Yesterday, we noted the snake’s claim to Chava that God warned against eating the fruit of the forbidden tree because “God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). As we saw, different interpretations have been given for the notion that eating from the tree would cause Adam and Chava to “be like God, knowing good and evil.”
A classic chassidic reading of this verse appears in Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein’s Ma’or Va-shemesh, where he explains that the snake refers here to the lure of judgmentalism. In its attempt to persuade Chava to partake of the forbidden fruit, the snake alleged that eating the fruit would empower her to judge people like God does, to know the “good and evil” of other people. Humans are limited in their knowledge and understanding, and are thus incapable of rendering definitive judgment about the people around them. Even when we witness people’s conduct, we are missing key pieces of information, and, additionally, we are not privy to the innumerable psychological factors that contributed to the individual’s decision to commit a given action. The snake understood the innate human desire to judge, to determine other people’s innocence or guilt, and so it tried persuading Chava that the forbidden fruit would free her from her human limitations and enable her to be like God, definitively determining other people’s moral and spiritual standing.
The Ma’or Va-shemesh here essentially compares the lure of forbidden physical pleasure to the lure of what we might call forbidden emotional pleasure – the enjoyment of pride that results from arrogantly judging other people’s conduct. Like tempting “forbidden fruit,” the seeming faults, mistakes and indiscretions of other people attract us, enticing us to indulge in the thrill of condescension. Just as we are given opportunities for permissible pleasures to satisfy our physical needs and desires, while being required to refrain from certain forbidden physical pleasures, we are likewise given permissible ways to experience emotional fulfillment, while being barred from forbidden forms. We are allowed, and encouraged, to achieve fulfillment through close interpersonal relationships, and by working to achieve, accomplish and succeed in the endeavors we choose to pursue, which brings us a genuine sense of self-worth. Emotional fulfillment through arrogance and snobbery is the “forbidden fruit” of emotion, a tempting means of enjoyment which is strictly off-limits. In our quest for feelings of self-esteem and self-worth, we are to work to become people worthy of our own esteem and admiration, instead of looking critically and condescendingly at the people around us for the purpose of feeling superior and proud.