The Story of Adam, Chavah, and the Serpent in Each of Our Lives

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Spouses and Their Roles, Immediate and Ultimate

Before Adam named Chavah (in the next sha’ar, the tenth, R. Arama will focus on naming as a particularly human endeavor), he had called her ishah, woman, because she had been taken from ish, man. Now, he says she is Chavah, the mother of all life, a role in which he plays little part.

The two names focus on distinct aspects of her life. As an ishah, she shares similarities to the man (and can be so close to him as to make them one unit, R. Arama said earlier). She can understand intellectual matters, can see how to act as obligated as well as when and where to do more than what is obligated (in Hebrew, the word for going beyond the letter of the law is chasidut, being extremely pious; the English word is supererogatory, as my late teacher Prof. Twerky, a”h, taught me). The Matriarchs (Sarah, Rivkah, etc.), other righteous women, and prophetesses were nashim (plural for ishah) in this best sense.

Women also bear and raise children, their Chavah side, which is also an important part of women’s life purpose, missed out on by women who do not give birth, for whatever reason. He is not being sexist or gendered, since he then says men, too, fail to fulfill their potential if they do not become fathers, which is why Yeshayahu 56;3 needs to encourage a saris, a man who cannot have children, to realize he has alternative ways to create a legacy, he need not think of himself as a dried tree.

[Many people today lose sight of the balanced message just sent. People are meant to have children, as an essential human function. Those who do not or cannot, by choice or for reasons beyond their control, miss something central, core, crucial. There are substitutes Hashem will welcome, celebrate, and reward for those who cannot take the first and preferred path. But they will be making up for a lost ideal.]

Regardless of gender, people’s main legacy consists of their good deeds, which explains Ya’akov’s anger when Rachel says she will die if she does not have biological children. Righteous people also want children, yet know they live on through their good deeds as well. R. Arama thinks Ya’akov was telling Rachel she exaggerated the pain of childlessness, should have known better than to call it death.

I am skipping a few side points; I cannot, however, leave out his idea that Hashem made Adam and Chavah leather clothing to emphasize the difference between humans and animals [it resonates with me since it anticipates claims made today by some vegetarians, we should not use animals for food or clothing, etc. I always notice when writers from centuries ago address issues or ideas people treat as new insights today; it reinforces for me the truth of Kohelet’s deceptively simple statement, ein kol chadash tachat ha-shamesh, there is nothing completely new under the sun.]

The Adam Drama as a Reflection of Internal Human Struggles

Moving from the literal to the symbolic, R. Arama thinks each of us has an Adam, Chavah, and serpent also inside of us. Adam represents the intellectual/spiritual, the part which reflects Hashem (as Hashem says in Bereshit, na’aseh adam be-tzalmenu, let Us make Adam in our image, and also as Yechezkel says in his vision of the Chariot, which is topped by a figure ke-mareh adam, which looks like a man [using the word adam for man]).

Chavah represents our material side, with the inclination to indulge the material, while the serpent epitomizes the imaginative side, which R. Arama calls ‘etzem me-‘atzameha, u-basar mi-besarah, bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh. [He is playing off the words Adam uses when he first meets his wife, where he says she is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. R. Arama is implying we should treat our imaginative side as an outgrowth of our material side, and bring it into proper balance, as our intellects should do for our material side].

The Torah says the serpent was ‘arom mi-kol chayyat ha-sadeh, craftier than all the animals of the field; as the serpent within, the imagination operates more powerfully in us than in any other animal [he slightly re-reads the verse, which said the serpent was craftier than the other animals; in the internal version, the imagination is stronger within humans than within all other animals].

The imagination’s strength can mislead people to analogies, examples, and conclusions which look true but are not [he does not point out what I believe he would also agree, the imagination also leads people to truths they would not find otherwise; Einstein, for example, spoke of the role imagination played in his discoveries. Ran is not evaluating the imagination here, he is pointing out a dangerous element of it, the serpentine side].

Imagination, Excessive Focus on the Immediate, and Sin

Sin begins with imagination. We hanker after a forbidden pleasure, and our imagination finds a way to justify it, to say it is or should be permitted. For an example he obviously draws from the Chavah story, our imaginations reject perspective. All restrictions feel absolute to the imagination, which is why the serpent says all the trees in the Garden were prohibited—to the serpentine/imaginative side, any one tree being off limits feels the same as all the trees being beyond reach.

Chavah’s eating from the forbidden Tree and feeding Adam parallels occasions we let our intellects accept incorrect claims of our material sides, which started with Chavah accepting the serpent’s claims, as we do when we yield to our imaginations. Adam fell for Chavah’s overemphasis on the topics of the Tree, and people allow their material sides to fool them into thinking life is only about making money, building the world physically and societally, raising a family. A belief R. Arama labels a complete heresy, because it neglects Hashem, mitzvot, and the reward and punishment for a whole area the material ignores.

Overstatements Lead Us Down Wrong Paths

In another locution which resonates in our times as much as his, R. Arama says the dimyon or imaginative side acknowledges the reality only of what it can sense (he says murgash, which I’m pretty sure he means in the broad version of the word rather than the more specific “feel”). Such people focus on the less significant side of existence, and act similarly to philosophers who insist they can think through all the mysteries of the universe (including the nature of Hashem), which must mean they pare the world down to their minds’ size.

Chavah wanted to avoid the pitfalls of such materialist and philosophical views by saying Hashem had warned them not to touch the Tree (to stay completely away from philosophy and its style of thinking). The serpent tripped her up by showing her some benefits of philosophy. Having reeled her in, he then led her to philosophy’s excessive materialism, including the denial of reward and punishment [another idea I find very contemporary—when we reject truth, we make ourselves vulnerable. Stake too extreme a claim, it will fall apart, and then lead us to an excessive embrace of the other extreme].

Proper Use of the World

Keeping fundamental truths in sight matters also to ordinary human lives, since Hashem gave us only this world, and permitted its pleasures as support for our work to improve our souls and earn eternal life. Those who deny truths about Hashem do not seem to have real rights to use this world, in R. Arama’s view. The idea explains Adam and Chavah’s choice to sew loincloths from fig branches (3;7). As the vehicle of sin, they used it for clothing to mend what they had torn, he says.

Closing the mapping of the story in the Torah onto our internal lives, R. Arama says a woman (our material side) who indulges the imaginative (appetites and lusts) to excess is called adulterous (the woman/material straying after temptations other than her husband/ intellectual), and will end up damaging herself, and drawing her husband with her.

For R. Arama, in other words, over-focus on the physical warps our intellectual sides as well. We end up thinking and understanding the world wrongly, in addition to acting wrongly within it.

Hiding From Our Greatness

Adam and Chavah’s descent into philosophical materialism led them to deny any qualitative difference between them and animals as well as Hashem’s Providence. When Hashem then calls out from the Garden (which R. Arama says was the evidence of life in the world, a daring idea he does not elaborate and we do not have space to explore), they hide, stunned to encounter a Gd they denied, unable to imagine they could interact with such an august Being.  Hashem calls again, and Adam admits his fear, which R. Arama reads as vidui ha-chet, admission of sin [a crucial step of repentance].

I’m again skipping much, with only two remaining resonant points. Hashem tells Adam he will have a hard time earning a living, and R. Arama pauses to note people who make an end, a central value, of what was a punishment. Such people spend all their time making money, amassing wealth in a search for power (or security, I think) which is illusory.  

Beyond that, he comments on the proper balance among the three human powers. The intellect needs to be in charge, to make appropriate and controlled use of the material and the imagination, to support the best goals, without allowing itself to be lured to overdoing it.

The key to finding the proper balance—I hope this does not surprise anyone—is Torah. I am not including the many sayings from Chazal he cites, all of which make the same point, at the same time trite and yet also not widely recognized: We can only know how to live properly, know the right proportions in which to enjoy the various parts of Hashem’s world, by constantly consulting Torah, studying it and absorbing its messages.

Next sha’ar, after the sin.

About Gidon Rothstein

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