Whenever I read the story of Adam’s expulsion from Gan Eden, I am perplexed by the passage about the Tree of Life (3:22-24). The questions are so many that I have generally assumed it could only be understood on a mystical level. But since the rabbis famously tell us that there must be a simple understanding to all of Tanakh, there must be such an understanding here as well.
My first question is why the status or identity of this seemingly central tree is not mentioned before Adam sinned. Was it permitted at that time or forbidden? Perhaps the default is that we are not told before this, because Adam was simply uninterested by it then. If he was to live forever regardless (something not all commentators agree upon), he would not need it. Alternatively, according to Bechor Shor who suggests it was akin to medicine that rejuvenated and healed (but didn’t actually grant eternal life), perhaps its fruit – like almost all medicine – was bitter and unappealing.
Even more difficult is God’s apparent fear that if He doesn’t expel Adam and have the cherubs guard the tree, Man would get to it and live forever. But who is in charge over here? Let’s say that man got to the tree before God could stop him (something which itself makes no sense) and eats from this powerful tree. Does that mean God can no longer do anything to him? Did we not recently read in Parshat Haazinu (Devarim 32:39), “I give death and give life; I wounded and I will heal; none can save from My hand?” Even if we take a hard line about nature being fixed by God and God not intervening with free choice, surely no man is capable of “outmaneuvering” Him. As in the famous “Nietzsche is Dead” graffiti apocryphally attributed to God, God always has the last word!
For these reasons, I was pleased to discover R. Eliyahu Dessler’s identification of the Tree of Life with the Torah. In Michtav Me’Eliyahu (Vol 2, p. 92), he accordingly claims that the ideal Torah can only be acquired by someone free of sin. R. Dessler continues to explain that this is the state the Jews reached when they stood at Sinai, and that which made them eligible to receive it. As such, there was no problem with Adam eating from the “Tree of Life,” before his sin; he was only to be kept away from it afterwards. It seems to me that this is the likeliest explanation of this passage on a simple level. Though not a literal understanding, we know that the Torah sometimes uses figurative speech. Moreover, the specific association between Torah and life – and even between God and life – is one found several times throughout Tanakh.
To be clear, I don’t believe that we are speaking about the Torah in its present form. Rather, the present Torah is itself a manifestation of God’s will for the best way for man to live his life. And it is that primal Divine blueprint which was available to Adam as the Tree of Life. This is also how I understand the famous idea that God looked into the Torah and then created the world: Creation of the world is based on there being a Divine ideal for how man is to live his life.
Being sent away from the tree, however, does not mean Adam became totally divorced from the Divine will. Clearly God wanted Adam and his descendants to continue trying to live upstanding and proper lives. The difference is that they would now have to work for it. The tree could only be beheld at a distance and with conscious effort.
In the Garden, Adam was effortlessly living out God’s will. His intimate proximity with the tree showed an intuitive understanding that he should act in conformance with the primordial Torah. But after he sinned, effortlessness was no longer to be man’s; at least not until the Jews came to Mount Sinai and got a second chance. But like Adam, the Jews at Sinai also failed (though it is not a stretch to understand both sins as the default God expected). But that too was not the end of the story. Like in the Garden, the Jews were now commanded to place the primordial Torah behind celestial images that shield it from those for whom Torah requires effort. This explains the golden cherubs over the ark in the Mishkan.
In both cases, the cherubs simply reflected the reality of human nature as it is once man has sinned. While it is no longer in our nature to push the cherubs aside and return to effortless service of God, it is very much in our nature to realize why the tree we call Torah is so greatly worth the effort now required.