“And G-d commanded Adam saying, ‘From all the trees in the Garden – eat. However, from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, and on the day that you eat from it, you shall die.’” (Bereishit 2:16-17)
What exactly was Adam’s charge at these formative moments? Which parts of these verses were included under G-d’s command? Perhaps the most common perspective is that His only command was to refrain from eating the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge. Man was not obligated to eat the Garden’s other produce– he was permitted to, so long as he did not violate the one limitation placed on him. (See, for example, Ibn Ezra and Radak’s first interpretation.) G-d was happy for Adam to enjoy, provided Adam did something to show that he did not forget by whose largesse he lived in Paradise. While intuitive, this approach is textually difficult – if the command was only to avoid the Tree of Knowledge, why was this law separated from the word “commanded” by an entire verse?
Perhaps in response to this problem, our Sages (Sanhedrin 56b, and midrashim to the above verses) see in the words of the first verse a coded list of the six Adamite Laws (which eventually became seven during the time of Noah). While this exegesis successfully juxtaposes a number of regulations to the word “commanded”, it still begs the question. The only law explicitly mentioned and not hidden by a hermeneutic veil remains the command to not eat – a law still separated from the opening word, “commanded,” by G-d’s allowance to enjoy the fruit of the Garden.
Several commenters, therefore, see in the simple meaning of these verses two distinct duties: to actively enjoy the majority of the Garden’s fruit, and to avoid the forbidden ones. (See for example Radak’s second approach, and Riva.) G-d did not begrudgingly allow man to eat, provided he kept the rules. The world was not meant to be merely a place to desist from sin, where engaging the physical, mundane elements was a necessary dispensation or even evil. Rather, when people live “normal” lives, striving to keep the word of G-d, eating and drinking too become spiritual, a form of Divine service.
Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, in his commentary Meshech Chochmah, pushes this analysis farther. First, he argues that it was the misunderstanding of this message that led to mankind’s original sin. Adam, he claims, recognized the importance of the prohibition to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and conveyed that to Chavah. However, he did not tell her that it was a commandment to enjoy the rest of the Garden. Had she known that appreciating the fruit was also spiritually significant, her constant engagement with G-d through the everyday would have protected her from sin. Without the knowledge that relishing all that G-d had given her was also meaningful, she was left to live a basically non-spiritual life, where G-d’s voice only penetrated in the form of a “no”. (Per Meshech Chochmah, the problem was that mitzvot protect one from sin, but mitzot need kavanah – proper intent. Thus, Chavah, who did not know it was a mitzvah to eat from the other trees, did not fulfil the mitzvah. However, one could suggest what was lacking was not the metaphysical protection of mitzvot, but rather a proper outlook on life – an outlook that intrinsically makes religiosity more appealing and fulfilling, making sin naturally less attractive.)
Second, Meshech Chochmah claims that this dual obligation was not only for Adam and Chavah, but for humanity more generally as well. This charge is the basis for our Sages’ statement (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:12) that “A person will be held accountable for all his eyes have not seen and all that he has not tasted.” Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “I almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire entrance to see the marvels of heaven, they would ask you, “Did you see the marvels of G-d on earth?” Then, ashamed, you would mumble, “We missed that opportunity.” (Collected Writings 8:259)
Thus, this perspective is important not just to understand the opening moments of Bereishit, but to understand how we must approach the world. We, too, remain bidden to see the Torah as a guide for how we are supposed to engage all that G-d has given us in this world, rather than a list of do’s and don’ts. We are commanded to see G-d’s presence even, or perhaps especially, when we eat of the trees in the garden.