Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), author of Meshech Chochma, one of the most penetrating commentaries on the Torah, draws our attention to one of the most powerful messages Jewish education has to offer.
When discussing the failure of Adam and Chava (Eve) to abstain from the Tree of Knowledge, this commentary points out one of the most common mistakes made in Jewish education. Why did Adam and Chava eat from the tree? Did the Garden of Eden not include many trees with the most appealing fruits and delicious tastes? Why would primordial man become obsessed with one forbidden tree while all other trees were permissible? Our sages and many psychologists would no doubt respond that this is due to the fact that human nature desires the forbidden more than it is attracted by the permitted: “Stolen waters are sweet”, is a well-known saying. It is not that water as such is sweet, but that it becomes sweet once it is stolen.
Does this, however, mean that resisting the forbidden is beyond the capacity of most human beings? In that case, God’s commandment not to eat from the tree would become a trial which no man could pass. As such, this prohibition would be morally unjustifiable.
When one looks into the text it indeed seems that God’s first commandment to Adam was an uncompromising prohibition to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. This would mean that man’s first encounter with the will of God was a negative experience: a restriction. But, maintains Meshech Chochma, this is far from true: This was not the first commandment! Careful analysis of the text shows that the first commandment to them was to eat from all the other trees and enjoy them.
“And God the Lord commanded man, saying: ‘From all the trees in the garden achol tochel’.” (Bereshith 2:16) This Hebrew expression does not mean, “You are permitted to eat”, but “You shall eat!” In other words, God’s first communication with man was not in the negative, but a positive commandment to eat and enjoy.
However, Adam’s negative psychological makeup (from where?) made him misunderstand this communication. Instead of seeing his encounter with God in a positive light, he started his religious life on the wrong foot and believed that religion should start with the negative. This, however, is disastrous. The story of the Tree of Knowledge teaches man that the only way in which man is able to deal with prohibitions and restrictions is when they are preceded with positive demands and enjoyment.
Once religious life starts on a positive note, and God’s first commandment to man is to enjoy His creation, man’s perspective even of the forbidden is one of promise. His attitude towards restrictions is influenced and penetrated by optimism.
Without any doubt, this has become one of the gravest stumbling blocks of religious education. When Judaism is introduced to man as a religion of taboos, permanent damage is done to its very structure. Too often young people have become victims of such negativity and consequently have not been able to find their way to the Jewish experience.
One of the greatest tasks of Jewish educators today is to dare to turn the tide and show our people that Judaism is foremost the art of enjoying God’s world.
Once it becomes clear that God started His conversation with the human being on a positive note, all the prohibitions fall into place. The goal of Judaism’s restrictions is not to form a tradition of taboos with the purpose of making life more difficult. A closer study of those prohibitions will show that their main purpose is to give life a higher meaning. And no meaning will ever become apparent unless it is shaped by discipline. Life, after all, is an art, and art is an emotion controlled by an idea. But such discipline must be preceded by the need to enjoy.
The bottom line is this: if one does not teach oneself first to enjoy God’s world, one will end up in transgression.