The Sin of the  Eitz HaDaat Tov VeRa: Objectivism vs. Subjectivism by Eitan Mermelstein (‘21)


In this week's Parashah, Parashat BeReishit, Adam and Chava commit a sin that changed the course of human history— they consume the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, Eitz HaDa’at Tov VeRa. There is a common interpretation that eating from the Eitz HaDa’at bestowed understanding of good and evil upon anyone who ate its’ fruit. However, this would seem to contradict the text, as the Torah writes: “VaTeire HaIshah Ki Tov HaEitz LiMa’achal VeChi Ta’avah Hu LaEinayim VeNechmad HaEitz LeHaskil VaTikach MePiryo VaTochal,” “When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate” (BeReishit 3:6). Chavah clearly knew the difference between good and bad before eating from the tree of knowledge, as she is described as seeing “that the tree was good to eat” before she ate from it. Therefore, the question arises as to what changed after she and Adam ate from the tree?

The Ramban (Bereishit 2:9, s.v. “Ve’Eitz HaChaim”) writes that originally, man did whatever was proper and correct, just as angels do— there was no emotion in Adam’s actions, and he had no selfish desires. However, after he ate from the tree, his actions were driven by emotion and a desire for pleasure and happiness. Ramban later writes in Devarim 30:6 that before his encounter with the Eitz HaDa’at, man acted purely out of logic. He would eat healthy food because that is what helped him live. In contrast, today, we have both logical and emotional desires; we want food that tastes good, and we also desire healthy food whose taste is not as enticing. Ramban proves from various areas of Tanach that the Eitz HaDa’at bestowed Adam with desire, and not knowledge. For example, Ramban interprets the statement of Barzilai to mean that he no longer wished to enjoy the pleasures in life, and not that he physically lacked the ability to taste food and drink[1] (Shmuel II 19:36). Therefore, after the sin, Adam had the will to do good and evil, to himself and to others. Adam no longer possesed only an understanding of good and evil; he was also able to implement that understanding into his actions.

However, the Rambam in the Guide to the Perplexed interprets the word Da’at literally. He explains that after Adam ate from the Eitz HaDa’at, he gained a knowledge of good and evil. Good and evil are subjective qualities, in contrast to Emet VaSheker (truth and falsehood), qualities that reflect objective reality. For example, the fact that the world is spherical is Emet, not Tov. Rather, a house looks Tov, and not Emet. The question then arises how Chava could have thought of the tree in terms of Tov and Ra before she had ever eaten from it. How could she describe the tree in subjective terms before experiencing it in its entirety? Rambam answers that the true sin was not eating from the tree, but rather succumbing to imagination and corporeal desires, which subsequently caused them to eat from the tree. Essentially, Adam and Chava ignored objective reality, that the tree was prohibited to them, and instead succumbed to their desires, mislabelling the tree as Tov in the process. Insteading of maintaining a resolute objectivity, they classified the tree in the often misguided[2] terms of Tov and Ra. According to Rambam, the tree is only a symbol of the sin, but the true sin was an irreversible change in the attitude of man towards his surroundings.

Ultimately, as the Yamim Noraim have just passed, it is important to keep in mind the approach of Rambam, mainly, that there is an internal conflict between Emet VeSheker, objective reality, and Tov VeRa, our subjective interpretations of our surroundings. This internal friction is the basis for the greatest struggle of our generation, Lashon HaRa, derogatory speech. It is when we succumb to the position of Tov VeRa that such an egregious action occurs; an action for which we begged forgiveness less than a month ago from those around us. However, when one sees the world in terms of truth, one will inevitably treat everyone as a human, as a friend, and as a child of Hashem who deserves respect, and will thus refrain from speaking ill of those around them. May we all merit to see the world in terms of Emet VeSheker, and maintain objectivity in our relationships with those around us.

[1] Ramban draws a parallel between knowledge and ability.

[2] Essentially, their subjective perception of reality was greatly influenced by their Ta’avot, desires.

Bereishit: The First Brotherly Rivalry by Eitan Leff (‘18)

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