The very first bible story in Parsha Bereishis, just after the Six Days of Creation, is Adam & Eve and the Two Trees in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. It’s such a well-known story that Apple Computer’s logo (an apple with a bite into it) reflects this (though the Talmud lists other possible fruit trees but not an apple).
But we can’t avoid the obvious question: What’s wrong with knowledge? Doesn’t Judaism greatly and repeatedly extol knowledge and the pursuit of it? Why would the first biblical story put down knowledge like this?
There’s a rich in-depth Chassidic interpretation of this story with much personal life relevance. I think of this Chassidic commentary a lot and reflect back on it all the time. We’ve discussed it from time to time, did Torah-Tuesdays on it, and played my Chasynthesis game based on it… can discuss more of this another time. This time focusing on interesting student responses to this question.
At this Shabbat Lunch after reading Bereishit 5782/2021 we asked students this question and here’s some of what they shared:
Jason F: In my Microsoft Access database class the professor was saying that you start off with data points, build up and accumulate a significant database, that can be turned into knowledge, but the goal is wisdom, not data. People who are only interested in data or even knowledge are missing the point. That’s why Tree of Life is ideal.
Orly M: Maybe the problem was not with the knowledge itself but the concern about them becoming Know-It-All’s. Too much knowledge can make people arrogant. Knowledge is power, and sometimes it can delude us into thinking we are all-powerful, and we’re not.
Shane M: Sometimes it is better not to know, sometimes ignorance is bliss. Maybe G-d didn’t want humans to become too smart for their own good. Some things are better left for G-d to know and for us people not to know.
Russell H: Maybe it wasn’t the right time for all that knowledge just then. You see this in child development, you have to let them grow at their own pace and not overwhelm them with too much at once. Sometimes too much information can be overload and actually detrimental.
Ariana K: I like the timing issue. Even with studying, its better to learn and absorb things slowly and gradually, rather than cramming it in all at once. And when it comes to drug delivery, pills can have timed release to ensure the body is getting the proper dosage when it needs it. Maybe the concern was too much knowledge all at once when they weren’t ready for it.
We can get back to the Chassidic answer (from Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntres Eitz HaChaim) another time, but for now these student thoughts were quite interesting and good discussion material!