When is a tree more than just a tree – and less? A careful examination of some of the early pesukim in Bereishit with my Ninth Grade Parshanut class yielded some tremendous fruit for thought, along with an eye-opening answer to that question. The thoughts below are a conglomeration of ideas by all of the students in the class – they are not my own, or at least far from exclusively so.
The command from On High (Bereishit 1:11) was abundantly clear: תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן – the earth shall grassify grass, vegetation seedifying seeds, a tree of fruit making fruit, whose seeds are in it according to its type on the earth – and it was so.
Small wonder that the ground, the intended recipient of this command, lost little time in messing up the order. The very next Pasuk tells us what happened: and the earth produced grass, vegetation which would sprout seeds according to its kind, and a tree which would make fruit. And Elokim saw that it was good.
Rashi picks up on the ground’s rebelliousness as related specifically to the tree. While the ground was told to create a fruit tree bearing fruit – meaning, ostensibly, that the tree would taste like the very fruit that it produced – the ground instead created a tree which only had fruit, but which did not also taste like fruit. For this reason, Rashi says, the ground was later punished along with the other characters in the Garden (3:17): Cursed is the ground, for your sake; with effort you will eat from it all the days of your life. Thorn and thistle will sprout for you, and you will eat the grass of the field.
Several questions present themselves:
1) How is it possible for the ground to violate Hashem’s explicit orders and decide independently to create a rogue tree?
2) If the ground sinned now, why isn’t it punished until later? Why wait to punish the ground until the other Garden characters sin?
3) It is unclear to what extent the ground is actually punished. Although it says “cursed is the ground,” its punishment seems to affect man more than itself.
4) The end of 1:11 says “and it was so,” indicating that the command to the ground had in fact been fulfilled in the way that it was ordered. Furthermore, the end of 1:12 says that “Elokim saw that it was good,” implying that He was pleased with the ground’s unilateral decision to defy His orders. Both statements seem to obscure why in fact the ground was punished for its actions.
5) What incentive did the ground have to violate Hashem’s orders? What did it gain by making a fruit-bearing tree rather than a fruit-like tree? Why did the ground violate God’s command at all – just for kicks? Just to show it can?
In order to approach this discussion, let’s establish a working paradigm for the relationship between God and His creations. This is important because this is not the only instance in which the creations defy His orders. The sun and moon are of equal size until the moon complains and is diminished. Man, of course, defies the one order he is given and is immediately punished. So really, we can add the following question to the above list: Why does God create a world with the capacity for defiance? And why, of all of the creations who rebel, does man retain this ability still today, while other creations could no longer rebel even if they wanted to?
All sin takes root in the absence of a mindfulness toward one’s Creator. At the same time, one cannot consciously remember his Creator without having the chance to forget his Creator and only then deliberately abandon this urge in favor of remembering Him. At this moment of God-consciousness, one actively earns his reward for defying his primordial nature and instead remembering God. In other words, we were made to forget God in order that our remembering Him would be meaningful.
Most of the creations’ defiance of or disagreement with Hashem went against Hashem’s original plan, and their punishment was to lose their ability to choose. That ability had been inconsequential to the overall running of the universe, but it was nice while it lasted. The ground’s losing its ability to choose, and thereby to defy God’s orders, did not interrupt the larger plan that Hashem had for the universe. On the other hand, man’s ability to choose – that singular quality that would now set him apart from all of the other creations – needed to be kept intact and preserved for all time. What was originally the province of all of the creations – free choice, and the duality of great and terrible consequences that necessarily go along with it – became the sole property of man.
Can creations today rebel? To some extent, yes. Ramchal in Derech Hashem points out that while the sun and moon cannot rebel, the weather can do more or less what it wants, because Hashem has deliberately outsourced the running of meteorology to “mother nature.” That is why it so hard, even today, for meteorologists to make any clear predictions of tomorrow’s weather, even though our ability to predict the rising and setting of the sun is (nearly) flawless. But there is an important distinction to make here: while Hashem chose to outsource the running of weather, that was exactly that – His choice – which He could also reverse any second that he wants to, thus making weather once again as “predictable” as the rising and setting of the sun. In the same way, our ability to choose is only due to Hashem’s wanting us to have that ability.
So – how is it possible for the ground to violate Hashem’s explicit orders and decide independently to create a rogue tree? Perhaps, the ground was not in fact violating Hashem’s command, but merely exercising its God-given power to choose. In that, the ground was perfectly in line in doing what it did, because the ability to choose is central to what makes – or at least, in the ground’s case, what made – for a meaningful existence on earth. At the same time, this ability came with a peril – the chance for abuse – and the ground proved that it was no longer able to maintain the ability to choose. But – If the ground sinned now, why isn’t it punished until later? Why wait to punish the ground until the other Garden characters sin? Because its sin and theirs was really one and the same – mered, rebellion, the abuse of the precious gift of free choice. And it was critical for man to see, by dint of the juxtaposition of the tree’s sin with his own, the power and limitations of free choice.
After the Great Flood in Parshat Noach, Hashem makes an interesting statement el libo, to Himself: לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, I will not continue to curse any longer the ground for the sake of man. Apparently, twice is enough. The ground rebelled, as we have seen, by creating a non-edible fruit tree, and so it was punished when man rebelled by eating from the edible fruit of a non-edible tree. (Could perhaps the Adam-Adamah connection be that Adam would not have been able to sin if the ground had obeyed Hashem in the first place and made an edible fruit tree? A careful reading of 2:17 would seem to indicate that very fact. What exactly is Man commanded not to do? Check it out!) And now again, by means of a flood, the ground is punished along with man. The first time, the ground rebelled. But what did the ground do this time which led to its further downfall?
בראשית פרק ד
(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי: (י) וַיֹּאמֶר מֶה עָשִׂיתָ קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן הָאֲדָמָה: (יא) וְעַתָּה אָרוּר אָתָּה מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה אֶת פִּיהָ לָקַחַת אֶת דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ מִיָּדֶךָ: (יב) כִּי תַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה לֹא תֹסֵף תֵּת כֹּחָהּ לָךְ נָע וָנָד תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ: (יג) וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל ה’ גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשֹׂא: (יד) הֵן גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר וְהָיִיתִי נָע וָנָד בָּאָרֶץ וְהָיָה כָל מֹצְאִי יַהַרְגֵנִי:
Wait, who sinned here – Kayin or the ground? Rashi brings this ambiguity home:
רש”י בראשית פרק ד
(יא) ארור אתה מן האדמה – יותר ממה שנתקללה היא כבר בעונה, וגם בזו הוסיפה לחטוא: אשר פצתה את פיה לקחת את דמי אחיך וגו’ – והנני מוסיף לה קללה לא תוסף תת כחה:
Apparently, even more guilty than Kayin for murdering his brother was the ground for participating in that murder by accepting Hevel into the ground. It seems that the ground had, up to that point, retained some of its free will – unfortunately, in this case, using it for a negative end. However, perhaps predictably, the ground’s punishment was held in abeyance until a future generation – and even less surprisingly, a generation fraught with murder. At that time, once again, both Adam and Adamah were punished together.
But no more. Immediately following the Flood, the symbiotic interrelationship between Man and Ground is permanently severed – לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם. And why? כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו. Wait – what about the ground? Isn’t the ground’s יֵצֶר also רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו? The ground has already made two very bad choices, as many mistakes as man has made up to this point! Granted. But from this point on, man and ground will go their separate ways. Man will retain his free choice, his יצר’s ability to be רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו forever intact. The ground, on the other hand, now loses that ability to choose, as we see in the very next Posuk: עֹד כָּל יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ. Ground now will follow fixed, robotic, freedom-less calendrical patterns of days, seasons, and years. More than that: man controls the calendar – החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים could perhaps be homiletically interpreted as this concept of “months” is for you (man) to determine, oh you who are the controller of months. And given that Ground is now forever to be without the ability to choose, it would not be fair to punish it alongside man, whose יצר, unlike the Ground’s, will continue to be רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו. This is perhaps the greatest, and surely the most tragic, shake-up of the original order of creation: that the tenuous relationship between Adam and Adamah, envisioned as a fitting check and balance on the power of each, will now be abandoned. Man will continue to sin and be punished. Ground can no longer sin or, hence, be punished alongside Man. Man and Ground wave farewell for history.
A coda: a careful reading of the Pesukim about the keshet, rainbow, which follow the Flood shows that there are in fact two covenants made concerning the keshet – the first (9:10) is made אתכם ואת זרעכם אחריכם, with you (mankind) and your offspring; the second (9:13) is ביני ובין הארץ, between Me and the Ground. Man’s destiny is no longer intertwined with that of the Earth. What began as an exercise of faith in Man’s ability to influence the Ground positively (1:28) – פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ, turned into a realization that this dream would never be realized (9:1) – וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת נֹחַ וְאֶת בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ. The era of וְכִבְשֻׁהָ has ended.