The Serpent, Without, Within, and Sin

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This morning I attended the funeral of my father’s cousin’s husband, who was much more of an uncle to me than a cousin. Fred Gross, a distinguished mathematician at University of Maryland Baltimore County and Naval Research Labs (before his retirement), passed away on Shabbat. He and his wife, tibadel le-chayyim tovim, Miriam, were warm and welcoming presences in my childhood, a home where I was always invited to sleep over, and always enjoyed doing so.

Most remarkably, when I was in seventh grade, Fred, a”h, split a sabbatical between two years, teaching only the spring semester of the first year and the fall of the second year, so his family could spend two years in Israel. He and Miriam volunteered to host me for a three and a half month summer (he took me with him when he finished teaching in the spring, and brought me back when he returned for the fall).

It was my first time in Israel, and left lasting impressions in many, many ways, an experience (along with many others) for which I will be grateful my whole life.

Fred was a lamdan, who spent as much of his free time as he could learning Torah, encouraging his children to study Torah, who started me on the path of giving Divrei Torah (like his children, I had to give a Dvar Torah each week at the Shabbat table that summer; it was when I discovered and fell in love with Kli Yakar), and was a mokir chachamim, someone who valued and respected Torah scholars greatly. תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים

R. Arama tells us he will spend the ninth sha’ar discussing the lure of sin, what we lose when we yield to the lures of an adulterous woman (literally and as a metaphor for sin), the true nature of the sin Chavah brought on Adam and the serpent brought on the two of them.  In short, he intends to expound the story of the serpent, but has already signaled some of the broader themes he thinks the story calls us to ponder.

Opportunity and Failure

He opens with a seemingly unrelated Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 16, which says the Jews’ famous words accepting the Torah, na’aseh ve-nishma, we will obey and we will hear, freed them from the angel of death. They achieved the state described in Devarim 4;4, you who cleave to Hashem chayyim kulchem ha-yom, are all alive this day, which R. Arama thinks means eternal life. Or, as Shemot 32;16 has it, the Ten Pronouncements were charut ‘al ha-luchot, literally inscribed on the tablets, which Bamidbar Rabbah adapts by saying charut, inscribed, also means cherut, freedom, from death and suffering.

The sin of the spies forfeited their special status, the referent of Tehillim 82;6-7, “I said you are gods [in the sense of living eternally], achen ke-adam temutun, but like mortals [R. Arama reads it as “like Adam”] you will die.” Hashem said, at Sinai, they would live forever, the sin of the spies returned them to mortality.

Their failure had its roots in losing sight of a truth Aristotle knew, people are supposed to rely on their intellects as well as their senses. A man who lives a purely sensual life qualifies for the odium of Tehillim 49;13, nimshal ka-behemot nidmu, is comparable to an animal.

Failure to discipline one’s material side causes the problem, as does an adulterous wife. She destroys the marriage and hurts her husband, and the material side of a person, relied on to too great an extent [in the eighth sha’ar, R. Arama treated the woman as the intellect, since both live internally; here, he treats the woman as the material side. I do not know why he thinks the metaphor is so malleable], hurts the whole person.

The material was supposed to be disciplined by the intellect; when it refuses to do so, the entire person suffers is dragged down.

The Serpent, Real and Metaphor, and the Cure

I am skipping his reading of Mishlei 30; 18-20, other than the part about the serpent, who also takes center stage in the story in Bereshit he is about to discuss. In both places, he thinks the serpent indicates the koach ha-mit’orer, the power of desire, which wants what it wants without regard to propriety or consequences. A person of well-developed intellect contradicts or controls this part of the person.

The other parts of the metaphor in Mishlei—a ship in the sea, which R. Arama thinks refers to the imagination; a man with a woman, the intellect’s ordering the relationships among all the human powers correctly—culminate in the adulterous woman, who misuses her powers and tears down the person as a whole.

The solution, in verse 32 of the chapter, is to lower oneself, to submit to the discipline of Sages, Torah scholars, and mitzvotBamidbar Rabbah said the Jews conquered death by saying na’aseh ve-nishma for this exact reason, they had agreed to submit to how the Torah told them to act, nullifying the impact of the original serpent, untamed desires. By accepting the Torah, the Jews attained true freedom, restored the link between their eternal souls and their physical bodies.

They ruined it with the sin of the spies, where they rejected Israel. Had they gone straight there, R. Arama thinks, Israel would have been a sort of Eden, where all their physical needs would have been arranged without effort, to allow a fully intellectual/ spiritual life. When they refused to go, they again split their physical from intellectual sides, like Adam and Chavah.

Luring Her To an Overstatement

The serpent (whom R. Arama characterizes as a creature between animal and human, jealous of humanity’s exalted status) purposely goaded Chavah with the words, 3;1, “did Gd really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” Had he been called on it, he could have said he was going to continue as he eventually did in verse four,  telling Chavah she would not die if she ate from the Tree, etc.

He knew Chavah would interrupt, as hasty women do (says R. Arama). [Regardless of whether jumping in before the other finishes is a female characteristic, it is a trait Avot 5;7 denigrates as the practice of a golem, a person of unformed character. I also was struck by how many of the writers in Ashrei Adam ‘Oz Lo Bach, a recent collection of eulogies and remembrances of my teacher and master R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l which I reviewed, pointed out his excellence in exactly this trait, how patiently and calmly he would hear people to their conclusion before he responded].

He knew her irritated reaction would lead her to misspeak, as she in fact did. He exaggerated the prohibition in one way, knowing she would in another way, adding touch to the prohibition, which opened a way to prove her wrong. Once he showed her touching the Tree did not bring death, he could take her the next (false) step, eating of the Tree would not bring death. He could additionally point out (accurately) Hashem did not care about overindulgence in other trees in the Garden, planting the idea there was no good reason to worry about overindulgence in the Tree of Knowledge.

His seemingly ironclad logic convinced her, and she ate, his clever opening line leading her to an overstatement and then a misunderstanding of how this Tree differed from the others. Missteps in Their Reaction to the Sin

Once they ate of the Tree (which R. Arama had held meant they made knowledge of good and evil the focus of their life endeavors rather than an adjunct to the more important work of the intellect), they understood the problem with nakedness. Surprisingly, R. Arama says nudity made them too much like animals, not the sexuality of it, despite the text telling us Adam and Chavah making loincloths when the Tree opened their eyes. Perhaps he was more impressed by Hashem’s making them kotnot ‘or, garments of skin, which he took to be the true response to their nakedness.

Adam tries to attribute his hiding from Hashem to his nakedness, except Hashem points out he could only become aware of the problems of nakedness had he overindulged in the Tree of Knowledge. Pre-sin people were embarrassed only of the necessarily embarrassing, such as genitalia, relatively easy to cover. Adam and Chavah needed Hashem’s help, having realized all nudity was embarrassing, but did not know how to make full-body clothing.

Adam next errs by blaming Chavah, implying he thought he was obligated to listen to her, since Hashem had given her to him. Hashem includes it as the reason for his punishment, ki shama’ta le-kol ishtecha, since you listened to your wife [when you should have known to take only her good advice, I think R. Arama means].

The woman tries to offload blame as well, pointing to the serpent.

The Buck Stops and the Punishment

Hashem does not ask the serpent why he did it, because there’s no one else to blame [he seems to contradict Sanhedrin 29a, which says Hashem did not invite an explanation from the serpent as evidence courts do not look for positive interpretations of the actions of a mesit, one who attempted to lure others to worship a power other than Hashem].

The investigation done, Hashem hands out punishments. The serpent convinced the woman to follow a moment’s enticement, and was therefore punished with eternal loss of access to enticing foods as well as permanent enmity from the woman and her descendants.

The woman was punished in her unique characteristic, childbearing. At the start of a marriage, she will worry about infertility, fearing it will also jeopardize her connection to her husband. Pregnancy and childbirth are painful in more obvious ways.

From there, R. Arama digresses to a discussion of gender roles, and why the husband should be in charge, which do not seem to me to speak enough to current realities to take the space to study them in this forum. Nor did his reading of the punishment of Adam break new enough ground for me to lay it out here.

Next time, we will see how he applies those lessons to our lives. For now, he’s explained the tragedy of the serpent as a story of yielding to the moment, losing sight of the long-term, as the Jews also did at Sinai, returning them (and us) to lives where death comes for all.

About Gidon Rothstein

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