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Parshat Bereishit

Adam’s Sin

Adapted from a discourse by the Alte Rebbe by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]

"And G-d Elokim said: 'Man has become like one of us, aware of good and evil, and now he may extend his hand [and take from the tree of life].'”

Before the sin, Adam and Eve did not know from evil. They were no more ashamed to procreate than they were to eat and drink. They knew cohabitation only as the fulfillment of a Divine command; they were not aware of any lustful element. Thus they remained unclothed; they cohabited to bring children into the world.

All this changed when they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve became like G-d and the angels, who know good and evil. 

But man’s newfound knowledge differed fundamentally from Divine knowledge. In Divine knowledge, good and evil remain separate. All is clearly defined. This is evil and this is good. Divine knowledge is detached and transcendent, makif, and therefore does not confuse good and evil, G-d forbid. Good and evil remain separate.

Not so human knowledge. The human internalizes this knowledge. Good and evil become a part of him, pnimi. Without detachment, confusion ensues. Good and evil become intermingled. It becomes a challenge to set them apart.

The blending of good and evil in the human being causes the same to occur throughout all of creation. Evil now receives sustenance from evil and vice versa. They have become one.

It is now a fierce battle. When one side is up the other is down. The victor varies from time to time. Throughout history there were generations with lofty souls who triumphed over evil and others who saw horrible villains that allowed evil to defeat goodness. The vacillations of man throughout history are a reflection of the battle within their progenitor, Adam, who sometimes overcame and sometimes was overcome.

That’s why G-d did not want Adam and Eve to taste from the tree of knowledge. He did not want them to know of evil’s existence, since such knowledge would be detrimental to them. G-d wished for him to be entirely holy, free of the fierce battle.[2]

The Tree of Life

They were supposed to live forever. They were told not to taste the tree of knowledge so that they should not die. But now they would have to die.

Because they had brought evil into themselves, they had to be removed from the garden lest they partake of the tree of life and live forever, perpetuating the evil they had consumed.

The tree of life exists beyond the source for death. Were they to partake of this light they would live forever, notwithstanding their impure state.[3] This could not be. This would be contrary to the Divine plan in which death is eventually, in the messianic age, swallowed forever.

In between the beginning and the end is the time of separating, birur. Good and evil must be identified and separated until all wickedness will dissolve like smoke.[4]  

To this end Adam is banished from the Garden, to work the ground whence he was taken—to engage in the work of separation, by planting, plowing, reaping and then eating the food and elevating it by using its energy for holiness. In this way, Adam, and his descendants, separate the sparks of goodness that are scattered throughout the earthly reality and elevate them.

Plan A

The question, however remains: how was this elevation of evil supposed to happen if Adam would not have sinned and would not have been banished to the ground? The same question can be asked in regard to the exile, the purpose of which was to disperse the Jews throughout the world in order to extract the sparks of holiness that lie there. How would the elevation of the sparks have been achieved had the Jews not sinned, and remained in the Land of Israel?

Originally, the task of separation was to have been achieved in a totally different manner. Not by way of a battle, but rather through the revelation of immense light. Then the sparks would be gathered of their own accord, like a large torch that subsumes within itself the smaller flames that surround it.

This is how it worked in the days of the Temple, before the exile. The sparks came of their own accord, such as Naamah the Amonite.[5] All the nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, as the prophet tells us about the Queen of Sheba. At that time the torch of holiness was great and was therefore able to draw the sparks from all over. If the Holy Temple had not been destroyed, all the sparks would have eventually been gathered in this way.



Arizal explains the sin of Adam as follows:

Adam’s perception of the supernal realms was greater even than that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar).[6] He was literally of a different kind, crafted by G-d’s hands. Adam “walked in all of the palaces,” all the supernal realms but he did not wish to look into the palaces of impurity. The snake convinced him just to look and see what is there. Because of this did he stumble and fall.

So I have heard from the holy Reb Avraham, son of the Maggid of blessed memory, regarding Judah’s turning to the Adulamite. He explained that Judah turned to the lower realms, the realms of impurity, for the purpose of elevating the sparks from there.

This is also the purpose of falling on one’s face (in the tachanun prayer) etc.

Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus


[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."

[2] In other discourses the concept is explained further. See, for example, our essay on Ki Tissa, where it is explained that G-d ultimately "desired" for Adam to sin. Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, drawing on other discourses, writes regarding what was "gained" by the sin:

Nonetheless, there is an advantage to subjective knowledge of good and evil: that of contrast. One who has never fallen into sin will not pursue righteousness with the same zeal as someone who has. As exalted and exhilarating as the life of the fully righteous individual can be, it by definition lacks the pathos and passion of that of the fallen individual who now ardently seeks his restoration and reinstatement into Divine grace. Thus, paradoxically, without subjective knowledge of evil, the perfect man is flawed, unable to actualize his potential for intense aspiration for holiness. This is why the forbidden fruit contained the knowledge of both good and evil (and not just evil)—good can be "known," appreciated, and valued by someone who has tasted evil than it can by someone who has not.

This is not to mitigate in any way the greatness or vigor of existence without this knowledge. There is heavy price to be paid for the passion of the Fall, and that is the loss of innocence and purity. We should not fall into the trap certain thinkers have fallen into of one-sidedly glorifying the anguished pathos of the knowledge of evil while conceiving of the pristine, sinless existence being somehow boring or flat. On the contrary, there are real dangers involved in the descent into subjective knowledge of evil, not the least being the danger of failing in the struggle, at least temporarily. Thus, both modes of existence have their advantages and disadvantages.

The question, then, is: do the prospective benefits of the descent into subjective knowledge of evil outweigh the dangers involved in taking the risk? The answer, paradoxically, is both yes and no. Yes, the Divinity revealed in the world—and let us not forget that this is the purpose of creation!—is immeasurably greater and "deeper" when elicited by the anguish of falling than it is otherwise. But no, because the mutual pain of exile for Creator and creature, not to mention the suffering to which mankind would be exposed in the wake of this knowledge, is so agonizing that no ends can justify it.

Thus, it is clear that God both wanted man to live without this knowledge (and He therefore forbade eating the fruit) and to have it (and He therefore planted the tree in his backyard). Since these seem mutually exclusive, it was necessary to devise a way for this seeming impossibility to be achieved. God therefore created man a priori absolutely void of subjective knowledge. In this way, the awareness of this prior state of grace would forever remain in his consciousness as a possibility that could serve as an ideal to strive for. He then, through the temptation of the snake, plunged man headlong into the maelstrom of the conflict between subjective good and subjective evil. By overcoming the evil within him, man could then realize his Divine potential in the fullest. When the process is finished, and good is fully extricated and once again completely separate from evil, mankind and creation will have returned to the spiritual state of the Garden of Eden before the sin. However, man will still retain the appreciation of and drive toward Divinity he acquired during his stay outside the garden. Even though basking in Divinity, he will be able to hunger for it with the same intensity he knew in the darkest nights of exile. In the future, redeemed world, the advantages of both states of being—pristine naïveté and wisdom born of sad experience—will be paradoxically wed (based on Likutei Sichot, vol. 16, pp. 412 ff; Sefer HaMa’amarim 5666.)

[3] The tree of life exists beyond the shattering of the vessels of Tohu, which is the source for the origins of death. The tree of life is beyond the creation of the tree of good and evil. On this level, good and evil are irrelevant, as in the verse, "If you have been righteous, what have you given Him?….If your sins are many, what have You done to Him?" (Job 35).

[4] The separation is achieved through the light of chochma, wisdom. Although chochma is from the right side, the side of chesed (kindness), here it acts in the capacity of din, judgment. Indeed chochma is called din, contrary to the opinion of the early Kabbalists who thought that chochma is entirely chesed, since it is the source of chesed. But the "tailor" [referring to the commentary of Rabbi Judah son of Jacob Chayat ("tailor") on Sefer Marechet HaElokut] revealed that chochma contains din as well, and the Arizal praised him for it.

By contrast, keter (crown), the level beyond chochma is pure mercy and contains no din at all—darkness is the same as light.

[5] She was the wife of Solomon and the mother of his son Rehabam. She was married to Solomon during the lifetime of his father David.

[6] The Tzemach Tzedek writes: "Adam was greater than the Baal Shem Tov, the Arizal, even than Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai."

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