“The Fall of Man”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Starting with this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, synagogues around the globe begin the annual cycle of reading the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. It is always an exhilarating and inspiring occasion. In this week’s parasha, we encounter the well-known story of the seduction of Eve by the serpent, and the so called “Fall of Man.”

As we have noted previously, the story of the serpent and the Garden of Eden in no way parallels the Christian concept of “Original Sin,” (see Bereshith 5765-2004). Judaism does not regard human beings as “damned.” In fact, numerous commentators regard the episode of eating the forbidden fruit and the resulting “curse,” much like a blessing that occasioned many positive opportunities for humankind.

Nevertheless, it is important to explore the details of what happened in the Garden of Eden between Adam, Eve and the serpent. It should be noted that much of this analysis is based on the brilliant work of Professor Nehama Leibowitz, in her Studies of Bereshith, regarding the serpent and the evil impulse.

The first human beings, Adam and Eve, are instructed by G-d to observe only a single mitzvah. In Genesis 2:16-17, G-d declares: “Mee’kol aytz ha’gahn, ah’chol to’chayl. Oo’may’aytz ha’dah’aht, tov v’rah, lo to’chahl me’meh’noo,” Of every tree of the garden, you may freely eat. But, from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat. The Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 19:11, cogently proclaims that the first human beings had only one single solitary mitzvah to keep, and they blew it.

Professor Leibowitz sees the nachash, the serpent, as representing both cleverness and distortion. She points to the relationship between the Hebrew words Arumeem, naked, and aroom, clever and deceptive. How does the serpent convince the woman to eat the fruit of the tree even though she knew from Adam that G-d had told him not to eat of it? He does so by employing the big lie, by brazenly distorting the truth.

The serpent de-emphasizes G-d’s positive words, and harps on the single negative, distorting G-d’s message. G-d had actually said in Genesis 2:16, of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. There are thousands of trees and thousands of fruits, and thousands of luscious plants that Adam and Eve may eat. But the serpent says to Eve (Genesis 3:1), “Ahf kee ah’mar Eh’lo’keem lo tohch’loo mee’kol aytz ha’gahn,” Though G-d has said to not eat of all the trees of the garden… “The evil inclination,” in the form of the serpent, says Nehama Leibowitz, “magnifies the scope of the prohibition, which now seems to loom over the whole of the garden. And temptation becomes irresistible.”

The Or HaChaim points out that the seducer succeeded by exaggerating the stringency of the prohibition. In this way, the seducer persuades the victim that any effort to resist temptation is useless, and that he might as well give up the struggle immediately, because resisting is futile.

The words of the serpent have an immediate but subtle effect on Eve. This is clearly evident when Eve relates to the serpent what G-d had said to Adam. Quite remarkably, she leaves out that G-d had said that they may freely eat of every tree of the garden. Instead, she hedges, and says (Genesis 3:2), “that we may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden,” implying that the permitted food is very limited.

Even though G-d said that there was only a single tree that the people may not eat, she focuses on and magnifies that prohibition. Similarly, instead of noting that the tree stood somewhere in some corner of the garden, she now describes it as being in the midst of the garden, as if it is the only tree that mattered.

In Genesis 3:3 she says to the serpent, “But of the fruit of the tree, which is in the midst of the garden, G-d had said, you shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” Note that the tree is no longer called by its original title, “the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Instead, it is simply the central and most important tree in the garden. Fatefully, Eve also adds the prohibition of touching the tree, something that G-d never mentioned, and which eventually leads to her downfall by the clever serpent.

Instead of referring to what will occur if they eat of the fruit of the tree as cause and effect, Eve leaves out the moral connection between a sin and its punishment. This allows doubt and suspicion to set in, even derision. That is why the Midrash Rabbah (Genesis 19:4) says that the serpent was able to push Eve against the tree and say to her, “You see, you have touched it and have not died! So, too, can you eat it, and nothing will happen to you.”

It is at this point that the serpent goes for the jugular. He reassures his new partners in crime that they surely will not die. But rather, Genesis 3:5, “Kee yo’day’ah Eh’lo’keem kee b’yom ah’chawl’chem me’meh’noo, v’nif’k’choo ay’nay’chem, veeh’yee’tem kay’lo’him, yohd’ay tov va’rah,” G-d knows, that on the day that you eat of the fruit, your eyes will be open, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. G-d wants to keep you from gaining power and authority, says the serpent. He is doing this not for your benefit, but to keep all the power and authority for Himself.

Finally, the woman succumbs (Genesis 3:6), “Va’tay’reh ha’ee’shah kee tov ha’aytz l’maachal, v’chee ta’avah hoo lah’ay’nayim, v’nech’mahd ha’aytz l’haskeel, va’tee’kach me’pir’yo va’toh’chahl, va’tee’tayn gham l’eesha eemah va’yochahl,” The woman then sees that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired. She then took of the fruit thereof and ate it, and gave it to her husband with her, and he did eat.

The biblical text clearly notes that the woman is seduced by the “beauty” of the tree. She simply could not resist. And, once she eats, she eats without hesitation or inhibition, swiftly, quickly, with no guilt.

The sin clearly has immediate consequences. The human being can no longer stand in the presence of G-d. They hear His voice, and Adam and his wife must hide themselves from the presence of the L-rd, among the trees of the garden. Where do Adam and Eve hide? Among the trees of the garden! Every place they turn, and every step they take, they are confronted by trees, reminding them of their sins. With the tree, which is in the midst of the garden, they sinned, and in the midst of the trees of the garden they are forced to hide. They cannot escape the consequences.

According to Nehama Leibowitz, the first human beings were drawn to defy G-d both by rational persuasion as well as lust. They were unable to rebut the serpent’s big lie. He was able to persuade them that G-d was really out to protect His own power and to keep them small. He was able to make them forget that there were thousands of beautiful trees and luscious fruits in the garden, from which they could eat. Instead, he succeeds in making them focus on only one single tree. That focus eventually turns to lust.

It was only after they saw how beautiful the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was that they succumb. Now blind to all the other luscious opportunities in the garden, they sin. This is what the Bible means when it says with regard to the mitzvah of Tzizit (Numbers 15:39), “V’lo ta’too’roo ah’cha’ray l’vav’chem v’ah’cha’ray ay’nay’chem,” don’t stray after your hearts and after your eyes, to worship falsehoods.

How true the statement of P.T. Barnum sounds today that “a sucker is born every minute.” With clever marketing, false advertising and false representation, any bill of goods can be sold, even to the most upright person.

How are we to resist? It is through the strength of Torah and Torah training that Jews are enabled to withstand pernicious outside influences, but when the outside influences are overwhelming, even well-prepared Jews will have difficulty resisting.

May you be blessed.

The final days of the Tishrei holidays begin on Wednesday evening, October 19th and continue all day Thursday, October 20th, Shemini Atzeret. The festival of Simchat Torah commences on Thursday night, October 20th and is celebrated all day Friday, October 21st.

May this season be a joyous time for all, punctuated by happiness and good health. Chag Samayach!