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Barking Up the Wrong Tree (Bereshit)

Few motifs are as familiar as that of the “forbidden fruit:” the fruit that grew from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Hashem commanded the world’s first man and woman, Adam and Chava, not to eat this fruit, but they did eat it, and were exiled from Eden as a result.

We must remember, however, that the “Tree of Knowledge” is not the only tree in Eden that the text explicitly identifies:

And the Lord God caused to sprout from the ground every tree pleasant to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:9).

The same verse that introduces us as readers to the Tree of Knowledge also calls our attention to a second tree—the “Tree of Life.” Granted, in the verses that follow, this tree will disappear almost entirely from the plot; man and woman will essentially ignore this tree, focusing instead on the Tree of Knowledge. Yet the tree’s special mention in the passage’s opening verses indicates that it must contribute something of significance to the narrative, be it symbolically, thematically, or otherwise. What, then, is the role of the Tree of Life in our text?

In fact, a careful reading of the verse cited above would appear to yield that it is the Tree of Life that ought to have attracted the bulk of our attention: it is this tree that is listed first, and it is the one placed “in the midst of the garden;” the Tree of Knowledge, by contrast, is almost mentioned as an afterthought. Thus, it is the Tree of Life that is central in Eden, both literarily and geographically. In relative terms, the Tree of Knowledge is peripheral.

Consider, in this context, Hashem’s instructions to man vis-à-vis the trees of Eden:

And the Lord God commanded man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you shall eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall die” (Gen. 3:16-17).

Here is the well-known prohibition on eating the fruit of Eden. Remarkably, the Tree of Life is not included in the prohibition. Indeed, Hashem formally commands man to eat from every tree of the garden, except for the Tree of Knowledge. Moreover, the reason Hashem provides man for why he may not eat from Tree of Knowledge—viz., “on the day that eat thereof, you shall die”—strongly suggests that man should search for the tree whose fruit bestows life. Altogether, the data points to a nearly inevitable conclusion: Hashem did not want man to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but He did want man to eat from the Tree of Life!

If this reading is correct, it emerges that the Torah’s first account of human activity features a deliberate contrast between “knowledge” and “life,” with Hashem directing man away from the former and towards the latter. How are we to interpret this curious contrast?

Perhaps it is useful, in this regard, to invoke the celebrated typology of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”). In an essay on the early chapters of Bereshit entitled The Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav distinguishes between two fundamental modes of human interaction with the world—that of “Adam I” versus that of “Adam II:”

The most characteristic representative of Adam the first is the mathematical scientist who whisks us away from the array of tangible things, from color and sound, from hear, touch, and smell which are the only phenomena accessible to our senses, into a formal relational world of thought constructs, the product of his “arbitrary” postulating and spontaneous positing and deducing. This world, woven out of human thought processes, functions with amazing precision and runs parallel to the workings of the real multifarious world of our senses. The modern scientist does not try to explain nature. He only duplicates it. In his full resplendent glory as a creative agent of God, he constructs his own world and in mysterious fashion succeeds in controlling his environment through manipulating his own mathematical constructs and creations… Adam the second does not apply the functional method invented by Adam the first. He does not create a world of his own. Instead, he wants to understand the living, “given” world into which he has been cast. Therefore, he does not mathematize phenomena or conceptualize things. He encounters the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur, and studies it with the naïveté, awe, and admiration of the child who seeks the unusual and wonderful in every ordinary thing and event. While Adam the first is dynamic and creative, transforming sensory data into thought constructs, Adam the second is receptive and beholds the world in its original dimensions. He looks for the image of God not in the mathematical formula or the natural relational law but in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the in the stillness of a starlit evening.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik

For the Rav, a key difference between Adam I and Adam II is their degree of separation from God’s creation. Adam II inhabits the “living world” whereas Adam I ensconces himself in the “world of thought.” The former interacts directly with natural phenomena while the latter preoccupies himself with abstractions thereof. Or, as we might put it: Adam II draws sustenance from the Tree of Life; Adam I, from the Tree of Knowledge.

Each of these modes, argues the Rav, is essential to the human condition. Yet both the Rav’s essay and the text upon which it is based seem to subtly suggest that of the two modes, the one that is more vital, spiritually, is the one that places vitality itself, i.e. life, at its center. Part of this, as mentioned, has to do with the fact that to “know” a given reality, one is required to remove oneself from it, whereas to “live” is to encounter reality from within. In “the world of thought,” then, some are subjects, and some objects, speaking to each other in the language that Martin Buber referred to as “I-It”; but in the “world of life,” all are equally subjects, speaking the language of “I-Thou.”

Thus we return to our Parshah. Hashem’s call to humanity, at the dawn of creation, is to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19)to embrace it, to experience it fully, to appreciate it on its own terms—before aspiring to analyze it from a distance; in this sense, it might be said, the imperative of Eden is positively “existentialist.” At first humanity rejects this call, opting for “knowledge” instead. But there is no value to “knowledge” that is divorced from “life,” and thus, in the aftermath of the sin, Hashem restricts access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24), and imposes a limit upon the span of human life (3:19), so that the only way humanity can continue is if humans choose to place their “knowledge” in the service of “life.” Hence our narrative’s resolution, “And Adam knew his wife, Chava, and she conceived, and bore a son… (4:1): the measure of true “knowledge,” intimates the Torah, is the degree to which it results in the sharing and giving of “life.”

How appropriate that this lesson is situated at the very beginning of the Torah, for us to review each year before studying it anew. To approach the Torah in search for “knowledge” alone—be it moral, theological, legal, psychological, or historical—would be to miss the point. That is why Shlomo HaMelech, the “wisest of all men,” referred to the Torah specifically as “a Tree of Life” (Prov. 3:18): for Torah study, properly performed, does not climax in astute observations, clever interpretations or profound insights, but in the conduct that animates and elevates “life,” in its totality.

May we merit to realize this ideal in the course of our study together this year.

Shabbat shalom!

Post-script: The following texts, related to the theme of this week’s article, are included as further reading for those interested. They may serve as good discussion-starters at the Shabbos table.

Excerpt from a letter written by R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson:

The founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (“the Alter [i.e. ‘Old’] Rebbe”), who authored the Tanya and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, shared his house with his oldest married son, Rabbi Dov Ber, who later succeeded him as the Mitteler Rebbe. Rabbi Dov Ber was known for his unusual power of concentration. When he was engaged in study or prayer he was totally oblivious to everything around him.

On one occasion, when Rabbi Dov Ber was thus engrossed, his baby sleeping in a near-by cot fell out of his cradle and began to cry. Rabbi Dov Ber did not hear the baby’s cries; but the infant’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, who was in his study on the upper floor and was also engrossed in his studies, did hear the baby’s cries. He interrupted his studies, went downstairs, lifted the infant, soothed it, and replaced it in its cradle. To all this, the infant’s father remained quite oblivious. Subsequently, the Alter Rebbe admonished his son: “No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”

Excerpt from By His Light, by R. Aaron Lichtenstein:

[I once] came to a corner [in the Beit Israel neighborhood], and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who… saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa [head covering]. So they began a whole pilpul [academic discussion], based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b) about whether they should help him or not. They said, “If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot [Torah-mandated agricultural gifts], so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce…”

I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, “Children of that age from our camp [“centrist Orthodoxy”] would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” My feeling then was: Why, Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the Universe] must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

If I can refer again to my experience over the last several decades, I think that one of the central points which has reinforced itself is the sense, in terms of values, of the ascendancy of the moral over the intellectual—with all my love for and commitment to pure learning. But, when all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good: ‘He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).

Excerpt from Reb Saunders’ discussion with Danny in The Chosen, by Chaim Potok:

Reuven, when my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. He did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four-year-old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. It was a story in a Yiddish book about a poor Jew and his struggles to get to Eretz Yisroel before he died. Ah, how that man suffered! And my Daniel enjoyed the story, he enjoyed the last terrible page, because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a memory he had. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul…’

My brother was like my Daniel. What a mind he had. But it was a cold mind, Reuven, almost cruel, untouched by his soul. It was proud, haughty, impatient with less brilliant minds, grasping in its search for knowledge the way a conqueror grasps for power. It could not understand pain, it was different to and impatient with suffering….

When I was very young, my father, may he rest in peace, began to wake me in the middle of the night, just so I would cry. I was a child, but he would wake me and tell me stories of the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of the people of Israel, and I would cry. For years he did this. Once he took me to a hospital – ah, what an experience that was! – and often he took me to visit the poor, the beggars, to listen to them talk. It is important to know of pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe…

Ah, what a price to pay… The years when Daniel was a child and I loved him and talked with him and held him under my tallis when I prayed… ‘Why do you cry, Father?’ he asked me once under the tallis. ‘Because people are suffering,’ I told him. He could not understand. Ah, what it is to be a mind without a soul, what ugliness it is… Those were the years he learned to trust me and love me… And when he was older, the years I drew myself away from him… ‘Why have you stopped answering my questions, Father?’ he asked me once. ‘You are old enough to look into your own soul for the answers,’ I told him. He laughed once and said, ‘That man is such an ignoramus, Father.’ I was angry. ‘Look into his soul,’ I said. ‘Stand inside his soul and see the world through his eyes. You will know the pain he feels because of his ignorance, and you will not laugh.’ He was bewildered and hurt. The nightmares he began to have… But he learned to find answers for himself. He suffered and learned to listen to the suffering of others. In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for a new perspective and understanding of Adam I and II!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for such an interesting and new perspective on Adam I and II!

  3. Chaim Goldberg says:

    What an incredibly insightful and deep peshat Alex!! I’m so glad I read it and hope to share it at the Shabbos table 🙂 Have a nice Shabbos, Chaim

  4. Judah Kerbel says:

    My first time reading – an intellectual delight. Shkoiaych and looking forward to learning more Torah with you!

  5. Judah Kerbel says:

    My first time reading – an intellectual delight! Shkoiyach and looking forward to learning more Torah with you!

  6. Mike Shriqui says:

    Just beautiful, thank you!

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