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Bereishit: The Origin of Consciousness


The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

And G-d commanded the human, saying: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” … And the serpent said to the woman: “You shall not surely die. For G-d knows that on the day you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and desirable to the eyes, and a tree that was attractive as a means to gain intelligence. She took of its fruit, and ate it and also gave some to her husband and he ate it. Both their eyes were opened, and they realized that they were naked; they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the voice of G-d walking in the garden in the breeze of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of G-d amongst the trees of the garden – this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:4-8)

Evil, and freedom of choice, existed before Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge. But then evil was something external from the person, and the two domains were completely separate. Man’s mission in life was to “work and protect the Garden” – to cultivate the good and keep out the bad. By eating from the Tree, man gained intimate knowledge (daat) of evil, ingesting it into himself and – man being a microcosm of creation – into his world. From that point on the two realms were confused, there being no evil without good and no good without evil. The task of man became the “work of refinement” (avodat habirrurim) – the grueling battle to distinguish and separate good from evil and evil from good. All of history is the story of this difficult battle – Rabbi Schneur Zalman (Torah Ohr 5c-d)

The most popular story ever told – eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge – is also the most life altering event in history.

The Bible tells us that “both their eyes were opened” after eating from the fruit. Aren’t open eyes a good thing? Why should awareness be considered a sin?

So let us analyze for a moment this thing called “consciousness.” At first glance consciousness would seem to be the ideal state. Indeed, the prevalent view is that consciousness defines human superiority over all other creatures: Our ability to be conscious of ourselves and others.

But upon further thought doesn’t consciousness suggest that we are disconnected from the thing we are conscious of? The mere fact that we are conscious and aware of ourselves distinct from our experiences and from others indicates that we are separate from the real experience.

The natural universe (unless upset by man), for instance, is seamlessly connected to its purpose. Observe the remarkable symmetry of the natural order; each cell, each animal, each component part of a complex mosaic that complements each other and never wavers from its course. Animal are never bored (“animal bliss”). But neither are vegetables or minerals. Humans, on the other hand are conscious of themselves, and thus disconnected from their purpose. Who you are is not necessarily reflected in what you do and vice versa, unlike the natural order where every iota is accounted for and lives up to its raison d’être. Resultantly, we suffer from all the maladies – neuroses – of consciousness: anxiety, fear, insecurity, loneliness and aimlessness. The list goes on.

Consciousness, then, is actually a state of disconnect – a misalignment between being and the essence of being.

Think of it this way: Is there any difference between consciousness and self-consciousness?

Think of what it means to be alive. What does it feel like to just exist, to be? What does life feel like? If you can feel life it is a sign that something is wrong. Health has no sensation. Pain, illness – when things go wrong – then we feel something. When we are healthy, breathing normally, regular heartbeat, we do not feel sensation. We just are.

Life means to be, to exist. Being has no sensations. It can experience a sensation, but on its own it just is.

As soon as you feel you exist, you cease to truly exist. The more we are aware of ourselves the less we actually are being.

Simply put: We are at our best when we are least aware of ourselves. The truest experience is when you feel completely immersed in the experience, to the extent in which one cannot distinguish between you and the experience.

When you are “in the zone,” you have become one with the experience, a seamless channel for a higher force working through you. You are not detached from it. Imagine if all your life activities were driven by your inner vision.

Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they were seamless beings: Transparent vehicles of their soul’s mission. Symmetry existed between spirit and matter, between form and function, between soul and body and between being and purpose. The first man and woman were seamless beings who were connected to their purpose. They therefore felt no consciousness about their own nakedness and sexuality (just like a newborn child).

All that changed when they ate from the Tree that fateful Friday morning 5767 years ago. The first man and woman became detached from their own essence. Now there was and “I” and a “you,” a creature and a Creator, a means and an ends. Which is only one step away from the means becoming an end to itself.

“I think therefore I am” is a post-Eden phenomenon consciousness. The pre-Eden state of mind is one that sounds more like this: “I am therefore I think.” Or even better: “I am therefore I am.”

By eating from the Tree of Knowledge they lost their innocence. When their “eyes were opened” a life of duality began. Every experience now consists of the experience itself and how we experience the experience, how we feel and sense the experience.

And duality is a small, quantitative step away from duplicity.

As a result of this newfound Tree of Knowledge awareness – caused by the disconnect form the source and purpose – the course of history was changed (not to mention the birth of the garment industry). Man was banished from the garden; life became difficult and all of life’s gifts and benefits would not come easily: The pain of child-birth, the tension around relationships and intimacy, the hard work to earn a living and all the challenges in the workplace (“by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread”), and finally – death itself (“for dust you are, and to dust shall you return”).

Just like a business cannot function without a mission and a machine cannot run if it’s not being used for what its engineer intended, we too cannot function smoothly (if at all) if we are living dichotomies.

When you are disconnected from your inner calling – and your sense of self is separate from your sense of purpose – your love, your work, your children, your dreams everything you cherish and aspire to, will suffer from the dissonance.

As soon as we taste “good and evil” – and become aware of ourselves – we begin to die. We have tasted the taste of death. And all of our life activities – even the most beautiful and joyous – are fraught with challenges due to the dissymmetry between the ends and the means.

Once we become separate from our missions self awareness is a “healthy” state in order to grow and reclaim our innocence. But this awareness is “healthy” only relative to the unhealthy world of duality. After our outer selves are disconnected from our inner selves awareness is a necessary step to return. But the ultimate experience is when we achieve a unity with our inner voice that does not even require a state of awareness. We need not open our eyes, because we just feel the experience in every fiber of our beings.

This is why we cover our eyes when we say the Shema and declare the Divine Unity that is inherent in all of existence. When we are living in a dual universe we must keep “our eyes open.” It a dark world (in which the blind often lead the blind) it wouldn’t be very wise to close our eyes. But when we are immersed in the most intimate experiences of our lives, when we connect in prayer or in love, when we throw ourselves totally into serving a higher cause, we can have our eyes closed.

Each of us, on a microcosmic level, undergoes a similar transition from a pre-Eden consciousness to a post-Eden one – reflected in our journey from childhood to adulthood.

Observe a young child and you will get a sense of unself-conscious behavior. Even though some like to feel that adult life is superior to naïve, vulnerable children, the fact remains that we always remain drawn to the beauty and innocence – the enchantment – of our own childhood. Whether it is called “Rosebud” or another name, many thinkers posit that every one of us is on some way in search for the lost innocence of our young years.

But once our “eyes have been opened” and we have lost our innocence we must keep them open, and allow that awareness to help return us to the pure, seamless world of essence. And that is an unprecedented achievement – the purpose for which the entire duality was allowed to manifest in the first place – that in world of tense duality, with our eyes fully open (and without the luxury of escaping into “animal bliss”), we learn to reconnect to the inherent unity where we can close our eyes and be at peace.

As we read this week about the birth of self-consciousness, may our awareness of our own awareness serve as wake-up call to help us regain our innocence and reach beyond awareness – living a life of complete seamless immersion in the purpose of our lives.


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Irena Lerman

When you see brief and distinctive lines on a canvas, you try to put all the pieces together to make the whole picture evident and clear, but in vain, your imagination cannot bridge the gap that only knowledge can do. Your article THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS reminds me about my fond of Yoga, levels of meditation, Existentialism, Small Prince and his words about what we can see with our eyes and what only our heart can reveal (by Gorge de Send Ekzupery),etc, etc. It is amazing how separate and independent clusters of knowledge echo and agree with what you wrote.… Read more »

Chaya Fridman Gross

As always enjoyed the question and the response but would like to suggest an alternative. Although the exit from Gan Eden can be seen as the loss of innocence and the creation of duality, which in a sense it certainly is, I prefer to see it as the creation of paradoxand opportunity.Since the Master of the Universe could certainly forsee the challenge of separating man and woman who as stated in this weeks parsha, He created as one, we can ask ourselves, why He had not left well enough alone? The challenge of our lives is to be given the… Read more »


Having joy when things are difficult… I hand my problems over to the
Lord and in His own good timing my problems are diminished through faith
in my Lord… He never promised us a rose garden…

Of course, I pray daily to Him who gave me life, He who loves and comforts
me in times of trouble, I am blessed…

Adam Neira

As you are probably aware Julian Jaynes wrote a book called The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in the 1970s. He posited a reductionist, materialist, evolutionary view of consciousness. He had an interesting theory, however I believe more in the Intelligent Design theories of the universe, and that G-d does in-fact intervene in the affairs of humankind throughout history. He does this usually by influencing the thoughts and mindfulness of certain righteous individuals who then become leaders of their generation. Maimonides partly explains this process, in Guide for the Perplexed. Wisdom always flows through the… Read more »

Marc Lerner

I feel the Origins of Consciousness is one of your best e-mails. My Yom Kipper experience connected me to what you talked about. I feel Returning means taking the consciousness you place in your thoughts and mind made realities and connecting to Ashem. That is like consciousness being conscious of Consciousness; there is no you present. To me a sin is when our mind captures consciousness and separates it from Ashem,, but to most of us that is what our minds do regularly. That simple sub-conscious act goes against the Commandment of having no other Godbefore God. Our mind that… Read more »


Answer: By davening with kavanah, learning limudei kodesh, keeping mitzot, and avoiding reading confusing narrishkeit like the above column like the plague.