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Parshat Bereishit: Good and Evil — Who Decides?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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God places Adam in the beautiful Garden of Eden, surrounded  by a bounty of natural sustenance. Two exceptional trees are also planted in the garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God exhorts man to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, but specifically prohibits the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Seduced by the serpent, Chava consumes the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and convinces Adam to do so as well. Adam and Chava are punished and exiled from the Garden of Eden.

Questions abound concerning this familiar story: What “knowledge” is represented by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Why are the consumption of that fruit and the attainment of that knowledge prohibited? Why does God plant the tree in the first place? What kind of knowledge did Adam and Chava possess before eating of the tree? Can free will exist without knowledge? If not, how can Adam and Chava be held culpable for the crime?

Finally, the whole episode seems to be a recipe for predetermined failure – a setup. Take a child and place him in a room surrounded by an array of attractive toys. Place in that room as well a sealed package with the instructions that all the toys may be used with the exception of the object in the sealed package. It won’t take long before the child gravitates to that one sealed package.

How could God expect Adam and Chava to ignore the lure of the one prohibited tree in the garden?

Compounding the problem, of course, is the fact of God’s omniscience. God knows from the outset what will occur. Why doom man to predetermined failure?

The relationship between prescience, preordination and free will has occu-pied the attention of philosophers and scholars across the centuries. While a full examination of their conclusions remains outside the scope of our discussion, a few observations must be made. We believe in three philosophical concepts:

1. Prescience, God’s knowledge of the future.
2. Free will, man’s inherent ability and responsibility to choose the path his life will take.
3. Preordination, the predetermination by God of specific aspects of our lives.

In simple terms, the complex relationship between these three concepts can be summarized as follows: God’s knowledge of the future does not control our present actions. Each step of the way we choose the path we wish to take. God’s knowledge potentially affects our choice only on the rare occasions when He informs us of the future before it happens. Such exceptional occasions (for example, God’s prediction to Avraham that his children will, centuries later, become strangers in a land not their own) must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

As a rule, free will remains an essential component of our lives. Without personal choice, we cannot be held responsible for what we do – for better or for worse.

There are, however, elements of our existence that remain outside of our control and are thus preordained. When we are born, to whom we are born, our personal gene pool, etc., are all elements of our lives that are predetermined by God. Each of us is born into a set of defined circumstances that comprise the box in which we live. Our responsibility is to make the most of those circumstances, to determine the quality of our lives. Our task is to push our personal envelope as far as it can be pushed.

Who we are as people and what we accomplish in life remains our choice.

The Talmud underscores this reality with a beautiful description of the inception of life:

The angel appointed over birth brings each potential soul before God and says: ‘Master of the universe, what shall be with this drop [of life]? Will he be strong or weak? Will he be wise or foolish? Will he be rich or poor?’

Will he be good or evil, however, is not asked.

That determination remains in the hands of the individual about to be born.

From time to time, the Torah will speak of tests administered by God upon man. Given our belief in prescience, the purpose of these tests cannot be the determination of information by God. God already knows from the outset whether man will “pass” or “fail” each test.

Why, then, are the tests administered at all?

Two fundamental approaches can be found in the classical commentaries. These approaches are not mutually exclusive and will be discussed in greater detail at a later point (see Vayeira 4):
1. God tests man so that man can gain information about himself and actualize his potential.
2. God tests man so that future generations can learn from his success or failure.

Each of these approaches can be applied to the story of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden.

While the above discussions help define the general parameters of the story of Adam and Chava, the specifics of the tale remain perplexing. At the core of the narrative lies the mystery of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
and the nature of its forbidden fruit.

Across the ages, a variety of approaches are suggested by the rabbis in their attempt to unravel this ancient puzzle.


The Abravanel, for example, suggests that the knowledge represented by the forbidden fruit is not the basic moral knowledge of good and evil. Moral awareness, he maintains, is essential for free will, and has existed from the
moment that God created man “in His image.”

Instead, suggests the Abravanel, the fruit of the tree represents the quest for physical pleasure and material gain.

When Adam and Chava eat from the tree, they turn their back on man’s original, God-ordained mission. They leave behind the search for spiritual perfection and begin to immerse themselves in worldly indulgence. The biblical narrative of the sin of Adam and Chava challenges us, according to the Abravanel, to maintain proper perspective within our own lives by resisting the temptations of the physical world and by dedicating ourselves to spiritual perfection.

Following in the footsteps of the Abravanel, the Malbim offers a fascinating insight into the biblical text.

Man, he says, was created of body and soul. The soul was meant to be central, while the body was created to serve as protection, or “clothing,” for the soul. When Adam and Chava eat from the forbidden tree, they turn their bodies, rather than their souls, into the central component of their lives. In the aftermath of the sin, the Torah tells us that Adam and Chava recognize their physical nakedness. Now the body, originally meant to be “clothing” for the soul, has itself become central and must be clothed.


Other scholars, such as the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, take a totally different approach. They suggest that free will first enters human experience when Adam and Chava eat of the forbidden fruit. Before that fateful act, maintains the Ramban, “Man, by his very nature, simply did what was right, as do the heavens and all of their hosts.” With the consumption from the tree, desire and free will are born. Man no longer automatically follows the will of God.

This approach, however, leaves open a series of serious questions.

How can Adam and Chava be held culpable for their actions if they did not possess free will before eating from the tree? How, for that matter, could they have disobeyed God’s command if it was in their very nature to blindly follow God’s will?

Numerous scholars attempt to explain the approach of the Ramban.

Harav Chaim of Volozhin, for example, suggests that man did indeed possess a degree of free will before eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Before the sin, however, evil remained external to man. To sin, Adam had to first make the decision to “enter evil,” consciously, as one might enter fire. After the sin, however, the propensity for evil becomes a part of man, and his ability to discriminate between right and wrong is severely weakened.


Finally, it is the Rambam who, with a comment in his Guide to the Perplexed, suggests what may be the most meaningful and relevant approach to the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Maimonides maintains that, before eating from the tree, man existed in the realm of “Truth and Falsehood.” After the sin man enters the realm of “Good and Evil.”

These two worlds are very different.

Truth and falsehood are objective terms. Good and Evil can be seen as subjective phenomena.

God turns to man as He plants him in the Garden of Eden and says: Your task is to follow my Will. Good and evil remain my prerogative. I will determine what is right, and what is wrong.

The serpent attacks this divinely ordained structure and tempts Chava by saying: If you eat from the tree, then you will be as God. You will decide, you will determine good and evil.

From that moment on, a struggle is joined which in many ways defines the course of human history. At the core of this struggle lies a simple question: Are good and evil to be determined objectively or subjectively? Or to put it somewhat differently: Does each society have the right to define good and evil for its own citizens and within its own parameters?

Let us postulate for a moment an ancient civilization which determines that weak newborns should be put to death because they cannot contribute to the community and will instead be a drain upon precious resources. Is that determination moral or not? Do we have the right, looking in from the outside, to criticize the morals of any civilization?

What if a particular community determines that the elderly should be executed at a specific age, because they will no longer be contributing members of society? Is that decision moral or not?

And, of course, once we embark upon that slippery slope…

If the Nazis determine that the weak and the infirm shall be put to death as a prelude to the extermination of whole ethnic groups, can we criticize a decision considered moral within the context of the Nazi world? What gives world society the right to conduct the Nuremberg Trials, to define “crimes against humanity”?

Once we accept that each society can determine its own morality – define good and evil within the context of its physical and philosophical borders – morality no longer effectively exists. There is no objective standard for good and evil. Everything is subjective.

Judaism maintains that an objective morality was determined and mandated by God at the dawn of human history.

God creates the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but forbids its fruit to man. By doing so, God reminds Adam and Chava and all of their descendents that the determination of Good and Evil must remain within divine control.

The problems emerge, whether in the Garden of Eden or across the face of history, when man attempts to usurp God’s prerogative.

How much pain has been perpetrated across the ages, because we have claimed the right to define Good and Evil?