“The superiority of man over the beast is nil, for all is futile.” — Ecclesiastes 3:19

From the holy teachings of the Alter Rebbe: “Israel, one nation on the earth. The nation of Israel, even in the earthly world, is bound up with the one G‑d. G‑d transforms the spiritual into something material; Israel transforms the material into something spiritual.” — Hayom Yom, 27 Elul

Why is the world filled with conflict? Where did it come from? Who started it?

Most of us grew up hearing this story.

Sin in the Garden

Once upon a time (in the very beginning), G‑d created Adam and placed him in a beautiful, pristine garden. Then He told him, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.”1

Of course, we know the rest. When G‑d gave the command to Adam, Eve had not yet been created. She never heard the command directly from G‑d and that set the stage for the serpent to fool her. He persuaded her to eat from the tree, and she gave its fruit to Adam as well.

What ensued was that each one pointed a finger at the other. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent. In the end, each bore some of the guilt and was punished as a result. The serpent would creep on the earth and eat dust. Eve would suffer the pain of childbirth. Adam would have to perform backbreaking work to earn his daily bread. And all of them would die.

Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden in disgrace, and we’ve been working ever since to clean up their mess—to remove traces of that sin.

In other words, G‑d gave us a perfect garden, and we ruined it! Any conflict, ugliness, pain and suffering that resulted is due to us. We broke it, we own it, we must pay for it.

Even those who don’t pluck all the details right from the Bible tell a similar story. The world in its natural state is pristine and harmonious. But greedy, rapacious human beings come along and despoil the earth, pollute it and abuse its resources. We broke it, and only we can fix it.

That was the story as I understood it in childhood, and I never thought to question it. It made sense to me. G‑d is perfect, and we are not. So, naturally, any discord or conflict must be due to us.

It was only when I began to study Chassidic teachings in depth that I realized that there was something missing in my understanding.

A Deeper Look at the Story

What was that tree doing there in the first place? Who put it there? Why did G‑d single out one tree and tell them not to eat from it? Why didn’t he hide it from them if it was so dangerous? The whole episode began to seem suspiciously like a setup.

Could this mean that we’ve been thinking about this the wrong way all along? If the tree was there before Adam and Eve got to the garden, then maybe they weren’t the ones who broke it? Maybe they weren’t the ones who brought conflict and chaos into the world. And if we didn’t break it, is it really up to us to fix it? Indeed, in Chassidic teachings, the entire episode of Adam, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge is referred to as nora alilah al b’nei adam2—“a terrible plot against mankind.”3

If we want to understand the roots and origin of conflict, we need to look back further than the story of Adam and Eve, back to the very first moment of creation. And what we learn shifts our entire perspective on why conflict exists and what we are meant to do about it.

The existence of conflict is a major question that Chassidic thought grapples with. How does a perfect G‑d create such an imperfect world? How does a fragmented, chaotic world emerge from His absolute unity? The distillation of this question is, how does the world exist altogether? How can anything at all exist outside of G‑d?

Indeed, this was the state of reality before the world was created. There was nothing but G‑d. G‑d was alone.

But G‑d did not wish to be alone. He wanted companionship. He wanted someone to share Himself with. He wanted to express Himself, and in order to express Himself, there had to be an “other.” There had to be someone else. We are that “other” whom G‑d created in His image. He invested in us His hope and desire for a partnership.

You may be rightfully wary of anthropomorphizing G‑d and projecting on Him human impulses and desires. We get lonely; we desire companionship. Does G‑d have needs and desires like ours? But since we are created in the Divine image, our desires are a reflection of His. Our drive for closeness, for companionship, for unity, derives from Him. G‑d wished to connect and He created within us a similar desire.

G‑d Wants a Relationship

The question still remains. How can anything exist outside of G‑d? How can a finite, limited creation emerge out of an infinite G‑d? G‑d wanted us and wanted a world in which we could live together, and therefore, He did us a favor: He hid himself. He withdrew in order to allow space for us to exist.

Imagine a great and mighty king who decides one day that out of all people in the universe, he wants to have a relationship with you. Now, if he simply invites you over to his palace, there wouldn’t be much of a relationship. He’s the king, and you’re just an ordinary person. He far surpasses you in every imaginable way. You’d probably feel awkward and uncomfortable in his presence. Certainly, you’d never be yourself. And the palace would be nice, but it wouldn’t be your palace. It wouldn’t reflect your tastes or your desires. You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable asserting yourself at all. You’d defer to the king for every decision. You’d be struck dumb, as if you didn’t exist at all.

But because the king truly wants a relationship with you, he gives you space in which you can grow and develop and become your own person. He gives you some general directions and resources, but tells you to build the palace to your own taste. Then, when you’re ready, He will enter and join you. This way he won’t overpower you, and you won’t dissolve in his presence.

In the analogy, you and the king may be very far apart, but you’re still alike in that you are both human beings. But in the case of G‑d and His creations, the gap between us is vast and unbridgeable. He is the Creator, and we are the created. Even if he “gives us space,” we are still completely dependent on Him for our existence. We may feel ourselves independent, but we only exist because He desires us to be.

When G‑d moved Himself aside, so to speak, He created a space in which the world could exist. In Chassidic terminology, this act is called tzimtzum, “withdrawal.” This very first act of separation is what allows for creation, but also allows for chaos and conflict. It was the initial crack in G‑d’s perfect, ultimate unity. But although tzimtzum might seem to be a negative event, in itself it’s an expression of G‑d’s love and kindness: He had to move Himself aside to give us room to exist.4

Creating a World Where G‑d Is Hidden

Now, when an infinite Being wants to create a space where He’s concealed, what does He do? He makes it as different from Himself as He possibly can. He makes it the polar opposite of Himself. The initial tzimtzum was the first of a series of contractions that led to a chain of universes, each successively less spiritual than the previous one, culminating in the physical universe, the coarsest, darkest and most fragmented of them all.5 Our world is the lowest of the low—the furthest you can possibly get from G‑d. He is sublime; the world is mundane. He is infinite, the world is finite. He is the ultimate in giving and compassion; the world is selfish and petty. He is goodness; the world is a dark and dirty place where the wicked prosper.6

He created a world where He is hidden to the utmost, because He wanted us to look for Him. In this world, every perception that we have is distorted. Light appears dark, good appears bad, sweet appears bitter and right appears wrong. G‑d wanted a home in this world because the essence of unity is when two extremes come together and find common ground. The further apart the two extremes are, the greater the force is needed to unite them. This is where G‑dliness is most expressed: Not in the infinite and not in the finite, but in the fusion and harmony between them. Does that sound impossible? Paradoxical? A contradiction in terms? That’s exactly where the Divine essence resides—in the realm that completely transcends logic, that transcends boundaries entirely.

So, to get back to the story of Adam and Eve.

Before G‑d created the world, he “consulted with the souls of the righteous.”7 Our souls were unified with G‑d well before the first tzimtzum, with no differentiation. But what G‑d really wanted was a relationship, and a relationship is not possible unless there’s some distance, some independence. So, he asked us to go “down there.” He wanted us to go to that very dark, distant place, the furthest extreme you can possibly get from G‑d. He said, “This is where I want to live. And I want you to build a home for me.”

He didn’t send us away from Him against our will. He asked us first.8 And we signed on to G‑d’s plan to make a “dwelling place in the lowest world.”9

Eve Chooses to Know Good and Evil

So Adam and Eve were created as souls in bodies and placed in the Garden of Eden. When Eve looked around she said to herself, “This doesn’t look so bad. This looks quite beautiful, in fact. Where is the concealment? Where is the distance from G‑d that I’m supposed to bridge? I don’t see it.” She wondered what the point of creation was if G‑d just wanted to park them in the garden. Was this it? Or was there more to it?

Along came the snake to give her some perspective. Now, who was the snake? According to Chassidic teachings, he was a big star! A shemesh gadol.10He was very clever, more sophisticated than any of the creatures that G‑d had made.11 And he explained the situation clearly to Eve: “For G‑d knows that on the day that you eat thereof, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like G‑d, knowing good and evil.”12 In other words, as long as you stay in the garden, you’ll be safe and coddled. You’ll be just another one of G‑d’s creatures. But that’s not what G‑d wants. He wants a partner, an equal. He wants you to struggle, to choose between good and evil. To stay in the garden is to take the easy way out.

This was the impossible, paradoxical choice that Adam and Eve were given. Not to eat from the tree meant to accept the status quo. They’d be comfortable and well taken care of for the rest of their lives. In fact, the “rest of their lives” would last forever. But that would be it. No growth, no advancement. No leaping over obstacles to unite with G‑d. No transforming of the physical into spiritual. No merging of the finite with the infinite to create something new.

The paradox they faced is the inverse, the mirror image of the familiar paradox that we face every day of our lives. If G‑d wants us to be good, why does He make it so difficult? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we have to struggle? But their question was the opposite. If G‑d wants us to grow, why did He put us in the garden? Why did He make it so easy? Where’s the challenge? Where’s the struggle? Eat from every tree in the garden except one? Is that it?

So Eve accepted the argument of the snake. What G‑d really wanted was for her to become like G‑d, to “know good and evil.” To become independent and disconnected from G‑d, more of her own person. She ate from the fruit and gave it to Adam as well.

Did they make the right choice?

Well, it’s complicated.13

They chose to sin. They chose to violate G‑d’s command and eat from the tree. He told them not to eat. They consciously chose to separate themselves from Him and to leave the beautiful garden He had made for them.

But were they wrong?

A World of Struggle

When we sin, we usually choose the path of least resistance. We choose what’s easier, more comfortable, more convenient. Adam and Eve had no obvious benefit from eating from the tree. They had millions of other trees to choose from. They had each other. They lacked for nothing. For them, the comfortable, easy, obvious choice was to stay in the garden. By eating from the tree they were choosing pain, choosing death, choosing knowledge of good and evil, choosing conflict and ambiguity over wholesomeness and naivete. They chose to plunge themselves down into the depths in the belief that this was G‑d’s intent.

So the nature of their choice was ambiguous, and the nature of their sin is ambiguous as well. Sometimes, when we’re faced with a paradoxical choice, it’s better not to be so clever or sophisticated, not to overthink things. Maybe they could have left it up to G‑d to work it out. Being sly, arum, like the serpent isn’t always an advantage.14 But they made their choice, the die was cast, and here we are.

The consequence for Adam was that he’d have to toil to work the earth, and it would produce thorns and thistles. He’d earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. The consequence for Eve was the pain of childbirth. And both would die.

The nature of the physical world is fundamentally unstable. Things fall apart; they don’t fall together. Stability is a function of unity, of closeness and connection to the Divine. Distance from G‑d leads to impermanence and fragmentation. Adam and Eve became independent from G‑d, but also from each other. Man and wife no longer have an essential, innate harmony; it takes tremendous effort to build a relationship and keep it going. Their own children quickly fell to fighting and killing, and humankind has been at it ever since. To build something and keep it in order takes tremendous work and effort. Hours or years of painstaking labor can be undone in seconds. This is the natural law known as entropy—when left alone, conditions in the world gradually decline into disorder.

Every day in the post-Eden world is a struggle for survival, a struggle to preserve and maintain whatever we’ve built up. At any moment, we can fade into nothingness along with everything we’ve ever done or acquired. This gives our lives an essential fragility. What is our life worth and what are we working for? As we say in our morning prayers:

What are we? What is our life? What are our acts of kindness? What is our righteousness? ... Are not all the mighty men as nothing before You? Famous men as though they had never been? The wise as if they were without knowledge? And men of understanding, as if they were devoid of intelligence? For most of their actions are a waste,and the days of their life are trivial in Your presence. The superiority of man over the beast is nil, for all is futile.

Are Adam and Eve responsible for this state of affairs? They have a valid complaint to G‑d. You put us in this situation. You caused the rift in creation. You concealed Yourself. We didn’t break it, You did. And because we didn’t break it, there is only so much we can do to fix it. We can repair the sin of the Tree of Knowledge up to a point, but the rest will have to be done by You.

This is a dialogue that we’ve been having with G‑d since the dawn of human history. We tell G‑d that we’ve had enough. We’ve fixed as much as we can fix. We’re done.

This dialogue with G‑d is reflected in a Midrash on the Scroll of Lamentations.15

The Jewish people turn to G‑d and say,

“Take us back, O G‑d, to Yourself, And let us come back.”16

And G‑d says to us, no, you first: “Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you.17

But we have the last word, as the scroll of Lamentations concludes on an uplifting note: “Master of the universe, it is up to you … “Take us back, O G‑d, to Yourself, And let us come back. Renew our days as of old!”18

But to go a bit deeper, the point of sending us down to earth was not the separation, it was the reunification. In G‑d’s eyes, the tzimtzum, the “withdrawal,” was worth it if it leads to greater closeness and connection. G‑d gave us a choice, and we bought into it as well. G‑d gave us this fragmented world, the raw materials, leaving it up to us to fuse them together, to make sense out of them on our own. In a sense, this is G‑d’s greatest gift to us: He imparts to us some of His own creative ability. He didn’t give us a finished world but an imperfect one, and invited us to share it with Him and build it together with Him. And because the withdrawal was for our sake, it means that G‑d never really left.

He’s right there hovering over us, nurturing us, giving us all the life-force and energy and tools that we need to survive and thrive, so we can be partners with Him.