The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Genesis-- The Ways of the Evil Inclination
Prof. Eleazar Touitou
The stories about the beginning of mankind, including the primordial sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are stories "containing both manifest and hidden truths" (Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis 3:22). We must examine the manifest or obvious surface level of the story of primordial sin to try to understand how it was that "[Adam and Eve] had one commandment to keep, and they stripped themselves of it" (Rashi, Genesis 3:7, s.v. "and they knew they were naked"). The Torah seemingly provides no insight on the psychological process that Adam experienced, causing him to transgress God's command. A close analysis of the text, however, allows us to peer into the recesses of the soul, revealing some of the ways of the evil inclination, the yetzer hara; if we can learn how the "enemy" operates, perhaps we shall be able to better protect ourselves against it.
God commands Adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17). The snake asks Eve in would-be innocence, "Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?" Eve responds, conveying the content of God's command, but not God's exact words, for she changes the style slightly. Those who insist on the plain sense might maintain that these miniscule stylistic differences are not significant. However, following the approach of the Sages, we maintain that they are deliberate differences, revealing something of the inner world of the sinner. Let us take a close look at both passages.
God's words (Gen. 2:16-17) Eve's words (Gen. 3:2-3) And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; thou shalt eat; but of the tree of the knowledge but of the fruit of the tree which of good and evil, is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: thou shalt not eat of it; Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, for in the day that thou eatest lest ye die. thereof thou shalt surely die.
The Sages point out that Eve added to the command, for God did not forbid touching the tree. But there are also other changes in what she says. God's words clearly emphasize that everything, both that which is permitted and that which is proscribed, comes under His jurisdiction; whereas in Eve's words we see a clear distinction between the permitted and the proscribed: that which is permitted, exists of itself; God's intervenes only to proscribe, to limit what we may do. God's words establish a broad range of the permissible: Of every tree of the garden thou shalt eat, as much as you wish. Eve narrows this range, and extends the scope of the proscription. In God's words, the tree of knowledge is simply one of the trees, but Eve locates that tree "in the midst of the garden," placing the forbidden fruit in center stage, as the focus of interest. God's words come as an unequivocal command: "And the Lord God commanded." Eve tones down God's instruction, presenting it simply as "God hath said." Although "said" or "spoke" is occasionally used synonymously with "commanded," as in the parallel construction, "For He spoke, and it was; He commanded, and it stood" (Ps. 33:9), it conveys less decisiveness than "commanded." Apparently Eve found it difficult to be repeatedly commanded. The burden of commandments weighs down on mankind. Eve also made a significant change in describing the punishment. According to God, transgression surely leads to the punishment of death; according to Eve there is room for doubt, "lest you die." Maybe, but maybe not; so one need not be in such awesome fear of God's commandments.
Did Eve intend to disobey her Creator? Probably not. More likely, her response to the provocative question of the snake (embodying Satan and the evil inclination; see Bava Bathra 16a), is what led her to present God's commandment in a slanted way. Deliberate distortion of the situation to appear stricter than it is ("Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?") invited "correction." On the way to setting things right, however, a touch of distortion worked its way into the human spirit, marring the straightforward perception of the relationship of commanded to commander. If this is the way of the evil inclination, perhaps we can minimize its influence on our lives by pursuing the opposite course; i.e., by making truth and decency the basis of our behavior, both towards our fellow human beings and towards God.
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