Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden with but one command to follow: do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. When the snake came to entice Chava (Eve) to eat from it, he steered the focus to the one forbidden tree by inquiring if G-d had forbidden eating from ALL of the trees. “The woman said to the snake, ‘Of the fruit of any tree of the garden we may eat. Of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden G-d has said, “You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, lest you die.”‘” (Beraishis/Genesis 3:2-3) Indeed, G-d had never said anything about touching it. Rashi explains that the snake pushed Chava against the tree and she suffered no harm, to which the snake responded, “Just as you did not die when you touched the tree, nothing will happen when you eat from it.” Rashi notes that her effort to embellish G-d’s command led to its diminishment.
But why did her coerced contact with the fruit convince her that eating was without risk? After all, G-d does not hold people accountable for violations of the Divine will caused by outside forces. Sifsai Chachamim (supercommentary on Rashi by Rabbi Shabsai Bass, 1641-1718) clarifies that Chava, in her effort to understand the punishing power of the fruit, rationalized that the fruit was toxic, from which she assumed that the toxins killed by any contact, internal or external. She was so invested in this rationale, concludes Sifsai Chachamim, that when touching the fruit caused no harm, she concluded that there must be no poison – G-d must not have been forthright in his warning, just as the snake told her – and, therefore, nothing would come of eating it.
How could Chava make such an egregious error? She knew that G-d said nothing about toxins, that it was her own assumption, contrived to make sense of the situation, and that she further invented the danger of any – even accidental – contact. When she saw that she did not die, she should simply have realized that her hypotheses were WRONG. How did she suppose that G-d was not truthful in His warning such that she felt free to eat without fear of consequence?
Rabbi Alter Henach Leibowitz (Rosh Yeshiva/Dean of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills, New York) observes the destructive power of haughtiness and unbridled self assuredness. Chava was so confident in her comprehension of the tree’s power that the undoing of her assessment discredited the ENTIRE warning, to the point she lost faith in the basic Divine caveat to refrain from eating. So great is the challenge of recognizing and admitting one’s own failings that the normal human reaction is cognitive dissonance, the unwitting manufacture of a preposterous fact pattern in the simple effort to lend credence to – and avoid retraction of – one’s original assumptions. Chava could believe G-d was less than truthful, eat from the tree, and introduce death to the world, but she could not be wrong.
True humility is difficult to attain, but the Mishna (Eduyos 5,6) advises that it is better for one to be called a fool by his peers for his entire life than be construed as evil by G-d for one moment. Orchos Tzadikim clarifies the corrosive nature of pride. G-d Himself warned us (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 8,14) that haughtiness causes such self overconfidence that one eventually forgets G-d and His role in guiding our daily affairs. With this comes dereliction to mitzvos (Divine commandments) and laziness toward chesed (kindness) opportunities, because his primary focus is himself. Conversely, continues Orchos Tzadikim, humility is the root of Divine service, because it is the recognition that our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, are all ours as gifts from the Orchestrator of the Universe. Humility does not mean denying our talents. It means accepting that we are not the true source of those talents; accepting that the true source gave us those talents so we may fulfill a mission; and accepting that with those talents came a number of flaws, too.
Life is about choices. One of G-d’s greatest gifts to us is our freedom to choose…and one of our most important choices is: Whose will do I serve? Whose mission plan do I follow? Who is really “number one”? G-d or I?
Have a Good Shabbos!
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Pinchas Avruch and Project Genesis, Inc.
Kol HaKollel is a publication of the Milwaukee Kollel Center for Jewish Studies 5007 West Keefe Avenue; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 414-447-7999