Eitz HaDa’as – Getting to Know the Yetzer Hara
And Hashem G-d commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may eat, but from the Eitz haDa’as Tov ve-Ra (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad) you must not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die.” Now the serpent was more cunning than any creature. And the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for G-d knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like G-d, knowing good and bad.” (2:16-17; 3:1, 4-5)
The intriguing Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad is shrouded in mystery. What was it, and what evil powers did it possess? What does it mean to know (da’as) good and bad? Certainly good and bad existed even before partaking of the Fruits of the Tree, as witnessed by the evil serpent. Certainly, too, Adam and Chava (Eve) were able to choose and discern between good and bad before eating from the Tree; if not, the test would have been unfair. So how were they changed by eating from the Tree – “knowing good and bad?”
Rashi (to 2:25) writes, “Even though [Adam] was endowed with wisdom [which was used] to give names [to the animals], the yetzer hara (evil disposition or inclination) did not enter him until he ate from the Tree, upon which the yetzer hara entered him… .” What does it mean when we say that the yetzer hara entered him? If he wasn’t there until then, how did he come to sin?
Let us first address this mysterious yetzer hara fellow. He seems to come under a fair amount of discussion, yet he is poorly understood. Perhaps, at some simplistic level, we still believe the yetzer hara to be some (red? pitchforked?) man who whispers evil thoughts in our ears, persuading us to sin. But if so, where is he? How do we hear him? Obviously, we admit, this vision is too shallow.
It is in truth too shallow for us, explains Rabbi Chaim Velozhiner (Nefesh haChaim 1:6), but once upon a time, this is exactly what the yetzer hara was. He was a serpent, an evil cunning creature, who came and whispered persuasive, sinful thoughts to Adam and Chava. Left to their own, it would never have occurred to them to partake of the Tree which Hashem had forbidden. As it is written (Koheles/ Ecclesiastes 7:9), “G-d created man yashar (straight/virtuous).” They could, however, be corrupted by an external force, which is exactly what happened.
Once corrupted, the yetzer hara, as Rashi says, entered them. A metamorphosis took place. The yetzer hara was no longer an external force of evil trying to exert itself against inherent good. Good and evil joined; they became mixed and blended – within man. Rabbi Eliyhau Dessler (Michtav me-Eliyahu volume 2, p. 138) explains it thus: Before eating the Fruit, “you” (you = the yetzer hara) tried to get me to sin. After eating the fruit, it is “I” who wants to sin.
This concept is in fact alluded to by the Ramban, who writes (2:9), “Adam would naturally do that which is proper and useful to do [without deviation], just as do the heavens and the constellations. The Fruit of the Tree is what instilled within him the idea of wanting and desiring – that is to choose good or bad [based upon what he wants].” Indeed, R’ Chaim Velozhiner explains that the meaning of the word da’as in Eitz haDa’as/The Tree of Da’as is to mix or to merge (this is an alternate meaning of the word, see for instance Ralbag to Mishlei 7:1 who demonstrates such a usage) – it was the Tree which Merged Good and Bad, which had until then been separate, within the heart of man.
This is unquestionably a deeper, more thorough understanding of the Eitz haDa’as Tov ve-Ra, and of the yetzer hara. What practical application can this bring to our service of Hashem?
The pasuk says (Devarim 21:10), “When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver them into your hands.” Mefarshim (commentators) explain that the “enemy” refers not only to our physical enemies, but also to our inner enemy – the yetzer hara. If, they explain, you desire victory, you must treat this battle as you would any war. When one goes to war, he must be intimately familiar with his enemy. Many a battle has been lost due to inadequate reconnaissance and lack of familiarity with the enemy’s power and capacity to attack. If we want to stand a chance in our battle with the yetzer hara, it is crucial that we first understand who and what it is, and how it goes about attacking us and convincing us to sin.
Now we have begun to perceive that the “yetzer hara” is not some external enemy. Following the sin of the Eitz haDa’as, it “entered” man and became one with him. Battling “it” is actually battling with ourselves; struggling to come to terms with our own inner feelings and desires, without trespassing the boundaries set out for us by Hashem. Recognizing this is half the battle.