Greetings from Jerusalem, where this blogger has now successfully decamped for the foreseeable future! One thing I love about this city of mine/ours is its constant contradictions: the sacred and the profane, the mundane and the revelatory sit side by side without even glancing one at the next. And as I wear my freelance editor's hat for this day’s chunk of midrashim, I’m struck at how the compilers of Midrash Rabbah (as rephrased in 2:91) edit together contradictory takes on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to portray multiple perspectives—all of which bring necessarily fascinating insights to the passage.
2:91: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: a simplified summary of a midrash compiled in Breishit Rabbah 15:7, this passage tackles the question of what sort of fruit grew on this tree. I love midrashim of this sort, because they take a very practical, literal question and use it to bring out much deeper truths about the themes of the story. To break down the various answers a bit.
- Grain (hitah): bread, which is made from grain, is associated with wisdom. It thus makes sense that grain/bread would be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, the food that made them smarter. The underlying value behind this choice is that eating from the Tree was essentially a positive thing, one that enriched the standing of humanity in the world. This vision of the Tree and its gift is not one we see in many other rabbinic commentaries, to say the least, although it’s certainly more prevalent in our tradition than, say, in Milton’s.
- Grapes (‘anavim): this association comes by way of a verse, Deut. 32:32, that links grapes with bitterness. One can see this analogy as directly contradicting the earlier take: not only should we not see the Tree as a source of positive knowledge, but indeed, it was the source for the bitterness of the world.
- Etrog: the etrog is known in our tradition as one of the most beautiful and useful fruits, a plant with sweet smell, sweet taste, and evidently even edible wood. This midrash closely reads the verse that describes the Tree as being good to eat, not merely its fruit, and thus associates it with the etrog. In addition to being appealingly literal, this interpretation returns to the earlier positive spin on the act of eating from the Tree: the most beautiful of all fruits is an etrog, a fruit used for ritual purposes even today.
- Fig (te’enah): here we have a classic rabbinic parable, replete with princes, illicit sex, and Jews sinning in the presence of God. The midrash takes as its textual anchor the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used for clothing, spinning a yarn associating the figs with sexual disgrace and later acceptance of the sinner. Clearly the values here associated with eating the fruit are pejorative: yet there is also some compassion assigned to the character of the fig, the one tree that will accept the spurned humans after their fall. While the humans may have sinned by eating from the Tree—and it’s a big sin—the accepting nature of the fig tree is praised, especially in contrast to that of the punishing parental God.
- And finally, the words of R. Joshua ben Levi: we’ll never know what kind of tree it was, lest we judge the tree harshly forever. While this take surely allies with the Miltonian harsh judgments of the “grapes” and “fig” midrashim, it also carries a delightful note of anthropomorphizing the tree itself, protecting its feelings. It’s not the tree’s fault that it was chosen to play this role, the midrash seems to say. And even as the tree is allowed to live anonymous, unjudged, unburdened by history, so too may humans reinvent themselves after their fall from grace.
What I love about this midrash is the way that it moves seamlessly from questions of plot and language—how can we use the words of the text to learn what kind of fruit the Tree actually gave?—to issues of morality, forgiveness, and future decisions. The answers may contradict each other, and that’s just fine: each interpretation can teach its own bit of wisdom, applicable in its own circumstance. As we dip deeper into the Elul season of soul-searching, cheshbon ha-nefesh, may we be able to learn big pieces of wisdom from our small deeds, perhaps managing all the while to become comfortable—just a bit!—with contradictions.