Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bereshit 5770/ October 17, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Death: Punishment or Affirmative Action?

Pinehas Haliva, Atty.

Ashkelon College

Creation of the world had been completed, and the human being who had been created in the image of G-d and entrusted with ruling the land had stumbled and fallen into sin.   For fear that he might fail again, he was removed from the Garden of Eden, as described in three verses (Gen. 3:22-24):

And the Lord G-d said, “Now that the Man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”  So … He drove the Man out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.

At the focus of the dramatic events that took place in the life of the first Man were two trees, each representing the dialectic tension between G-d and His creation – Man.   Each tree symbolizes the characteristics that are shared by both Man and G-d, yet each of them also symbolizes the difference between them.  In the process of his creation, Man had been deprived of the knowledge of good and bad, and the lack of this wisdom created the boundaries that distinguished between Man’s limited abilities and G-d’s unlimited power.   However, this distinction did not suffice.  Man also had to internalize the metaphysical inequality between himself and his Creator through his own actions.   Obeying the command not to eat from the tree would have been proof positive of this awareness.

The Tree of Life, like the Tree of Knowledge, had been planted in the center of the garden, before Man’s inquisitive eyes.  This tree, too, symbolized the existence of a trait common to G-d and Man – eternal life.   In both instances, as we said above, Man had to act in order to achieve or perfect these traits, and in both instances Man took action—he attempted to violate the status-quo in an attempt to achieve equality with divine wisdom.  G- d’s response differed from one case to the other:   in the first instance, the Tree of Knowledge, Man was not denied freedom of choice to act in such as way as to break the status-quo. In the second instance, the Tree of Life, he was deprived of his freedom of choice: G-d “drove the Man out … to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The Sages and biblical exegetes throughout the ages have raised many questions about this narrative, and due to their complex nature, we shall discuss only two:

1.     Wherein lies the essence of equality that the Tree of Knowledge contains, and why was Man denied knowledge of good and bad?

2.     Why was the Tree of Life mentioned at the outset of Creation, before the punishment of mortality had been decreed on Man? What practical value is there to immortality if there is no death?

I do not presume to be able to solve these unknowns, yet it seems that any attempt at even a partial understanding involves the interpretation of two phrases in the verses we cited above:  “like one of us” and “the way to the tree of life.”  Attempting to understand what is meant by the primordial equality described in the phrase, “like one of us,” will help us understand the nature and characteristics of Man after the change, while unlocking the sense of the “way to the tree of life” will help us understand why Man was blocked from the path to the tree of life, yet was in no way restricted access to the tree of knowledge.


“Like one of us”

The letter kaf (= “like”) expresses a similarity which is not complete.  The Torah noted the similarity in the creation of Man before he sinned, as described in the verse, “Let us make Man in our image (be-tzalmenu), after our likeness (ki-demutenu)” (Gen. 1:26).   There are two joint components:   “image” and “likeness.”   While the image component is described as complete identity – be-tzalmenu, or “in our image” – the likeness component is partial – ki-demutenu or resembling our likeness, using the kaf to denote an incomplete, seeming identity; the two taken together describe the comparison that finds expression in the words “like one of us.”   The significance of these descriptions have been noted by the Sages and biblical exegetes through the ages, each in his own way giving interpretive content to these concepts by viewing them metaphorically.  For example, the midrash interprets as follows:

What difference is there between image and likeness?   None other than that the image describes the appearances, while the likeness establishes the inner qualities; as in, “their protection (tzilam – playing on the word tzelem = image) has departed from them” (Num. 14:9); and “Each of them had a human face (lit.: the demut or likeness of their face was a human face)” (Ezek. 1:10). [1]

Another midrash: In our image:   that he have the spirit of life.   In our likeness:   that he have wisdom and understanding like the wisdom of Heaven, as it is said, “You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty” (Ps. 8:6). [2]

The midrash tries to cope with the danger in the corporeal view of G-d that could emerge from these concepts and so it gives them functional significance unique to Mankind.   The “image” describes Man’s unique intellectual abilities.  The “likeness” is unique to Mankind in terms of the human face, but this is not taken to mean only the physical appearance, rather also the ability of the physical form to express the characteristics of the “likeness” and reflect the intellectual expression.

Maimonides, with a view to keeping at bay any idea of ascribing corporeal form to the Creator, interpreted the term “image” as “not at all applicable to G-d…   In Man it is that constituent which gives him human perception; and on account of this intellectual perception, the term tzelem is employed in the sentence, ‘In the tzelem of G-d he created him’” (Gen. 1:27).

As for “likeness,” Maimonides writes:

Demut is derived from the verb damah, “he is like.”  This term likewise denotes agreement with regard to some abstract relation:   “I am like a great owl in the wilderness” (Ps. 102:7); the author does not compare himself to the great owl in point of wings and feathers, but in point of sadness…  On account of the Divine intellect with which Man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the image and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form. [3]

Other interpretations of the Sages see in these concepts of Creation the unique superiority of human beings that legitimize their role in Creation as having dominion over the earth:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said:  I rule in the heavens, and Man rules on earth.  What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do?  He put him in the Garden of Eden and made him king there, as it is written, “The Lord G-d planted a garden …” (Gen. 2:8).  Scripture does not say he brought Man there; rather, he set Man there, just as the verb “to set” is used in the verse, “set a king over yourself” (Deut. 17:15). [4]

Three Meta-Characteristics

In the light of these interpretations, one could say that human beings are set aside by three meta-characteristics embodied in the concepts of “image” and “likeness,” and that these three create a clear distinction between human beings and all other creatures:

1.     Intellectual capability

2.     Freedom of choice

3.     Ability to rule

Freedom of choice and intellectual capability enable people to act according to their will and understanding, unlike other creatures whose process of creation put the lid on their ability to influence their lives.  It must be noted, however, that this advantage has inherent in it a structured dialectic of Creation, as follows from the description of Creation:  “the Lord G-d formed Man from the dust of the earth.  He blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7):  on one hand, their process of creation was the same as the animals, as we see from the continuation of the text:  “And the Lord G-d formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky” (Gen. 2:19), yet on the other hand there is a significant difference:  “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:6).  The breath of life is the spiritual component in the process of Man’s creation.  The tangible expression of the spiritual component is reflected through the meta-characteristics of “image” and “likeness,” and it gives human beings their sense of eternal existence, [5] whereas the material component in the process of the creation of Man, who came from the earth, gives the quality of being terminal and in its wake that of survival like any other thing in the universe.  These components operate in diametrically opposed directions and hence create a constant struggle in human behavior.  In the first attempt to cope with this conflict between these components the spiritual advantage operated to his detriment:   Man was banished from all the ways of life in the Garden of Eden.

As part of the change in Man’s status, he was denied the possibility of going back and choosing eternal life; the way to the Tree of Life inside the garden had been blocked for him, and perhaps thereby the possibility of eternal life was precluded even though the aspiration for immortality remained ingrained in him.   Extensive commentary has been written on this theme, ranging from one extreme to the other. [6]   Some think that eating the fruit of the Tree of Life would have given Man eternal life, plain and simple, while others believe that a person’s life span is predetermined and the words “live forever (le‘olam)” should not be interpreted as meaning immortality, rather long life, as in “he shall then remain his slave for life (le‘olam)” (Ex. 21:6). [7]  

Or ha- Hayyim's Approach

Of all the existing commentaries, I have chosen to present the unique approach taken by Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar.   The question which we presented at the outset, regarding the essence and location of the Tree of Life, is bound up with another question which he raises in Or ha-Hayyim, his commentary on the Torah (on Gen. 2:23):  “Why did G-d not rush to command Man regarding the Tree of Life, lest he eat from it first and become immortal, before eating from the Tree of Knowledge?”

The fact that we are told that there was a Tree of Life in the Garden before mortality is decreed on Man makes us wonder about the function of this tree.   If its fruit indeed contains immortality, why was eating it not forbidden from the outset, just as eating from the Tree of Knowledge had been forbidden?  The response suggested by Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar also answers the question about Man’s status before and after sinning:

Indeed, that G-d first commanded Man regarding the Tree of Knowledge indicates that G-d was not worried that Man might eat from the Tree of Life, neither of his own volition nor because of being incited; of his own volition, because he had not the awareness or knowledge to seek schemes that would bring him to the pinnacle of physical achievements.

The greatness of primordial Man, as created in the “image” of G-d, finds expression in the absence of any consciousness relating to material pleasures and pleasures of the body, despite the material component in him.   According to Or ha-Hayyim, Man was created on a higher level than the angels, because the commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge presented him with a challenge to sanctify his material body and to climb to a more elevated eternal-spiritual world; whereas the angels, created spiritually, did not have free choice and therefore were not given tasks involving discretion and voluntary choice, their entire function being only to do the will of their Maker.

The great challenge that was placed before Man was accompanied by a command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, in order to keep from him any inclination towards materialism and relativism that knowledge of good and bad was likely to give him. [8]   The command was stated in the negative:   “you must not eat of it,” and for violating this command, an action stated in the affirmative was given:   “for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Gen. 2:17).  Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar viewed this combination of a negative and a positive in the well-known Talmudic form:   when a negative command is follow by an affirmative command, the latter is intended to set right that which was violated in the negative command.  For example, “You shall not leave any of it over until morning” (Ex. 12:10), but if nevertheless something does remain, it can be set right by the positive command:   “if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it” (ibid.). 

Death as a Corrective

Once Man had sinned, the soul that G-d had instilled in him, the purpose of the “image” and “likeness,” became enchained in his material body, and the body could not rise with the soul to the world of the eternal.  The way to correction for Man after having sinned focused on saving the soul and restoring it to the world of the eternal by severing it from the physical body.  Death is an affirmative action to rescue the soul; it is the corrective measure for Man.  In support of his argument, Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar cites the figure of Elijah, who ascended to heaven with body and soul.   Ascending in such a Manner expresses a condition of perpetual sin, [9] preventing ascension to eternal pleasure in the Garden of Eden:

Let us learn from the prophet Elijah, of blessed memory.  Through sin his body was barred from ascending to the holy place, and having been deprived of the possibility of separating from his body, he could not achieve the hoped-for eternal pleasure.  Accordingly, even without the Deity commanding Man not to eat from the Tree of Life, Man himself would stay away from it, for fear of the day that he would eat from the Tree of Knowledge. For if he did not, there would be nothing to set right the injunction that had been violated and Man would find himself lost forever.

In his view, death is not a punishment, rather an act of mercy towards Man on the part of the Holy One, blessed be He. It comes to set right that which he had spoiled, enabling him to return his soul to its maker without the burden placed upon it by the body.  According to this explanation, the great challenge placed before Man to sanctify the material body and to take it to greater heights of spirituality could not be achieved after Man chose to have wisdom of good and bad and then to turn his attention to material pleasures of the body.  Blocking the way to the Tree of Life prevented the human soul from sinking in the materialism of the body forever, and assured its release from him upon his death.


[1] Pesikta Zutrata ( Lekah-Tov), Genesis, ch. 1.26.

[2] Midrash Aggadah (Buber), Genesis, ch. 1.26.

[3] Guide to the Perplexed, Part I, ch. 1.   Also Rabad gives these words figurative meaning:  “The words tzelem (image) and demut (likeness) are synonyms, and in Hebrew never meant other than an imitation of something.”  From Rabad, Ha-Emunah ha-Ramah, Second Article, Principle 6, s.v. ve-nashuvatah.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati (Ish Shalom), Addition I, par. 1 – shor o- kesev.

[5] Zohar, Vol. I (Genesis), Parashat Bereshit, p. 27a.

[6] As Rashi interprets Genesis 3:22:   “There are aggadic interpretations, but they do not resolve the matter in terms of the plain sense of the text.”

[7] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 3:6.  Also cf. Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw ed.), Parashat Va-Yeshev, par. 4.

[8] Cf. Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part I, chapter 1; chapter 7, Part III, chapter 8.  Lack of this awareness, Maimonides explains, is what prevented them from knowing that they were naked, as opposed to seeing that they were naked.

[9] Indeed, Many of the legends of the Sages describe Elijah as in need of atonement.   See Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, Parashat Lekh-Lekha, 71;  Midrash Tehillim (Buber), Psalm 117;  Midrash Zuta, Song of Songs (Buber), ch. 8.