“And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat…”[2:17]
According to Jewish philosophy, Good and Evil are separate forces at work within us. All of us have an inclination to do Good, and one to do Evil, and we must constantly be vigilant to listen to the one and not the other.
R’ Chaim Volozhner explains in his work, Nefesh HaChaim, that before Adam and Chava ate from the fruit of this Tree, only holy forces were at work within a person. Man and Woman were completely straight and pure, and all of their work was holy and clean of the least impure influence.
Evil lay outside. Thus although every person had free choice, the free choice that a person had was whether to welcome the impurity within — just as a person has free choice today whether or not to jump into a fire! The snake had to seduce a person into sinning — it didn’t come naturally, as it were.
What was the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”? He says that we should understand “knowledge” as “consideration” or “giving it value”. Good and Evil both became valuable, desirable. The evil inclination lies within us, and thus makes it appear to us as if we ourselves want to sin. We do evil without worrying that some external force is seducing us.
This is a very profound message, because we often feel that we want to do things which we really know are detrimental. Are our neshamos, our souls, evil? Do they contain evil? Of course not! At our spiritual center lies a holy soul which wants only that which is good and right and pure.
So why do we think that we want to do things which, when we really think about it, are bad — are evil? Because Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and now the snake has come inside. He’s lying right next to our hearts, whispering all sorts of nonsense about the things “we” want to do.
We don’t want to do anything if the kind. We want to drag the snake to synagogues and houses of study. We want to do only that which our souls find nourishing and pure — the Torah’s dictates. May G-d help us to battle the snake!