Who wouldn’t want to eat a fruit that makes them smarter? In Chapter 2 of Genesis, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden and invites the first people to taste any fruit in the garden, except for the fruit of one tree: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why not?
A disturbing answer comes from the Torah’s first villain, the snake. He says to Eve that eating this fruit won’t really kill her. God prohibited it only because it will somehow make them like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5). In other words, God is jealous or insecure, and this is why God bans the best fruit in the garden.
While most people dislike snakes, it seems that in this case the snake speaks the truth. Adam and Eve do not die upon eating the fruit, at least not immediately. And in verse 22, God confirms that “now Adam has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Rashi explains (Gen. 3:22) that just as God is unique in heaven, so is humanity unique on earth in its possession of moral knowledge. Ramban confirms (Gen. 2:9) that the snake spoke truthfully. Why then did God forbid this fruit?
Indeed, why doesn’t God permit this fruit from the outset? Aren’t people made in the divine image? If so, then why not give them divine knowledge? And if this fruit is so dangerous, then why does God leave it right in the middle of the garden and make it so tempting? Jewish commentators note that Adam was intelligent before eating the fruit, naming all the animals. Some say that the new knowledge was sexual desire, but this seems unlikely since all animals have this trait.
Ramban is most convincing (Gen. 2:9) in arguing that the fruit somehow conveyed the power of freewill. Adam and Eve could be trusted to obey God’s command until the snake tricked them into gaining this ability. That is why the tree could be left unguarded in the middle of the garden, and that is why their eyes were opened–to the possibilities of both obedience and disobedience. But isn’t this freedom ultimately a good thing?
This story reads like a parable of education. Parents and teachers want their children to become wise and independent. They also worry that “a little knowledge is dangerous,” and that smart children may make decisions that displease their elders. Adults may exhibit ambivalence, taking pride in the growing independence of youths, but worrying where they will take things. Much like God in the garden, we want simultaneously to empower and control our children, while also protecting them and ourselves from rash and dangerous decisions.
This story introduces a broader paradox of our lives. By our nature we strive for knowledge and power, to conquer our surroundings, to become masters of our world. We celebrate ambition and accomplishment; we reward high achievement. At the same time, we recognize that there is a dark side to ambition and mastery. Hubris is the route to ruin. Humanity has become extraordinarily powerful, conquering the land, skies, and seas, and probing space, too. In discovering and exploiting the laws of nature, we seem to have sown the seeds of our own destruction. The Tree of Knowledge is a parable for this paradox — knowledge makes humanity powerful, but also fragile, because we cannot anticipate, much less control the consequences of our actions.
Perhaps the problem is that the tree offers only neutral knowledge of good and evil, not guidance on the path to goodness. True education is not only about information transfer, but about learning to understand complexity, and to do the right thing. Here in the first Torah portion we recognize the yearning for freedom, knowledge and power. The rest of the Torah will teach humanity to harness that power for good–to take responsibility for other people and for the planet itself, so that we can become true partners with God in making the world “very good.”