Parshat Bereshit: Genesis 1:1-6:8; I Samuel 20:18-42.
The story of Adam, Eve and the forbidden fruit is commonly studied as a story about disobedience.
God gave Adam and Eve a single (negative) commandment: Do not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. From this story, Jewish Torah commentators constructed one of the pillars of Jewish belief: the requirement to observe Divine commandments or reap the consequence.
Yet, observance of commandments, importance notwithstanding, is not the only message that this story conveys. Between the moment of disobedience when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and the moment when God inflicts punishment on them, there is a crucial step that we sometimes overlook: Adam and Eve, offered by God a chance to accept responsibility, choose to pass the buck instead. Adam, in response to the question, “Did you eat of the tree from which I have forbidden you to eat?” shifts blame from himself to Eve and even to God: “The woman you put beside me gave me of the fruit and I ate.” Eve, in response to, “What have you done?” blames the serpent. That’s when God imposes punishment.
The sequence of actions suggests that God is not angered by the choice to disobey, per se; but rather their failure to accept responsibility incurred Divine wrath and elicited God’s harsh punishments. Adam and Eve made not one but two unwise choices: eating the forbidden fruit and then failing to accept responsibility, but are driven out of paradise by the second poor choice. In other words, this is a story about choice and responsibility and understanding consequences. The human ability to choose wisely or poorly drives this story.
In a world where Adam and Eve have everything and know nothing else, their inability to understand that choices have consequences and even that consequences exist should not surprise us.
This also explains the meaning of their Divine punishments. Life will now have challenges and difficulties that will build character, including the ability to understand that actions and choices have consequences.
This is the first of many stories in which biblical figures are given a choice and, depending on whether they choose wisely, they’re rewarded or punished, beginning later in this week’s Torah portion with Cain.
This is the first step toward constructing a paradigm that Jews have lived by ever since. The ability to choose is a Divine gift that must be handled with care, among other ways by recognizing and accepting responsibility for the choices we make.
Dr. Howard N. Lupovitch is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University and director of WSU’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.