Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Eitz HaDa'as - Getting to Know the Yetzer Hara
And Hashem G-d commanded the man,
saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may
eat, but from the Eitz haDa'as Tov ve-Ra (Tree
of Knowledge of Good and Bad) you must not
eat, for on the day you eat from it, you shall
surely die." Now the serpent was more
cunning than any creature. And the serpent
said to the woman, "You will not die, for G-d
knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes
will be opened and you will be like G-d,
knowing good and bad." (2:16-17; 3:1, 4-5)
The intriguing Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad is shrouded in
mystery. What was it, and what evil powers did it possess? What does
it mean to know (da'as) good and bad? Certainly good and bad
existed even before partaking of the Fruits of the Tree, as witnessed
by the evil serpent. Certainly, too, Adam and Chava (Eve) were able
to choose and discern between good and bad before eating from the
Tree; if not, the test would have been unfair. So how were they
changed by eating from the Tree - "knowing good and bad?"
Rashi (to 2:25) writes, "Even though [Adam] was endowed with
wisdom [which was used] to give names [to the animals], the yetzer
hara (evil disposition or inclination) did not enter him until he ate
from the Tree, upon which the yetzer hara entered him... ." What
does it mean when we say that the yetzer hara entered him? If he
wasn't there until then, how did he come to sin?
Let us first address this mysterious yetzer hara fellow. He seems to
come under a fair amount of discussion, yet he is poorly understood.
Perhaps, at some simplistic level, we still believe the yetzer hara to be
some (red? pitchforked?) man who whispers evil thoughts in our ears,
persuading us to sin. But if so, where is he? How do we hear him?
Obviously, we admit, this vision is too shallow.
It is in truth too shallow for us, explains Rabbi Chaim Velozhiner
(Nefesh haChaim 1:6), but once upon a time, this is exactly what the
yetzer hara was. He was a serpent, an evil cunning creature, who
came and whispered persuasive, sinful thoughts to Adam and Chava.
Left to their own, it would never have occurred to them to partake of
the Tree which Hashem had forbidden. As it is written (Koheles/
Ecclesiastes 7:9), "G-d created man yashar (straight/virtuous)." They
could, however, be corrupted by an external force, which is exactly
Once corrupted, the yetzer hara, as Rashi says, entered them. A
metamorphosis took place. The yetzer hara was no longer an
external force of evil trying to exert itself against inherent good.
Good and evil joined; they became mixed and blended - within
man. Rabbi Eliyhau Dessler (Michtav me-Eliyahu volume 2, p. 138)
explains it thus: Before eating the Fruit, "you" (you = the yetzer hara)
tried to get me to sin. After eating the fruit, it is "I" who wants to sin.
This concept is in fact alluded to by the Ramban, who writes (2:9),
"Adam would naturally do that which is proper and useful to do
[without deviation], just as do the heavens and the constellations. The
Fruit of the Tree is what instilled within him the idea of wanting
and desiring - that is to choose good or bad [based upon what he
wants]." Indeed, R' Chaim Velozhiner explains that the meaning of the
word da'as in Eitz haDa'as/The Tree of Da'as is to mix or to merge
(this is an alternate meaning of the word, see for instance Ralbag to
Mishlei 7:1 who demonstrates such a usage) - it was the Tree which
Merged Good and Bad, which had until then been separate, within
the heart of man.
This is unquestionably a deeper, more thorough understanding of the
Eitz haDa'as Tov ve-Ra, and of the yetzer hara. What practical
application can this bring to our service of Hashem?
The pasuk says (Devarim 21:10), "When you will go out to war
against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver them into
your hands." Mefarshim (commentators) explain that the "enemy"
refers not only to our physical enemies, but also to our inner enemy -
the yetzer hara. If, they explain, you desire victory, you must treat this
battle as you would any war. When one goes to war, he must be
intimately familiar with his enemy. Many a battle has been lost due to
inadequate reconnaissance and lack of familiarity with the enemy's
power and capacity to attack. If we want to stand a chance in our
battle with the yetzer hara, it is crucial that we first understand who
and what it is, and how it goes about attacking us and convincing us
Now we have begun to perceive that the "yetzer hara" is not some
external enemy. Following the sin of the Eitz haDa'as, it "entered"
man and became one with him. Battling "it" is actually battling with
ourselves; struggling to come to terms with our own inner feelings
and desires, without trespassing the boundaries set out for us by
Hashem. Recognizing this is half the battle.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.