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Godly Knowledge

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Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Rabbi Fohrman poses questions about the story of the Garden of Eden, focusing on the nature of the tree and exactly what was the knowledge of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rabbi Fohrman emphasizes that God is the one who deems something to be good, such as in creation, but he distinguishes between two types of good – good as in something one desires and good as in that which is moral and just.

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Transcript

Come with me back into the Garden for a minute. I want to start with you with the most basic, intuitive questions that you can sort of can possibly ask about this story. I've been teaching this story for a number of years, here are like the top three questions that I tend to get. The first, what exactly was the nature of this mysterious tree? A tree of knowledge of good and evil, such a strange thing, what exactly was this knowledge? The text tells us it was something Godly, the serpent says, on the day that you eat from it, you'll become like G-d, and knowing good and evil. What is this Godly kind of knowledge of good and evil? What does it really mean?Here's another question. What really was the temptation here? It just seems so easy. You and I could have withstood this test, right? You're in paradise, here are all these trees, you can have any tree that you want, the only thing you've got to do is avoid the one tree, and what happens? That's the one tree we got to eat from. I mean, why was it so hard - you can eat from everything, why do you have to have that one?

Lastly, a third question, what was G-d thinking here? Why would G-d put the tree in the garden if He really didn't want us to eat from it? What's the deal with that?

Okay, so you got it? Those are out three questions. What exactly was the nature of the tree? How could we have failed such an easy test? Why did G-d put the tree there if He doesn't want us to eat from it?

Let's try and take a stab at dealing with these three questions. We'll start with the last one and work our way backwards. Why put the tree in the Garden if He doesn't want mankind to eat from it? So let me ask you a question, you're a parent, you give a gift to a child, what do you want to see from that kid? You really want to see two things - and I think I've talked about this with you earlier, in our videos back in Parshat Bechukotai last year. The two things you want to see is (a) you want to see the kid enjoying the toy. I mean, I give you this beautiful toy, I want to see you enjoy it. The second is, I want you to understand that it came from me. Sometimes that understanding is conveyed by saying thank you, but it doesn't have to be by saying thank you, I really don't even need you to say thank you, I just need you when you play with the toy to understand that that was a gift from me. You shouldn't live in this fantasy world and think that's just the way the world is, that you have these toys, because that destroys the relationship between me and you. I gave you this gift - I want you to enjoy it, knowing that it came from me.

So now let's bring these ideas back into the Garden. G-d is our parent in heaven, we are His child, He's given us this gift, all of these trees. What does He want? He wants us to enjoy eating from all of these trees. He says; Mikol eitz hagan achal tochel - from all of these trees you shall eat, surely eat. It's the first positive command in the Torah, enjoy all these trees. He just wants us to understand that the trees came from Him. How do we convey that understanding? There's one tree that's His; by honoring the prohibition not to partake of G-d's own tree, that's the way we convey our understanding that we're guests in the garden, that we're not the owners, that we're there at G-d's pleasure. That what He's given us with all these trees are His gifts, and when we enjoy them, we're enjoying what He has lovingly bestowed to us.

Okay, now that we've now laid this groundwork we're in a position to answer the question, what was the temptation to eat from that one tree we weren't supposed to eat from? The temptation was, to see yourself as the owner of the garden. You know, it's not so convenient to acknowledge you're a guest. If I'm a guest it can all be taken away from me at some point. If I'm a guest I owe gratitude, I'm indebted to you, it's not so comfortable to always feel like I'm indebted to you. It's much more fun to be able to pretend that it's all mine. The temptation to eat from that one last tree is the temptation to masquerade as G-d, as the owner of the garden, to pretend if only for a moment that it's all mine, that it can't be taken away, that I'm not beholden to the giver. It's the temptation to play G-d.

Now we're in a position to answer the first of the questions we raised with respect to the tree of knowledge, what's the nature of this mysterious, Godly knowledge? If it's just about avoiding one tree that G-d set aside for Himself, it could have been any tree, it could have been the purple, pink and polka dotted, speckled tree, why does it have to a be a tree of knowledge of good and evil?

So let me articulate a theory for you, it goes like this. One of the great mistakes we make when we read this story is that we over think it. Yes, there's this Godly knowledge so we have to think about very deep, theological issues, we have to imagine how a being outside in space and time, who we can't touch, can't feel, would see good and evil. But that's very hard to do.

There's another very simple way and it's to assume that the Torah gives you all the facts you need to know to understand it right here. So let's assume that that's true for a minute. Let's ask ourselves, here I am, I'm reading just the first couple of chapters of the Book of Genesis and I get to the story of the tree of knowledge, what are the only things I really know about G-d? I really only know two things about Him, I know that He's the creator and I know that He's the one who keeps on saying Tov and Lo Tov - good and not good. Yes, after every day of creation; Vayar Elokim ki tov - and G-d saw that it was good. And, when G-d created man; Lo tov heyot adam levado - it's not good for a man to be alone. G-d really is the knower of good and not good, that's the only thing He ever says in the process of creation.

Let's look at this a little bit more closely. What does it mean when G-d declares something to be good or not good, or even bad - Rah? Think about when G-d did declare something bad, that happened right before the flood. Instead of; Vayar Elokim ki tov - and G-d saw that it was good, we have; Vayar Elokim ki - and G-d saw that; Rabah ra'at ha'adam ba'aretz - the evil of man was very great and G-d decided to destroy them. Seeing something as bad if you're the creator means I'm not going to keep it around anymore, I'm going to get rid of it. Seeing something as good as I'm the creator, says yeah, I'll keep it. Seeing something as Lo Tov - not good enough, means it needs improvement. Lo tov heyot adam levado - it's not good for man to be alone, oh I'm going to make it better, I'm going to give him a mate.

Those are the three possible grades: good, not good enough and bad. If you think about those grades that's the responsibility of a creator towards its creation. Whenever you create you have to evaluate, do I think it's good what I have created? Do I think it's not so good? Should I keep it around? Should I get rid of it? Should I change it? That's Godly knowledge though, it's not human knowledge, it's the business of a creator to do that, it's not the business of a creature of the created.

You know, there are certain decisions you get to make as a creature, as the created one, but one of them isn't this is the way things should be, this is the way the world should be. You know, I often give the monopoly board analogy to creature and creator. Little hat and little shoe as they go round the board they get to decide whether to build a house on Park Place, but they don't get to decide whether Park Place should be on that side of the board or this side of the board. Only Parker gets to decide that, right? The game is made by Parker Brothers.

Now I think we can understand why eating from the tree is so terribly disastrous. Because Godly knowledge in the hands of mankind is knowledge that doesn't belong and knowledge that quite literally becomes the root of all human evil. You don't need to be a great theologian to understand that, it's all very intuitive. Here's why. What does eating from the tree do for you? It gives you the feeling that you see things as a creator does. That you too can make judgments, this is the way the world should be and this is the way it shouldn't be. You have the power to pronounce Tov and Rah as the creator does.

But there's a problem here, there's a confusion here, because we human beings - there's another kind of Tov and Rah that we're familiar with, the Tov and Rah of desire. See Tov and Rah have two meanings, Tov can mean good in the sense of moral right and just, but it could also mean good as in the way I like it, the way I desire things. The macaroni and cheese is good doesn't mean that its nutritional value is good necessarily, it means that I like it, it comports with my desire. The broccoli is bad is not a judgment about the broccoli in any objective kind of way, it's a judgment about me, what I like and what I don't like. I don't like it, it's bad. Human beings, well we're very familiar with the Tov and Rah of desires, but now when we think we can pronounce Tov and Rah as in the way things should be, we can very easily confuse the two and mix up one for the other.

No greater example of this than the moment that Eve reaches for the tree itself. Listen to the words of the verse; Vatereh ha'isha ki tov ha'eitz lema'achal - and the woman saw that the tree was good to eat. What kind of good? Well obviously the context of the verse is, the desire kind of good, it was good to eat, she liked it and it was appealing. But listen to the words; Vatereh ha'isha ki tov - that's just the feminine form of; Vayar Elokim ki tov - and G-d saw that it was good.

The woman saw that it was good to eat, so what kind of good are we talking about? There's a part of her, a part of mankind that when you look at the thing that you want to eat, says, this is the way it should be, I should be allowed to have this. Because I want it, that's the way it should be. In that kind of world, I can rationalize anything. In that kind of world I'm never wrong, because whatever I want that's the way it should be.

You know, one of the really maddening things about living in the post-tree world is that no one ever thinks they're wrong anymore, no one ever thinks they're evil. You can meet the most evil guy in the world, they don't think they're evil, they think they're doing the world a favor. Hitler himself kills six million Jews and that's the way the world should be. Desire can now hide behind a smokescreen. It never reveals itself for what it is anymore. It dresses up all high and mighty. There's the other kind of good, the just and moral and true kind of good. This is the distortion of the post-tree world.

It has so many real-world consequences, I mean every day, it's not just Hitler and Stalin that become possible through this, the destruction of all our interpersonal relationships comes through this. Think about the natural inability to compromise, where does that come from? I get into an argument with you, why is it so hard to get out of arguments? Why is it so hard to compromise? Well you know if I understand that I'm little hat and I have one perspective, and that you're little shoe and that you have another perspective, so then we can compromise. But if I'm little hat and I think I'm Parker, I have THE way of looking at it, ah, how can I compromise? I mean, the truth is with me, I'd be giving in on the truth, I can't lie. I should back down from what I know to be true and right and good because, what, just to get along with you? Our propensity to dress up our own self-interest, our own desires, in the noble robes of principle and justice and truth and righteousness, is a very poisonous thing.

This easy conflation of the two kinds of good - desire and that which is noble, right and true is the greatest struggle in the Megillah too. Let's go back now to read the Megillah and focus once more on that strange comparison the Sages make between Adam and Haman. What might they mean by that? Let's see.

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