That Bite From The Tree Of Knowledge

That Bite From The Tree Of Knowledge

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 6:29 p.m. (Wed.); 7:28 p.m. (Thu.); 6:26 p.m. (Fri.)
Torah: Genesis 1:1-6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5-43:10
Havdalah: 7:25 p.m.


Editor’s Note: 5774 will be a special treat for online readers of “Sabbath Week.” The Jewish Week is thrilled to bring our weekly Torah commentary together with artist Archie Rand’s “Chapter Paintings:” one accompanies, illustrates and illuminates every Torah portion. The art will be available first on the Jewish Week’s homepage slide carousel, and then on our Arts page carousel … that is, until the next week, when the next portion, painting and dvar Torah take their turn. Read more about the artist and his work here.

This very first reading of Torah is the Jewish version of Kipling’s  “Just So Stories” — our own imaginative tales of how it all began and why the world runs the way it does. But they are more like Aesop’s fables, stories with a deeper meaning: not just “How the Camel Got Its Hump,” but “How We Humans Got Our Suffering.”

How that happened, it turns out, is that Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and were driven out of paradise. Classical Christian theology concluded that since all human beings ever after have inherited the taint of “original sin,” suffering is our just dessert. Rejecting this explanation, Judaism was left to ask, “If we are not inherent sinners from birth, why indeed do we suffer?”

We will never know why, actually, but we can know why it bothers us.

Concentrate on what Adam and Eve ate, says Midrash Rabbah: it was a taste from the Tree of Knowledge that did them in. Knowledge brought self-consciousness: awareness of their nakedness, for example, but also of their vulnerability. All creatures suffer, but only the offspring of Adam and Eve have the self-consciousness to wonder why. To be sure, our quest for knowledge leads also to science and the opportunity to mitigate suffering — but only slowly, and never entirely. And without a good rationale for suffering, the very fact of suffering becomes insufferable.

Self-consciousness has a further unintended consequence. It distances us from the rest of the natural order, which we study, manage and order for our own ends. We map the heavens, create hybrid plants and animals, manufacture genes and even (we now know) create life itself. The universe remains our home, but as much as we are of it, we are also outside of it, beyond it, observers and re-arrangers of it.

We call that alienation, even exile. For what are exiles if not those who live in certain knowledge that they are not altogether at home, wherever they chance to be? The exile of Adam and Eve is our exile as well. We are the only species that can strive to be like God, but have to suffer and die like everything else that is temporary; the only creatures that can imagine perfection but never find it; the sole beings who are God-like, a little lower than the angels, but also mere dust and ashes.

All this came about from sampling the Tree of Knowledge. And once cast outside the Garden, we cannot go home again.

There are people who try, however. An increasingly common response to existential exile is to yearn for a kind of homecoming to the fully “natural” state of belonging to the earth. Everything natural is automatically labeled good. Science becomes suspect. Hence the fetish for returning to a simple way of life – sometimes to the point of the absurd: in Oregon, for example, alarming numbers of parents are denying vaccinations to their children, who then, predictably, catch childhood diseases that were once considered solved.

A better response comes from applauding the decision of Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. I even think, somewhat heretically, that God applauded it as well. Knowledge at the expense of exile is, overall, a deal well worthwhile.

It is true that having sampled knowledge, we now must live with self-conscious awareness that we suffer, sometimes cruelly and unjustly, and that ultimately we must die. It is true also that we humans alone must suffer existential doubt, loneliness and sometimes even despair. But think of what we gain! Science and human betterment; the arts and human imagination; religion and the consciousness of a life well led. The rest of Torah is the Jewish People’s exploration of what that life well led can become. This first week of our new Torah-cycle proclaims our gratitude at being able to join that exploration.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College. He is the author of “100 Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation” (Bluebridge Press) and “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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