The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
The second chapter in the book of Genesis presents us with a vision of human existence that is primeval and idyllic. Adam, who is created first, tends to the Garden of Eden in peaceful solitude. God tells Adam that he is free to eat from any tree in the garden he chooses, as long as it is not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “For as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Gen. 2:17).
God does not think it is good for the man to be alone, so God brings into being other creatures to keep Adam company: “wild beasts and all the birds of the sky” (Gen. 2:19), according to the text. The man gives names to all the living creatures and lives among them. God, however, decides that creation is not yet complete and that Adam needs a different, more suitable companion. God casts a deep sleep over the man, removes one of his ribs, and forms a woman from it.
Adam and his wife (she does not yet have a name in the narrative) live, naked and without shame, in the Garden of Eden. Eventually, they encounter a mysterious serpent, who informs them that if they eat of the tree in the middle of the garden, they will not die, as God had warned Adam earlier. Instead, the serpent tells them, their eyes will be opened and they will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil.
The man and woman eat the fruit of the forbidden tree: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (Gen. 3:7).
Things have changed suddenly and dramatically for the first two human beings. They now possess moral sensibility. They feel self-conscious.
Yet their lives are about to change even more dramatically.
When the man and woman hear the voice of God “moving about” in the garden, they hide among the trees. As they cower in fear and shame, God calls out to Adam and his wife, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). It seems to be a leading question that has as much to do with the couple’s existential state as it does with their location.
Adam tells God that he was afraid because of his nakedness, and God asks Adam if he has eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Acknowledging their transgression but avoiding an admission of guilt, Adam blames his wife, while the woman blames the serpent.
Then God asks another question, this one more multilayered than the first: “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 3:13).
A professor of mine in rabbinical school called this the most profound question ever asked in human history.
What is it that Adam and Eve have done, and why?
There is only one prohibition in the entire story of creation, and the first man and woman both break it. Is God’s question an expression of incredulity and disappointment? Is it an outburst of anger? Is it a rhetorical device meant to brace them for what follows?
Whatever God’s intent, the punishment for their rebellion is severe: Eve and all women who come after her will suffer pain during childbirth, and Adam and all men who follow him will have to toil for food throughout their lives. And all human beings will die.
Adam and Eve have lost a paradise. The couple seems to have had it all in the Garden of Eden: serenity, innocence and a personal relationship with God.
The consequences for their sin of disobedience are greater than pain in childbirth and the need to work for food: Death has become a permanent part of the human condition for the first time, and the nature of existence has changed irrevocably. To prevent them from eating of the other tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of life, and becoming immortal (and more like God), Adam and Eve are banished from Eden forever. The cost of free will and unrestrained curiosity is a life of detachment and alienation from their Creator.
Adam and Eve are punished not just for disobedience and defiance, but for striving to know things that are forbidden to them. The story asks, and raises, critical questions: Are some types of knowledge too dangerous for human beings to possess? How far are we allowed to go in our inquiries about the world and ourselves?
In light of the reality of death and the fissure in the divine-human relationship, the enormity of what has been lost is self-evident.
Yet what has been gained?
As a consequence of Adam and Eve’s behavior — and the ingestion of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — humans evolve from a state of ethical indifference about the world to a place of moral discrimination.
In exercising freedom of choice, Adam and Eve commit a grave transgression. Yet they also become capable of making choices that are virtuous.
In classical Christian theology, all human beings are viewed as inherently sinful because of the actions of Adam and Eve (an idea known as “original sin”). In contrast, Jewish thought, while conceding the human impulse toward evil (yetzer ha-ra), also affirms our impulse toward good (yetzer ha-tov). Each human being is responsible for his or her own moral character and existential destiny.
Eating the forbidden fruit leads to mortality and alienation. Yet humanity’s defiance of the divine command also results in liberation and growth. By acting with free will, Adam and Eve begin the process of individuation from God, psychologically and existentially. They are now on their own. They, like each of us, are now ready to go forth into the unknown.