The ‘tension of two’ and the custom-built opponent

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Bereisheet

Among my grandfather’s sayings that my father often repeated to me was, “Those things in life you find the most difficult are those that you must place extra focus on and force yourself to do; for everything else, you already know you can do…”

One answer to why we find some areas particularly difficult and why extra effort is needed can be found in this week’s Torah portion — but with a moral twist.

Choice in the garden

The first portion of the Torah, Bereisheet(Genesis), contains the most foundational principles. Verses are particularly dense and filled with secrets. The themes introduced in this first section are the seeds from which all major struggles sprout in later narratives. One such theme is “the tension of two.” From an infinite, indivisible Creator — “In the beginning God created”— comes a series of dualities: light and darkness, heaven (spiritual) and earth (physical), good and evil, even two trees in the garden. 

On the sixth day, a unique creature appears onto the scene. The human being, composed of features from two distinct dimensions — the animal kingdom and celestial realm — possesses a simultaneous sense of belonging to both worlds, yet neither. Then comes the very first divine command: “You may eat from all the trees of the garden; but do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil….”

Revisiting the primordial sin

As one of the most familiar biblical scenes, it’s easy to gloss over the story without giving much thought to the parameters of this instruction. Many assume the instruction to refrain was eternal — there was no “expiration date.” Yet exploring the classical commentaries reveals a startling interpretation: The warning not to eat from the tree of knowledge applied only on that day. More specifically, it came during the ninth hour, leaving just three remaining hours before Shabbat, when the prohibition would be uplifted and all fruit would become available.

This insight changes our understanding of the famous episode and raises a fundamental question: Why was it so difficult to wait? How is it that they could not refrain for only a few hours? Some might say, “Well, he was only human,” but considering the description of the first human as a near-perfect and spiritually refined creature who heard this command directly from his Maker, it’s a glaring issue.

The custom-built opponent and your ‘portion in the world’

One simple answer is found in the designed dichotomy within creation. Sacred texts discuss how the parallel version of this global struggle — the tension of two forces of good and evil, holiness and “the other side” — exists within each person. While there are many gradations — some evil needs to be eradicated, other forms engaged and transformed — the principle remains the same. Furthermore, an internal opponent is custom-built for each person and not everyone has the same level of internal resistance and challenges.

The prime goal of the destructive force within everyone is to divert that person from the proper and productive path, either by neglecting to do something positive (active commandment) or by engaging in negative thinking, emotions, speech and actions. Furthermore, every soul is allocated a “portion in the world” to rectify and uplift. This portion includes people in one’s sphere of influence, contributions to the community and resources acquired and invested. There are also particular mitzvahs that must be done with more care relative to others because they are more connected with that soul’s mission.

The rules of the game

One of the primary mystical teachings is that the more important something is — whether within a person’s personal purpose or for uplifting a particular place or time — the greater the resistance. Intellectual and emotional impediments, when one’s thoughts are hijacked with false claims and twisted logic such as why something necessary cannot be done or should be pushed off, are all designed to sway someone out of alignment with their purpose. A person may be left wondering, Why is this seemingly simple area such a struggle for me when other people find it easy?

The surface answer is cliché — “everyone has their unique challenges.” The more hidden reason is based on the principle that the more critical something is for you to accomplish, the more powerful the self-destructive force. By design, the force that opposes holiness must appear in equal measure and even greater, to bring out the depths of one’s strength and potential.

Returning to the primordial stumble, it was precisely because the first person was so elevated and resisting the tree of knowledge was so important — with critical consequences penetrating generations until the end of days — that the counterforce of evil, embodied in the serpent, put intense effort and wily tactics into causing the mistake.

Practical takeaway: What’s holding you back?

As we begin the Torah cycle anew, we are reminded to listen closely to the inner conversation with the custom-built opponent. If you want to know the most crucial mitzvah for you, or what character traits are vital to improve, or which areas are linked to your purpose on this planet, the answer may be found in where you encounter the strongest internal resistance.

Accept the challenge, get to know the machinations of your personalized counterforce and redouble your efforts to win the battle, thereby uplifting your portion in this world.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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