The Origins of Human Deception and Divine Disclosure in Sefer Bereishit

Beginning with this week’s parsha, we are proud and honored to be publishing CMTL alumni divrei torah every week. This week’s dvar torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

Is it in the nature of humans to be truthful?

The human beings created in Genesis Chapter 2 blame others. They lie. They obfuscate. How could beings infused with the Divine spirit stray so rapidly and so completely?

I suggest that the theme of human deceit and trickery pervading the book of Genesis parallels the episodes where God discloses, reveals, and lays plain his goals, objectives and plans. God discloses; people deceive. With proper treatment, these four words can form an overarching schema that underlies and informs every story in the book.

The first critical scene of human deception occurs after Adam and Chava eat the fruit. In a childlike manner, they hide from God (Genesis 3:8):

ויתחבא האדם ואשתו, מפני יהוה אלהים, בתוך, עץ הגן

Do they think they can do so successfully? Or is the impulse to run away from one’s mistakes an innate characteristic? Adam has not been conditioned in this regard. He knows nothing of consequence and punishment, yet he hides to cover his tracks.

When God pursues Adam and says “איכה”, “Where are you?,” he responds “את-קלך שמעתי בגן” “I heard your voice in the Garden.” The wordplay is striking. Most other places the words “שמע” and ”קול” appear juxtaposed, they refer to heeding or listening, most notably in 3:17. Hashem punishes Adam because he listened to his wife (“שמעת לקול אשתך”) when he should have listened to God, a fact that becomes readily apparently when Adam hears the voice of God (“את-קלך שמעתי”). 

Further, when Adam and Chava eat from the tree, God expresses a concern that they have become like divine beings (Genesis 3:22): “הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע” Knowledge of good and evil makes us become divine. How is this then connected to the human impulse to lie, to hide, to blame others?

The second critical story of human deception comes to expand on and illuminate its predecessor. In Genesis 3, one could argue that Adam did not actually lie, strictly speaking. He hides from God and blames his wife. But he does not actually lie.

In Genesis 4, God intervenes early, but the humans don’t act any better. When Cain’s sacrifice is rejected by the Lord, God speaks to him. Psukim 6-7 are incredibly difficult to interpret but amount to some sort of warning by God to Cain to avoid sin, which is lying in wait. Just as God told Adam and Chava to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, he warns their son Cain to avoid the temptations of jealousy.

The story plays out in a predictable way. Cain, like his parents, gives in to sin. God asks him, too, a question by way of confrontation. Cain, too, gives an answer that is meant to deflect his guilt. The famous “השמר אחי אנכי” – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” can be seen as more deceptive than his parents’ reply – Adam and Chava blame others for their wrongdoing, but don’t attempt to cover it up. Once they realize they cannot hide from God, the jig is up and they don’t deny what they ate.

The two sins might seem unrelated, but they both involve trespass onto the parts of the divine that are not ours by right. This explains God’s comments in 3:22 as well as the terrible nature of Cain’s sin – only God decides who may live and who may die. In both stories, therefore people wish to be like God in precisely the ways that are not permitted to them, while refraining from emulating His straightforward honesty.

From these early stories, it would seem that the urge to lie, to deny, and to cover one’s tracks is primal. These urges are an animal part of human existence that derive from a desire for self-preservation. And because these urges are instinct, they can presumably be overcome by those with the self-control that God demands of man. God himself tells Cain, “הלוא אם-תיטיב, שאת”, which can be interpreted as a promise that if people try, they can conquer their emotions. After all, Cain is at this moment angry that his offering was not accepted. God has come to intervene because of Cain’s emotional state. He is telling Cain, “You know what the right thing to do is.” Yet Cain knowingly chooses the wrong thing and believes, for a time, that he can successfully cover it up.

Alternatively, we can posit that if humans had never eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, they would not have known that they could lie, and would have remained in the garden, with eternal life, but without the divine knowledge of good and evil. In this second scenario, humans would have been both more like the animals they rule (lacking the knowledge from the Tree) but also more divine in their purer existence in the garden.

As we read the rest of Sefer Bereishit, we see this template repeated: God clarifies the criteria for success and warns people not to violate the boundaries He has set out, but His creations lie and trick and cheat, resulting in their centuries of slavery in Egypt.

Is there a remedy to our baser instincts or are we doomed to sin, to lie and to cover up? Certainly, we can conclude by suggesting that God is truth, and the pursuit of God is therefore the pursuit of truth. Towards the end of this week’s parsha, we begin to see this remedy pursued in the description of the birth of Enoch: “’אז הוחל, לקרא בשם ה” (Genesis 4:26). We must call out in the name of the Lord and strive to be like Him in the ways that are permitted to us. With Rosh Hashana not far in our rearview mirror, it behooves us to focus on honesty, including straightforwardness and integrity in our personal relationships and business dealings, for these are the lessons of Sefer Bereishit that we should internalize.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM’06) teaches Chumash and math at the Maimonides School in Brookline,  MA.

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