The Day Aesthetics Replaced Ethics

Reversing the paradigm shift from “good” to “true”

A Good Sin?

A defining moment in human history takes place in this week’s Torah portion – the opening of the entire Bible -- when Eve and Adam consume fruit from the “tree of knowledge of good and bad.” This was a betrayal of G-d’s commandment to them, “From the tree of knowledge you should not eat, for on the day you eat from it you will die.”

In the beginning of his work “The Guide for the Perplexed,” Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the greatest philosophers and personalities in Jewish history, raises an “extraordinary question that a learned man asked me some years ago.”

On the one hand, the Torah relates that the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree were cataclysmic in their negative effect: Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, and death and pain became the plight of human life on earth.

Yet on the other hand it seems that as a result of this forbidden meal a great benefit was bestowed on the human race. Since this tree was defined as “the tree of knowledge of good and bad (1),” by consuming its fruit, Adam and Eve actually acquired unprecedented awareness and knowledge of “good and bad.” This, indeed, served as the chief argument employed by the serpent to entice Eve to eat the fruit -- “G-d knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like G-d, knowing good and bad.” The vision of the serpent actually materialized: following the eating of the tree, “G-d said, ‘man has now become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad”.

In that case, asks Maimonides, it means that the sin committed by Eve and Adam was a tremendous blessing, not a curse. It liberated them from the status of mere animals acting in response to instinct. Now they became rational, discerning creatures who could discern good from evil and live a life in accordance with that knowledge and wisdom.

Good vs. True

Upon deeper reflection, however, Maimonides demonstrates the negative effects that came about as a result of eating of the “tree of knowledge.” I believe that this explanation of Maimonides bears special relevance our highly sophisticated and knowledgeable generation, when, as one philosopher out it, people are reading more and more about less and less.

Before the sin in the Garden of Eden there was only truth and the opposite of truth. After Adam ate from the tree, the result was “pleasurable” and “not pleasurable” - “Good” or “Bad”. This helps us understand the three stages in dealing with addiction. This class also has an explanation of the chassidic view on Tznius.

The partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge transformed the vocabulary of the human race. Prior to the sin of the tree, the prism used by man to classify cravings, events and ideas was whether they were false or true. If they were true he embraced them; if they were false, he rejected them.

In the aftermath of the sin, a paradigm shift occurred in the psyche of man: Now the primary barometer of the significance of things became dependent upon them being bad or good, not true or false. 

A good business, good food, a good speech, a good school, a good day do not necessarily mean a truthful business, healthy food, an honest speech, a moral school and an honest day. We often gravitate and pursue that which looks and feels good, even though it may be wrong and false.

If Adam had not eaten the metamorphosing fruit, the primary question in life would have been, “Am I doing the right thing?” Now, in the post-consumption era, the defining question has become, “Am I doing the comfortable thing?”

Our job in this world is to reverse the process of sacrificing ethics for the sake of aesthetics. We need to restore the vocabulary of humanity to its original form.

Before you make any decision in your life, ask not “Is this the comfortable path?” Instead ask, “Is this the right path?” 

By: Rabbi YY Jacobson

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