Why Would God Not Want Us To Eat From a Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil?
The Beast That Crouches At The Door Revisited
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The beginning of the book of Genesis is filled with stories that defy the imagination. A walking, talking snake. A mysterious tree of knowledge that can discern between Good and Evil. These stories are so unusual, and yet because we are so familiar with them from childhood we barely give pause to how unusual they really are. We don't think to stop and ask, wait, how can the snake be speaking, and does God really not want mankind to be able to distinguish between right and wrong?
These questions and more are asked and answered in one of Rabbi Fohrman's earliest books, The Beast That Crouches at the Door. And like any good subject, the answers continue to evolve even after the book has been published.
The following lecture is an epilogue to The Beast That Crouches at the Door. With further Torah study Rabbi Fohrman finds new answers to some of his original questions, and even finds the courage to ask new questions - and offer innovative answers, answers that redefine what it means for man to have a loving relationship with God.
Rabbi Fohrman: Welcome. It's great to be here. For those of you who are farther back, you're welcome to come in and come closer. You can hang out there. Either way, plenty of good seats up front.
I want to, if I can, just dedicate this talk to the memory of my recently deceased grandmother, Freida bas Moshe Elya. Lived a wonderful and full life in San Mateo, California, for 70 years. Just passed away at the age of 97. Very dear to my heart and it's an honor to be able to dedicate this to her. Thank you.
So when I got this invitation to speak to you today, the invitation came with a request. The request was to talk about my book, The Beast That Crouches at the Door, which I published about 12 years ago or so. This is the latest version of it over here. I accepted that request, but I accepted it with trepidation. The reason is because at some level once you publish something you move on. The truth is there's a ‑‑ as wonderful as it is to publish a book, there is a certain kind of sadness that goes along with it, which I'd like to describe.
Which is that the nature of thought is it's dynamic, you never stop thinking. The decision to publish a book is in some sense random. At some point, you just decide let me write this down. But thought is evolving and your thoughts always revolve and all you can write down is what you happen to be thinking at that time.
So 12 years ago I wrote this book and put down my current way of thinking of things. Then, over the next 12 years I gradually began to see my thinking evolve more and more, until, you know, well, much of it fits with the book that I wrote, much of it is new as well.
So what I'm going to talk to you today is not just about the book. I'm not just going to sort of rehash the arguments in the book. The book is there, and I did the best job I could with it and you can find your way to it on Amazon or at your local Hebrew bookstore, to see what I said there.
What I'd like to do with you today is to kind of chart my thinking over the last 12 years about the issues that I raised in that book. Kind of give you an update on my thinking process. I'm going to do something a little bit risky here as I try to do that. Which is there's different ways to organize a talk. You can craft a talk with your questions and bring everything together around a certain idea, and you can craft a talk in a conceptual order.
What I'm going to do here is craft this talk in chronological order. So what I'm actually going to try to do is sort of share with you the evolution of my thinking over the last 12 years. Kind of like what changed and what was added, and where things went over time.
So we'll see how it goes, but let me dive in and take a shot at doing that. If you have a handout, if you have a Chumash in front of you, you're good. If not, I'll just quote as needed.
So I want to begin with five questions. Three of the questions are questions that I addressed in the book and that over time I have started to think about things a bit differently about. Two of the questions were questions that I had at the time the book was written, but didn't talk about them in the book. Why don't you talk about a question you have in the book? Probably because you don't have an answer to it yet, so you just kind of keep it to yourself. So in full disclosure, let me raise these five questions with you.
Here is one question that I had at the time, but didn't put in the book. The question is the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, obviously centers around the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree is mysterious. It seems to bequeath a certain kind of knowledge, a kind of knowledge of good and evil. One of the issues which I talked about in the book is how is it that ‑‑ how exactly is it that eating from the tree changes our understanding of a good and evil? It seems like we have some kind of understanding of right and wrong going in to the Garden, and you eat from the tree and somehow that understanding of right and wrong gets transformed. That's at least the way the Rambam sees it.
One question which I had at the time, but never really asked, is how exactly does the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil work? What I mean by that, it's a little bit of a strange question, but a lot of the strange things in the Torah like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, even like the Tree of Life, other things. One of the things you can ask them is are they magic or is there a certain kind of rhyme and reason to how they work?
So the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you eat from this tree and it seems like magically your understanding of right and wrong becomes transformed, right? It's magic. You eat from the tree and it's almost like God took His magic wand and with a puff of orange smoke the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil got these amazing sort of Divine qualities and has the ability to do something which normal trees don't.
When I normally eat from a tree it doesn't change the way I think about right and wrong, but this tree is different. God touched it with His magic wand, he bequeathed it with a generous puff of orange smoke, and somehow it has the magical quality of somehow changing our perspective on morality when we eat from it. That's kind of the way you understand the story as you read it.
I want to suggest a possible alternative. Which is what if there was a kind of rhyme or reason that explained how it is that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil worked? What if there was some sort of rational mechanism of how it did its job? Could we understand the special, you know, nature of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in some way that makes sense in a rational kind of way? That's question Number 1.
Three more questions which I raised in the book, but over time started thinking about it in a little bit different ways. One of the strange things about eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is what it does for you.
Normally, you would think you eat from a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and what would the first think that would happen be? You would get wise, or if a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, your mind would be filled with all of these moral dilemmas. Ten people in a lifeboat, but it's sinking and you all drown unless you throw somebody off, what should you do? Abortion; right to life, right to have a choice. You know what I mean? Your mind is filled with all of these dilemmas. That's what you would think would happen after you eat from the tree.
But what actually happens to Adam and Eve after they eat from the tree? They get dressed. It's kind of weird, right? They realize that they're naked and they become very nervous about that. They hide because they were naked, which is kind of weird, you know? Why is it that eating from a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of all things, has that consequence? Never in a million years would you think that consciousness of nakedness, discomfort with nakedness would be a consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It just seems very strange.
Here you are, Adam and Eve, and you're hiding behind a bush after eating from the tree. An enterprising reporter from a local television station approaches you and asks you, excuse me. I noticed that you're crouching behind a tree and hiding, could you please explain to me why it is that you're doing this. You say, well, it's because I'm naked. It's like, well, didn't God ‑‑ God knew you were naked before, it wasn't a problem before, what changed exactly? How would Adam answer that question? So how do we understand the connection between eating from the tree and discomfort with nakedness, is Question 2.
Question 3 is kind of related to it, is something about the snake. The snake is described as crafty, but in Hebrew there's a word for crafty. Does anybody know what it is? Arom. Now, arom is one of those words that has different meanings, Ayin‑Reish‑Vav‑Mem. Beside from being crafty, what else does Ayin‑Reish‑Vav‑Mem mean? It means naked. That's kind of weird, right? Nakedness is really important in the story and all of a sudden, the Torah uses it to mean crafty. Was there something about the snake that was naked? How do we deal with that?
This is an issue which I dealt with in the book, but I think it continues to be an issue and I raise it to you here. How do you understand the two meanings of arom as crafty and naked, or sly and naked? How do those two things relate to each other around the snake?
The third question which I raised in the book, a third point which I raised in the book that I want to reprise with you and come back is a point that the Rambam makes, more or less, in the Moreh Nevuchim. To kind of put it in contemporary terms, when you think about the two kinds of moral knowledge that we have or the two ways of thinking about good and evil. One way to wrap your head around that is to think about good and evil or good and bad, itself is having two meanings.
On the one hand, good and bad has a moral connotation. Good can mean morally good, and bad can mean morally reprehensible. That's one meaning of the terms good and bad. But those aren't the only meanings of the terms good and bad. When you say the macaroni and cheese is good, and the broccoli is bad, you're not making a moral judgement about the reprehensibility of the broccoli, right, that's not what you're doing. What do you mean when you say the macaroni and cheese is good and the broccoli is bad? What do you mean? You mean, you don't like the broccoli. It means you like the macaroni and cheese.
Interesting kind of way when you talk about good and evil in those kinds of ways, even though it looks like you're talking about the macaroni and cheese, what you're really talking about is yourself. I like the macaroni and cheese, I don't like the broccoli, but you ascribe it to the broccoli, to the macaroni and cheese.
The Rambam somehow talks about eating from the tree as creating some sort of confusion within us between these two kinds of good, these two kinds of bad. Confusing the morally objective good and bad with the I like it kind of good and bad. That kind of being the root of all evil, in some sense. I want to try to get our arms around that and specifically, to ask this question.
It sort of goes back to the nature of the tree. Again, is the tree magic? Is there something about eating from this magical tree that somehow plays with our mind and starts to get us confused about these two kinds of good and two kinds of bad? Or is there something that we can sort of make sense of as to why eating from the tree would do such a thing and what the consequences of that confusion might be?
Okay. So these are some of the issues that I want to reprise with you, and then some are new. Again, how does the Tree of Knowledge get to be the Tree of Knowledge? Does it work magically? Is there some sort of logic behind it?
Then, sort of three more questions. Why is fear and shame associated with nakedness after eating from the tree? Why should that be a thing? Arom and arom, why is it that the snake's craftiness is described in the same way as the nakedness, which is somehow in the center of the story? Then, how do we understand this transition between these two kinds of good and two kinds of bad having to do with his objective moral sense of things, and also what I like and what I don't like? How does all that fit together?
Okay. So with that in the background, let me launch you in a little bit of a travel log of my thinking over the last 12 years, and where I'm currently at. We can convene again in another 12 years and I can let you know where I am then, but here's where I am for now.
So where I am for now is the following. I'm going to give you a theory and gently explain a sort of first update in my thinking. The fun thing is if you want to you can actually go back into Aleph Beta and you could actually watch videos which will chart each of these stages. So I can refer you to one. If you go to Aleph Beta, our website. It's also an app, so if you have a smartphone you just download it. It's a free app. Torah videos by Aleph Beta, or Aleph Beta.
Anyway, if you go to the app, you'll find that there's a video that we did, that I did around Purim time, about five‑six years ago, that had to do with the Tree of Knowledge and Haman. That was its key. What I'm going to argue to you now was kind of the theory that I develop over there. Here's how the theory goes.
The theory starts with one more question, a sixth question. Maybe the most basic question you can ask about the story at all. It is a question that I had when I wrote the book, but again, I did not include in the book. The reason I didn't include it was because I didn't have an answer for it. It's something that people would always ask, and I always frankly just kind of poo‑poohed the question and never really dealt with it. But full disclosure, I'm going to put that question out there.
What's the most basic question you can ask about the story of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The most basic question. The most basic question, I think, is this. The story rides on the idea that God doesn't want us eating from this tree, right, this is a bad tree. A tree that we aren't supposed to eat from, for some reason. So the second most basic question is why? What's wrong with the tree? Having a knowledge of good and evil is like a good thing.
Most people would like a knowledge of good and evil. We consider people to be more mature if they understand the difference between right and wrong. Why would God want to keep us away from something which is a good thing? That's a basic question, but it's the second most basic question of the story.
The first most basic question is, okay, fine. For some reason, God doesn't want us to eat from the tree, let's just accept that. But now the problem is if God really didn't want you to eat from this tree why would you put it in the Garden in the first place? That's not a very nice thing to do. It feels like this capricious test, where you're putting this little chocolate chip cookie right in the middle of the kitchen and you're telling Bobby, you better not eat that chocolate chip cookie. Well, if you really don't want Bobby to eat the chocolate chip cookie, maybe you shouldn't leave it out on the counter.
So this is, I think, the most basic question you can ask about the story. Never really had a good answer to it. Why? Because what's the conventional answer to this? The conventional answer is it was a test. But if you think about it, that's not really an answer because this question just comes back, right. If it's a test or if you want to be really philosophical and, you know, you can say, well, people had to have a choice and you can't have a choice without the possibility of evil. So I'm putting the possibility of evil there.
Okay. I get it, but it's still seems capricious, right? It still seems like, okay, you want me to have a test. So you're going to set me up in paradise. You're going to construct this little test and there's really nothing about the tree that you really care about. You just had to have a test and I failed the test. So I didn't run your gauntlet properly, I didn't do your obstacle course. So sue me. It just seems capricious to just ‑‑ do you understand what I'm saying? Group therapy session. Do you hear what I'm saying? Did this ever bother you? People said, well, it's a test. Okay. But do I really want to worship the God who's just interested in testing me all the time.
Putting me in gardens and testing me, that's what it's really all about? So it just doesn't seem nice. So how do we deal with that? So that kind of got me thinking.
Here's sort of update number one to the book. What if you started to think about the story this way? You say, okay. Here's this garden. There's all these trees that are available to eat. One of the interesting things about the trees is that if you look carefully at the language, if you look in the text you'll notice this. That people are mistaken about what the very first command is. We think that the very first command is don't eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In fact, that's not true because in the very same verse that says don't eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, before you get to that restriction you get to something else. Which is eat from all the other trees, and that's phrased in the positive imperative. So the way it's phrased is, "mikol eitz ha'gan achol tochal," from all the trees of the Garden you should eat ‑‑ yes, eat. Well, what's that doing? That's also a command. There's just one tree that you're not supposed to eat from.
So really, if you start thinking of Tree of Knowledge on its own, that's not the way to think about it. You have to think about it with these other trees. So when you put it together, you say, okay, what sort of system is it where God really wants me to eat from all of these delicious trees in paradise? The blueberry trees, the banana trees. To taste all of these delicious fruits, but there's one tree, His tree, the special tree that He doesn't want me eating from.
So that led me to a theory which I affectionately call Bobby, Grandpa and the Lego battleship. Here's how it goes. Imagine you're Grandpa and you come to visit your trustee grandson Bobby. You love Bobby. So you want to give Bobby a gift because that's what Grandpas do when they visit their grandchildren. So I want to give Bobby this wonderful gift and I go and I buy this really huge Lego battleship for Bobby and I wrap it up. I present it to Bobby.
You're Grandpa. What do you want to see Bobby do when I present the gift to him? What would you like if you're a Grandpa? You want him to open it up and play with it. You want him to be delighted with it. Now, would that be enough? You also want something else, right? What else would you like? You'd love it if he would say thank you. So these two things.
Now, I just want to point out to you why it is that you want those two things, and how either one wouldn't be good enough. What if Bobby says, oh, thank you, Grandpa, thank you, but never plays with the battleship? Runs out, puts it on a shelf, plays with his friends, never pays attention to the battleship. How do you feel? Kind of bad. I bought you this battleship, I really want to see you enjoy it.
Okay. But what if Bobby totally enjoys the battleship but never says thank you? What if he just unwraps it and gets himself involved in the battleship and he never even make eye contact with you for the rest of your week‑long visit? It's like you don't exist. The only thing that exists is the battleship. How do you feel now? Not so great, also, right?
Now, what if I'm your psychiatrist and I say to you, come on, it's Bobby. He's happy. What more do you want? Why are so egotistical? You need your thank you? What would you say? You would say I want the connection. It's not like the thank you, I just don't want to be ignored. It's not so much that I need the words thank you, I just need that when Bobby plays with his battleship he should understand that it came from me. Because a gift, right, he should love me when he plays with the battleship.
In other words, it shouldn't be that Bobby sort of gets lost in an illusion, which is my room came with battleships. You know what I mean? He shouldn't think that. He should understand and not take for granted the battleship. I don't need thank you, I need anything that would work to satisfy this condition, Bobby understands the battleship came from me. That's really what I need. Thank you is one way of doing it.
So it turns out in the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God is Grandpa, we're Bobby and the battleship are all these other trees. These gifts, God wants to give us all these gifts. The only thing is He'd love us to understand that the gifts came from Him and not to eventually to delude ourselves into thinking that our room come with battleships. Which is that our Garden comes with trees. It doesn't come with trees, the trees were gifts.
How is God going to engineer that? God's going to say I don't even need thank you from you. I just need one other thing. There's one tree that's off limits. It's my tree, it's off limits. Don't eat from that tree. Now you see the thing, if Bobby doesn't eat from that tree, what does that show? That he understands that he's not the master of the Garden. He understands it's not just the way it is that he can do everything. He understands he's a guest in the Garden, there's the master of the Garden who makes the rules. So he gets it that the other trees came from Me. So it works kind of elegantly, it works kind of nice.
So it's an intriguing kind of theory of what God's doing. It explains, to an extent, why the tree is there. Why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is there. It's there, under this theory, not to be eaten from. But it's there so that Bobby can understand that all the other trees are gifts.
Okay. But that theory would give rise to another question. Which is if that's the only way that you understand the story, why does the tree that's off limits have to be called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Do you understand? It could be any tree. Under this theory, it could be the pink polka‑dotted and speckled tree. The identity of the tree doesn't really make a difference.
So it sounds like that's not true. It sounds like the identity of the tree is important. Here's this tree that's off limits and has a certain unusual quality to it. It's a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. How does that fit into the picture? How does it get to be a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?
Participant: (Inaudible 00:25:03).
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Good. So you already begin to see, by not eating from the tree he understands that eating from the tree would be wrong. Why would it be wrong? Because it would contravene what God said. So he has a certain basic understanding of right and wrong.
Now let's talk about what happens if he contravenes that and eats from the tree. Before we do that, let me just ask you to meditate for a moment upon these words good and evil. What if I was attacking the story for the very first time and I'm trying to understand the meaning of this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I'm not such a philosopher, I haven't read the Rambam and I have read Descartes. I'm just a simple guy and I'm looking at this story, and I just want to know what in the world is this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What's the meaning of good and evil with reference to the tree?
What would be the most logical way, as a reader of the Torah, to begin to understand what this tree might mean? Here I am, I'm reading ‑‑ right, I'm a reader of the Torah. I started with Genesis 1, I'm up to Genesis 3 and I get to this strange Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, I want to know what it means. What would I do to find out?
You would do whatever you do when you get to a word that's unfamiliar. What do you do ‑‑ and here the unfamiliar words are tov and ra. What do you do when you get to unfamiliar words? You see where else they're used and you try to figure out what they mean. So I've read three chapters. Let me draw on my understanding thus far, the first three chapters, to see how else these words are used.
Has the word tov ever been used before in the Torah before Chapter 3? Of course it's been used, all over the place. It's the word God says whenever He finishes creating something. "Va'yar Elokim ki tov," He sees that it is good. Okay. So far so good.
Has the word ra been used before? Interestingly not, so I'm a little stuck when it comes to ra, but tov, at least, I know is the word that God says, "va'yar Elokim ki tov." Actually, kind of interestingly, when Eve looks at the tree, her looking at the tree is, "va'teira ha'ishah ki tov ha'eitz l'ma'achal," which sure reminds you of what? "Va'teira ha'ishah ki tov," sounds a lot like "va'yar Elokim ki tov." It's almost like she's occupying a God‑like role in some way in contemplating eating from the tree.
So let's understand why that might be. So tov gets used before, ra doesn't get used before, but something sort of similar to ra gets used before. "Lo tov." Where do we have lo tov in the Torah before Chapter 3? "Lo tov heyot ha'adam l'vado," God says when He looks at man all alone. It's not good for man to be alone. Now, what did God do after He said "lo tov heyot ha'adam l'vado?" He went about creating somebody else to fix the problem.
So we can begin to fill in the picture over here, especially because if we look at ra, ra hasn't appeared yet va'yar Elokim ki ra, but you do have va'yar Elokim ki ra a little bit later in the Torah, don't you? Where do have a va'yar Elokim ki ra? "Va'yar Elokim ki rabah ra'at ha'adam ba'aretz va'yitatzev el libo," is the prelude to the Flood. So what happens when God looks at the world and finds it ra? He destroys it.
Now, we have some understanding what these words mean. What does it mean when God looks at something and thinks it's tov? What's going to happen? He's going to keep it around. What's going to happen when He looks at something and thinks it's ra? He's going to get rid of it. What's going to happen when He looks at something and says it's lo tov, it's not good? He's going to fix it.
So there is basically three grades that the Creator is giving creation. The grades are pass, fail and needs improvement. Those are the grades, basically, that's what it is. Pass is good, I'll keep it, ra is no, I'll get rid of it, and needs improvement is lo tov, it's not good, let's see what we could do to make things better. These three grades are the grades that a Creator gives to creation. That's important.
What about being the Creator makes Me the one who should be dispensing these grades to stuff in the world? A couple of things. First of all, I'm the one who created it so I'm kind of responsible for it. So if I'm responsible for it, I don't want to bring bad stuff into the word. So therefore, one responsibility of any creator, human or Divine, is to evaluate their creation. So when I'm done creating stuff I have to look at it and say, so is it good or not? That is a responsibility that every creator has, and hence, when God creates stuff, He has to look and evaluate it to make sure that it is in fact good and should be kept.
But not only does the creator have the responsibility to evaluate his creation, he's also, in a way, the only one who's trusted to evaluate it. Because where is the creator with reference to creation? Outside of it, by definition. The creator is outside of creation.
I often give the analogy of a Monopoly board, Parker. Imagine little hat and little shoe making their way around the Monopoly board. Little hat has a question for little shoe, and says, so do you believe in Parker? It says right over here on the side of the board, made by Parker Brothers. Do you believe in Parker? So little shoe says, I guess so. Little hat says, well, I'm a Parker atheist. I actually don't believe in Parker. So little shoes says, well, how come?
He says, well, I've been around here a long time, you know. Every week I pass Go, I collect $200. I've seen it all. I've been to Tennessee Avenue, Park Place, Chance, Free Parking. I've even been to jail. I've never seen Parker. So I'm a Parker atheist, I don't believe in Parker.
So what would you say to little hat? You'd say, little hat, you've been looking for Parker in all the wrong places. Parker doesn't live on the board, Parker made the board. He's the creator, so he's obviously outside the system he makes.
Now, because of that, because God is outside the system, you can trust Him. Do you understand? Who would you trust to make the rules of Monopoly? Little hat and little shoe? No, you're going to trust Parker. Why? Because Parker doesn't have any skin in the game, he's not on the board. So Parker is going to make the trusted rules. He's going to decide what should go, what should stay. How the game works, how it should be played.
What would happen if little hat made the rules? You wouldn't want to play Monopoly anymore because he would roll the dice and he would land on jail, he would say jail isn't really jail, it's Free Parking. I get to collect $500, everything in the pot. You say, no, it's not far. Well, it is, that's the way I see it, that's the way it should be. That's the problem with anybody but Parker making the rules.
Hence, that's why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is off limits. If the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is somehow this capacity or this impetus to look at things and declare them good or declare them evil, whose job is that? That's the Creator's job and it isn't our job. We have skin in the game, we're biased. Because we're biased we can't be trusted.
Now you begin to see some of the connections between the two kinds of good and the two kinds of bad. You understand? Because why is it that you can't trust little shoe to make the decisions about good and bad? The answer is because little shoe's going to try his best to decide what is objectively the right thing to do. The only problem is little shoe has an inherent bias, he wants to win the game. So if little shoe's not careful he starts getting confused between what is objectively the right thing to do for the rules of Monopoly and what's good for him. Do you understand?
The two kinds of good start to get confused in his mind. Whenever he decides this is the way the rules should be you could always ask about him which kind of good do you mean? Which kind of bad do you mean? Are you so sure that you're deciding the way things should be on the board, maybe you're just making a rule that's in your self‑interest. How do you even know?
Now, let's get to the question that I asked. So we would understand, perhaps, why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil has to be there. We would understand why the tree that's off limits has to be a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that's off limits, that's the one thing that the people shouldn't be doing.
But now let's get to the question of what's the mechanism of the tree? How does the tree work? Is it that God sort of uses his magic wand and bestows the tree with fairy dust, and when you eat from the tree you magically think that you have the right to make decisions between good and evil? I think we're now far enough along that you can sort of see a rational path to how the tree becomes the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, even without any fairy dust, and even without any magic wands.
The act of disobedience. The mere act of reaching for that tree ‑‑ if you could interview Adam when he reaches for the tree. You would say, but one second, didn't God say don't eat from that tree? What would Adam say? Well, sure, God said don't eat from the tree, but I think maybe it's a good thing to eat from. I think maybe I should have that tree too.
So in the act of reaching for that tree, what is Adam doing? Replacing the creator of you, of good and evil, with his own. Hence, of course the tree is a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it's just a regular tree. It could well be no different than any other tree of the Garden, but the fact that God said that's my tree, and it's the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it becomes a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
When you reach for it, what are you saying? I'm the one who gets to decide the way things go around here. Which is you occupying the God role of the arbiter of good and evil. So it works kind of elegantly.
So if you want to see this, you can look at the Purim video, Tree of Knowledge and Haman. So I did that a few years ago. What I'd like to do with the balance of my time is to update you on where my thinking has gone from there because there's still a little bit of a nagging question on that theory that I want to share with you, and it leads somewhere else.
Here's the issue. According to the theory I just described to you ‑‑ let's just take the Bobby, Grandpa and the battleship theory. It's a very nice situation. Grandpa's a very loving grandpa. He's giving you this very loving gift. All he's asking is one little thing, just one little thing, could you please just stay away from that one tree over there. It's not for you. One little thing. What do we do? We have to like ‑‑ we can't deal with that, no. We have to go and take the one little thing.
My question just is can we ask why? It seems like such a simple request. It seems like something that most of us would be able to handle. You have a loving grandfather, he loves you. He wants to give you battleships. He's giving you all these delicious trees. He just wants you to understand that the stuff is coming from him, so why can't you deal with that? Just deal with it. Eat from all the trees. It's so hard, you have to go and specifically make a bee‑line for the one tree? What are you? Some kind of delinquent? Why do you, you know ‑‑ like was Adam so crazy? We wouldn't do that, why do that? You understand? Why do that? Why disobey? Where does the desire to disobey come from?
A second nagging question that kind of bothered me. Which is that this theory, as attractive as it is, it doesn't feel to me like it fully answers the most basic of all questions. The most basic of all questions, again, is if you really didn't want people to eat from the tree, why put it there in the first place?
Let me explain to you why I don't think it fully answers that question. It sort of answers the question. There is a function for this tree. It's not to be eaten from. It's a tree that is not to be eaten from, so that I can understand the gifts of all the other trees. I get that. But still, there's something inelegant about creating a tree with luscious fruits and wonderful leaves, whose whole purpose in life is not to be eaten from. What a waste. Do you understand?
Like it still feels kind of curmudgeonly. It feels kind of capricious. Do you know what I mean? Like let's talk about Grandpa for a moment, and I hope I'm not too cynical over here because I'm a new grandpa myself. So thinking cynically about Grandpa. Oh, so you have your rules, Grandpa. You specifically want Bobby to jump through all the hoops and do it exactly the right way because you can't handle it. If Bobby would just enjoy the stupid battleship that you're giving because you need him to say thank you, and just the perfect way, otherwise you're going to get really mad and toss him out of the Garden.
It's like Grandpa doesn't seem so nice, you know. How come Grandpa can't just sort of deal with it if Bobby doesn't get it exactly right, he's got to make the special tree that's not to be eaten from. And still, in a certain kind of way, Grandpa seems faintly narcissistic in this picture because what is Grandpa really interested in? Grandpa says I want my relationship with Bobby. Yeah, your relationship with Bobby has to be just perfect. You want your relationship with Bobby. You want Bobby to love you in just the right way.
But that's not the way love really works. Anybody who's an actual grandparent or an actual parent knows that's not really the way love works. Love ‑‑ there's something actually unconditional about love. When you really love someone ‑‑ you actually love them, and if they don't do it exactly the right way you still can find your way to loving them.
So what's the deal with this tree that's not supposed to be eaten from? It just still seems a little strange.
Participant: (Inaudible 00:41:53).
Rabbi Fohrman: Right. So understand, I get it. It sort of works. That you can view ‑‑ I can say one of my roles as a parent is education. It's up to me to educate the child. I'm trying to educate the child with gratitude. It's ultimately good for the child. I understand. It just sounds a little sophomoric because that's only one of the jobs of a parent or grandparent. The other job of a parent or grandparent is if I actually love you, do you understand? It's not just I'm here to educate you, I'm not just the great teacher in the sky as a parent, I'm also somebody who cares about you a little bit. So where is the care? How exactly does it work?
So I want to suggest a slight modification of the theory, which I think is particularly elegant. It's kind of where my head is at now, and I'll close with trying elucidate this second update of the theory for you.
The proof for it, I don't have time to get into it right now exactly. There's some interesting proof of this in Shir Hashirim, but that's an entirely separately schmooze that would take as an hour and a half on its own, so I'm not going to go there. So I'm just going to kind of get to the essence of the theory.
One of the things that I've discovered over the years of teaching Tanach is that one of the problems with us learning Torah is that we know the stories too well. One of the problems happens when you know the stories too well. This is actually how I opened this book, The Beast That Crouches at the Door, with a discussion of what I called the lullaby effect. But one of the issues that happens when you know the stories too well is that you also know how they end. Sometimes they end in surprising ways.
Now, the problem with knowing how a story ends is that when you're reading the beginning of the story knowing how it ends, it's hard to get surprised along the way because you know what's going to happen. It's kind of like having to go through a story about a surprise birthday party, it's no fun. How exactly do you do that?
So one of the things that happens when you know the end is you begin to think that the end as it happened was inevitable. It could only have happened this way because that's the way it was written in the Torah. Now, of course, that's ridiculous. You can't say, for example, that Moses had to hit the rock. That it couldn't have happened any other way. He was punished for hitting the rock, which means that he could have not hit the rock. Do you understand? It happens to be that he hit the rock. What would've been if he didn't hit the rock?
Here's the thing. We never know how the story would have turned out had something not happened, but it's an interesting thing to wonder about. So for example, Winston Churchill is grazed by a cab in 1920 on the streets of Manhattan and survives the near accident. What would've happened if he was a little bit farther into the street and he was dead in 1920? How would that have affected world history later on? These are interesting questions to wonder about.
So let me ask you an interesting question. What would've happened if we never ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What would've happened if we never ate from the tree? Now, we'll never know the answer because we did eat from the tree, but how would history have progressed had we not eaten from the tree?
Now, we'll never know, and let me now suggest to you ‑‑ I've only got four and a half minutes left, guys, so you've got to let me finish. You can talk to me later. But I want to suggest to you that we're under the illusion that the restriction on the Tree of Knowledge was permanent because we never saw it got lifted in the story. But the restriction was just five minutes long, until you eat from the tree. If we hadn't eaten from the Tree of Knowledge would God have ever lifted the restriction or was it a permanent restriction? Maybe it wasn't a permanent restriction.
In other words, maybe the answer to why it was that God withholds a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from us is not because, fundamentally, understanding good and evil is a bad thing. It's just not something you should be doing right now. You need to wait a while. It's an interesting way of seeing the story.
Now, here's the next question. Okay. We need to wait. Why? Why wait? What's the virtue in waiting? Do you understand? In the beginning, there's all these other trees, but there's this one special tree that has to do with cognition of right and wrong and we should not eat from that tree. What was God waiting for? Why not let us eat from the tree immediately? What did God want?
So in other words, understand, God, of course, wants you to eat from the tree, eventually. What's going to happen between now and then that then it's going to be okay to eat from the tree? What's He waiting for? Maturity. How will maturity come?
Participant: (Inaudible 00:47:50).
Rabbi Fohrman: The opposite, actually, of self‑control. What was the only command that God gave them right now? Eat from all the trees while avoiding the one tree. The answer is God needed that to happen. You needed to eat from all the trees for a while, while avoiding the one tree, then you could eat from the tree. What would the experience of eating from all the trees do?
Here's the argument I want make. The reason why God creates this tree and puts it off limits, right, the reason why God puts these other trees in the world is because He actually wants to give us gifts. You know why He wants to give us gifts? Not so He can get gratitude from us. The reason why He wants to give us gifts is because He actually loves us. Therefore, what was our job in the Garden of Eden? To eat from the trees, enjoy them and through that soak in what? God's love.
It's almost like mankind, as a species, went through a process of development from child to adult. What is childhood about? What's the avodah of a child? Interestingly, the avodah of a child when they're four is not cognizing right and wrong. That's not what it's about when you're three and four. What is about when you're two, three and four? We think, oh, the child's just growing up. We're waiting until the child grows up, then the child will have avodah, then the child will have something ‑‑ no, there's a big avodah in being two, there's a big avodah in being three.
What's the avodah in being three? Soaking up your parents' love. The job of a parent is to love you and you're job as a child is to accept the love. To nurse, to just soak it in. Why? What do I get when day after day I nurse? Day after day my mommy plays with me. Day after day there's one delight, strained peaches, and there's another delight, strained bananas. There's all these new things and there's these delights that mommy feeds me.
What, after a while, do I get to understand? That mommy loves me. And by extension, what do I understand about the world? It's a good place this world. That's what you understand when you've been exposed for sustained periods to a parent's love. That was the point of Adam and Eve in the Garden. We need to be exposed, not just once, not in a haphazard way. We need to be exposed over and over again, consistently, to a parent's love.
Why consistently? Because otherwise I can't count on it, but if it's consistent and you always love me and it's always there, then after a while I learn something about you and I learn something about the world. Which is there's loving people out there or the world is a good place. It's going to be okay.
Then, and only then, can you go to stage two, which is eating from that other tree. Starting to think cognitively about right and wrong. Because what would happen if I jumped the gun? What if before I have developed trust in the world, before I have soaked in the love of mommy, before I have gotten my fill, I start making distinctions. I start thinking about what's right and what's wrong, and the way things should be. Why would you not want someone like that, who hasn't got their fill of love from parent, to start making those distinctions and to live in a world like that? What are you afraid of?
Disaster. What are they going to do? They haven't learned to trust the world is a good place. If you haven't learned to trust the world is a good place, who's going to take care of you? Who is the only one who can take care of you if you haven't learned to trust the world is a good place? Yourself.
If the only one who can take care of me is me, and I start making cognitive distinctions between right and wrong, between good and evil, I can't afford to look objectively at what's right and what's wrong, what's good and evil. Instead, there's a subjective way of looking at good and evil. What I like and what I don't like. I will rationalize and I will tell myself that the subjective way of looking at it is of course the right way to look at it, and I will confuse ‑‑ this is what causes me to confuse the two kinds of good, to confuse the two kinds of bad because I can't trust anyone to take care of me.
The only one I can trust is myself and therefore, despite my best efforts, I will confuse the two kinds of right and wrong because there is no one else who can help me but me.
The vehicle for this corruption in the Torah is the snake. The snake is an interesting guy. The snake tells one most fundamental lie to Adam and Eve. It's a fascinating lie. It's a subtle lie, it's a lie which if you're not careful you won't even see it's there. "Af ki amar Elokim lo tochlu mikol eitz ha'gan," even if God said don't eat from all the trees. It's a whole bunch of misinformation. God did say you could eat from all the trees. What do you mean? What's this, hypothetical? Even if God said. But the most subtle lie that the snake says is the name he uses for God. "Af ki amar Elokim lo tochlu mikol eitz ha'gan."
In this entire story of the Garden of Eden, God is always referred to by another name, Yud‑Kei‑Vav‑Kei. Yud‑Kei‑Vav‑Kei, according to our Sages, is associated with what? Rachamim and love. Along comes the snake and switches names, "af ki amar Elokim," what if Elokim said don't eat from the tree. What if God were only Elokim, the God of din, the stern God of justice? The God that doesn't have an ounce of love in Him. That's only the great judge in the sky. What if He were the one to say don't eat from My tree?
That God, Kel, is a God of power. That's what the word Kel means, power. Therefore, the snake says, God knows that on the day that you eat from the tree you'll be just like Him. He's guarding His power for Himself. Don't you want a little bit of that power. You can't trust anybody to be there for you. It looks like God is your friend, but He's not. He's just interested in keeping His power source for Himself. Are you going to let Him get away with that? Maybe you should have some too. That's the temptation of the snake.
The problem is the reason why we're susceptible is because we didn't eat from the other trees long enough. We hadn't yet learned to trust in the God of Yud‑Kei‑Vav‑Kei, in the God of love. Therefore, along comes the snake, who's sly and deceptive, and the nature of deception is, do you really think you can trust someone who says they love you? Maybe they don't have an ounce of love in them. Maybe it's all a lie.
The snake says, trust me, I know the way things are. I'm your friend. You can trust me. Of course, the snake is sly because the snake claims that I am your friend, but what is the nature of being sly? What's the nature of being crafty? What's the nature of the con? Whenever I con someone, what do I have first have to get them to believe? I'm on your side. You can trust me, but the rest of the world you can't trust them.
Of course, the snake is being crafty. What is the snake doing? In the world we live in, what is the most sacred thing in the world? The most sacred human emotion. The most sacred quality that exists in the world is love. Love is it. Love is the top. It's the most sacred. A mother's love, there's nothing more sacred than that.
That's the story of ken tzippor. If there's nothing more sacred than a mother's love, what is the greatest transgression that exists in the world? To besmirch that love and to claim that it doesn't exist and it's just a ploy. That it's just there something else. That God is pretending to love you. To affect love yourself, and to say really I love you, but really I'm just trying to get my own way with you. That's the snake.
The snake is so crafty that he accuses God of being what he is; crafty. He says God is crafty. God is the one who sacrifices love for His own power. God is the one trying to keep you away from the tree. Really, the snake is the one who is using the promise of love for other ends.
Here's the great tragedy. We then go and we reach from the tree and we take from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then, what happens? What happens is we become arom, too, and our way of looking at nakedness all of a sudden changes. Why does our way of looking at nakedness change? Look at what happens. Here we are ‑‑ and I'm really just ending now in the next 30 seconds here. Here we are, we're there in the garden and we're crouching behind a tree.
What just happened? All of a sudden, we become infected with the snakes poison. It's almost like the snake has poison in its mouth, when it bites into the apple it becomes poisonous. There's something poisonous about that arom because when you've been deceived by someone who claims that they love you, like the snake, what do you learn? You learn that the world is not a safe place and people who seem to love me don't. That's true for the snake and it's true for God, and maybe it's true for others too. Maybe it's true for humans.
Eve eats from the tree and what does she do right afterwards? She holds it out to Adam, as if to say, here, you're attracted to me? Eat this, maybe I'd like you a little bit more. What are you doing when you do that? When you're doing that you're holding out love and your using it as what? I'm manipulating you with love. Love is not the end in and of itself, the way it should be, it's just a means to power. Then it happens with Adam himself.
Adam is accused; what did you do? What's Adam's first response? Now, it is true, his wife gave him the fruit, but he also had a choice to eat it. What does he say? "Ha'ishah asher natatah imadi," he's not going to defend her. No, the woman who gave it me, she gave it to me. But not even that. Who gave me the woman? "Ha'isaha asher natatah imadi," the woman that You gave me. It's your fault. It looks, God, like You love me, like You cared about me. You were giving me this mate because You cared. You didn't care about me, You gave me somebody who could be a stumbling block. Your love is false. You're arom.
The whole system comes crashing down because once you betray love it's very hard to get it back. Ultimately, we get kicked out of the Garden because who wants to be with this. Who wants to be in that kind of world?
I think the story is a tragedy, but at the heart of the tragedy is the loss of trust in love. What is it that we're trying to get back? Throughout the rest of the Torah, somehow, we're trying to crawl back to Eden. We're trying to somehow see if we can live in the same place of God, but in order to do it requires restoring this kind of faith in love. To be able to understand that, yes, I'm willing to accept You, God, as the arbiter of good and evil. I'm willing to accept the love of all of these trees. I'm willing to accept all of that and then I'm willing to accept the Torah and to share the ability to decide and make choices about good and evil, but only after I've come to trust in Your goodness.
I think that's the journey in the Torah and it's the journey in our lives. It's the journey in our lives with God, it's the journey in our lives with loved ones. We've a fundamental choice to make. Will we believe in power, and will we ultimately say that power is the ultimate goal and the ultimate value, and all of our relationships will be seen through that lens? Then God help us in our relationship with our kids and our relationship with our wives and our husbands, in our relationships with God.
Or will we believe in the power of love? Will we believe in the sacredness of love? Will we trust in those who love us and give them a chance? Will we believe that the world is an okay place? Will we trust? From that standpoint begin to be thinking about things like good and evil. Thank you very much.
Male Voice: Thank you, everyone. Thank you very much, Rabbi Fohrman for a beautiful shiur. Thank you all for coming to Torah New York. I hope you have safe travels home and a shanah tovah.
Rabbi Fohrman: All right. Just give me one second. Hey, guys. As you file out, I realize that I didn't get to that last point about nakedness, so as you go ‑‑ some folks were just asking me. Let me just respond to the question.
The reason why fear and shame of nakedness come is because nakedness is when we actually become most vulnerable in love. Now, if I've just been betrayed, right, if I fear betrayal and love, how am I going to feel when I'm naked and most vulnerable in love? I'll be fearful. That's if I'm the potential victim of betrayal. But what if I'm the potential perpetrator of betrayal? What if I'm the one who possibly might betray you, pretend to love you, but then take advantage of you? How will I then feel about my nakedness if I'm planning to do that with you?
I'll feel ashamed. Hence, the twin feelings of shame and fear, aggressor and victim, plague us after we've eaten from the tree. It's how we respond to nakedness. So sorry about that, folks, I'll let you go at that.