you what to do? God is so very restrictive! It plays to our natural desire to establish our sense of independence and individual identity, and to do the opposite of anything we are told just to make the point.
A fourth alternative is offered by Ibn Ezra, who explains “Did HaShem say you cannot eat any of the trees in the garden?” as making the demands seem unattainable. Our aspirations are way too high and beyond reach, so why bother. If you can’t do it, then you might as well give up and do whatever comes easily. Eat the fruit if it is convenient, because there is no point trying for anything better anyway.
But Eve was making a mistake: None of what the Snake tells her is actually true.
Careful thought and a few deep breaths can often restore one’s sense of judgment, as can learning not to make decisions when one isn’t thinking clearly. And we do indeed have value. We do indeed have a unique identity that results from who we are as people, not from what we do or refuse to do. And we don’t need to realize every last one of our aspirations to be a human success; partial achievement of some of them is a positive contribution. To keep our best interests at heart, we need to be cognizant of our own greatness and potential. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at Rabbi@BethJacobOakland.org.