Bereishit: The Other Tree

October 15, 2014 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment
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In the first creation story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God makes human beings in Its image, male and female, and ends the sixth “day” by deciding that everything is “very good”. The Torah does not say in what way human beings resemble God.

Then we get a second creation story. In this story (attributed by scholars to an older source), God creates a single human before inventing plants or other animals.

And God formed ha-adam of dust from ha-adamah, and [God] blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and ha-adam became a nefesh chayah. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = the human, humankind, the earthling.

ha-adamah (הָאֲדָמָה) = the earth, the dirt.

nefesh chayah (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) = animated animal, living creature.

Instead of simply making humans in God’s image, as in the first creation story, God shapes a human body and breathes life into it—the same process God uses later in the story to create various birds and mammals. Then God makes a place outside the world where the archetypal human can acquire a divine trait, and thereby become an image of God, unlike other animals. Peaches_clip_art_hight

Then God planted a garden in Eiden mikedem, and It put there ha-adam that It had formed. And God made sprout from the earth every tree that was desirable in appearance and good for food, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

Eiden (עֵדֶן) = Eden; luxury, pampering, delight.

mikedem (מִקֶּדֶם) = from the east, from primeval time.

God invites the human to eat from all but one of the trees in the garden.

And God laid an order on ha-adam, saying: From every tree in the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

What about the Tree of Life, which is also in the middle of the garden? By giving the human permission to eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge, God offers the human the option of eating from the Tree of Life—whose fruit, we learn later in the story, confers immortality.

When I reread the story this year, I realized that God subtly gives ha-adam a choice between the two trees.  If the archetypal human eats from the Tree of Knowledge, it will gain the divine characteristic of moral knowledge, but it will be doomed to die.  If it eats from the Tree of Life, it will gain the divine characteristic of immortality–but will it lose the ability to discover morality?

The first human being is not yet human enough to react with curiosity. It asks no questions, and apparently refrains from the fruit of both the trees in the middle of the garden. Eventually God separates the two sides of the human into two individuals, one male and one female. This does the trick; the woman is curious enough to hear the questions and arguments of the snake (another of God’s creations), including the comment:

For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad. (Genesis 3:5)

We already know that every tree in the garden is desirable in appearance and good for food (Genesis 2:9). The woman now notices a third way in which the Tree of Knowledge is “good”.

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it satisfied a craving of the eyes, and the tree was desirable for haskil, so she took some fruit and she ate; and she gave also her to her man with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:7)

haskil (הַשְׂכִּיל) = understanding, having insight.

Both humans want divine insight so much, they forget about the Tree of Life and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. They gain a basic concept of morality, and the ability to figure out what is good and bad on their own.

The two primeval humans do not keel over dead that day.  Instead, they become mortal.  God tells them they will return to the world, where life will be hard, and eventually they will die and turn back into dust. God mentions the pain of childbirth, and the man notices that there will be birth as well as death in the world.

So ha-adam called the name of his woman Chavah, because she herself had become a mother of all life. (Genesis 3:20)

Chavah (חַוָּה) = Eve; a variant of chayah = living animal, vigorous, to bring to life.

Instead of immortality, humankind chooses moral knowledge and life in this world, which is inseparable from birth and death.

And God said: Here, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, and now, lest he stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—! (Genesis 3:22)

This sentence raises obvious two questions. What does God mean by saying the human has become like one of us? (Next year I want to write about all the hints of multiple gods in this first Torah portion, including in the passage above.) Secondly, why can’t the humans eat from both trees? Why shouldn’t they acquire a second divine characteristic?

I think the answer is that in our universe, everything is in flux, constantly changing.  Even stars burn out.  And every living thing is born, grows, experiences pain, and dies. Life in this world is mortal.  Immortality can only apply to something outside our universe, outside time and space—like the garden of Eiden.

But our world also presents human beings with moral choices that matter. We can choose actions that increase the life and well-being of others, or actions that increase death and pain. Our ability to puzzle out good and bad depends on living in this world.

So God sent [the human] out from the garden of Eiden, to serve the earth from which it had been taken. And [God] banished the human, and It set up in front of the garden of Eiden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 3:23-24)

Human beings in the real world can resemble God in having moral understanding, but we cannot resemble God by living forever.

Other ancient religions told stories about how human heroes tried, but failed, to become like the gods by eating or bringing home plants that would confer immortality. The remarkable thing about the second creation story in Genesis is that humankind gets a different divine characteristic: moral insight.

The rest of the book of Genesis can be read as a story about how both humans and God begin to learn how to apply moral insight to situations in the world. For example, when Cain becomes enraged, God tries to warn him against killing his brother, but it takes the rest of the book for the humans to figure out how brothers can tolerate each other.  When God decides to wipe out Sodom, Abraham tries to teach God to judge humans individually instead of punishing the innocent with the guilty, but God does not always apply the lesson.

We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.)

We can never acquire immortality in this world, but we are still tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. May we all remember how precious and desirable our moral insight is, and pause to think about our moral choices.

 

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