Bereshit: Our Inner Snake

Lies and Half-Truths
How do we turn the serpent into the staff?

Table for Five: Bereshit

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Now the serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made, and it said to the woman, “Did God indeed say, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?’”

-Gen. 3:1

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

Picture this. I was sitting on the airplane, in my teens, dressed proudly and conspicuously as an Orthodox Jew with my yarmulkeh and tzitzis, traveling to or from yeshiva. (This sort of thing happened any number of times; picture any one!) Invariably, I’d get into pleasant conversation with a stranger traveling alongside me. At some point, this question would come up: “Tell me something – you are an observant Jew – are you not allowed to do anything?!”

There were times that this was asked outright. Other times, it was implied, as stereotypes were silently foisted upon me by strangers who clearly struggled to process my lifestyle. I always tried to channel the answer given by our ancestress Eve when she was asked a question oh so similar. “We may eat from every single tree in the Garden! There is just one tree that we’re told not to eat from, because we’ll die if we do.”

We may do everything! We eat delicious foods, cherish friendships, celebrate happy times with friends, enjoy sunsets and beaches and love. There are a few things that we don’t do. God, who loves us endlessly has told us they are poison. So we avoid foods that He forbade. And we allow His instructions to guide our passions and ideals. We have everything that this Paradise of a world has to offer. If there is anything we don’t do, it is because we’re fully convinced that it’s not good for us.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

The snake wanted to have sexual relations with the woman. But any man knows you first have to engage in conversation with the intended. This is not a mythical story but life before the Fall. The snake originally stood upright on two feet and could communicate and opposed all the good we felt inclined to do. The snake is known as the Evil Inclination, The Angel of Death, the Satan; you get the point.

In order to get the woman’s attention, the snake had to tell her an outrageous lie; “Did God really say that you may not eat from any of the trees?” This sounds like “You can’t do ANYTHING on Shabbos” or “EVERYTHING delicious isn’t kosher.” Is everything off limits and the only way to reach God is being an ascetic? Or is the physical world our opportunity to transform it into an ongoing spiritual party. The Evil Inclination will say anything to make a God-centric life as unattractive as possible. And since this encounter, it resides in you!

Marathon runners call it the Destructive Inner Voice. It redirects our intuitive God drive to fill our spiritual void with a craving for food, drink, drugs, sex, etc. all of which are permitted, but within context. Why did God set life up this way? Because Man wanted to feel challenged to achieve and not be spoon-fed in the Garden.

Be careful about who you rely on for life advice, as they could just be “a snake in the grass.”

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Artistic Director/ Open Temple

English “cunning” is charged with the pejorative, whereas “Arom” in Hebrew is understood through attributes of “crafty, shrewd” or even “sensible.”

Here, the Nachash of Genesis is also the progenitor of free thought. However, the implications go beyond the desire for knowledge, rising up into the lust for power.

Rabbi Nachman writes in Tiqeunei Zohar 93b of Moses’ struggles with his own passions through the symbolism of the serpent: “When a person controls his passions, the serpent turns into the staff, and if his passions control him, the staff turns into a serpent.”

A leitmotif of a dangerous wisdom energy throughout Torah, we must pause and ask: What role do such serpentine thoughts have in our lives? The serpent, a creative energy, provides the dynamic tension between wisdom and desire, and is the sweet spot where discernment, desire and wisdom alchemize into actions of either definitively destructive or divine deeds. May we all Slither with Caution.

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

Believe it or not, just days before I was asked to write on this verse, my son Alon brought the very same verse to me. His Tanakh class had discussed this pasuk, and he had read it differently than this translation. The Hebrew word “kol” can mean “any,” as translated here. But it can also mean “every.”

Alon preferred the latter translation, rendering the snake’s incitement as, “Did God indeed say, ‘You shall not eat from every tree of the garden?’” The difference is profound. In the provided translation, where “kol” means “any,” the snake deliberately lies to the woman: God said not to eat from any of the trees. She is not misled by his falsehood and corrects him; we can eat from all the trees except one.

Yet somehow, the serpent’s lie is enough to knock the woman off guard. In Alon’s translation, the snake tells the truth. God indeed did tell them they could not eat from every tree; they were not to eat from the tree of knowledge. The woman does not correct the snake, but rather confirms his statement. It is precisely his factual accuracy that gives him the credibility that will lead humanity astray. The snake knows what he’s talking about.

The story of the serpent is archetypical. It informs us about the nature of temptation and sin. Lies can mislead, but only when we fail, willingly or otherwise, to recognize their falsehood. Far more pernicious are the truths or half-truths we tell ourselves.

Benjamin Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speechwriter at Mitzvahspeeches.com

One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned from my Rabbi, Shalom Denbo, came from this very line. When the snake approaches Eve, he doesn’t say, “Doesn’t the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge look so tasty? Don’t you want to try it?” Instead, he asks her an innocuous question. Surely, the snake knows what God has prohibited. He uses this as a way to engage Eve in a harmless conversation.

But it’s the consequence of this conversation that pulls her attention to the Tree and piques her interest. When our evil inclination tries to get us to veer away from our goals, it never starts with its disastrous aims at the forefront. It only looks for an opening.

I never plan to waste hours scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Reddit endlessly searching for my dopamine fix. It starts with pulling out my phone to harmlessly check my email (for the 40th time). It’s only once my phone is in my hand and unlocked, that my thumb gravitates to the Chrome app. Before I know it, I’m scrolling, refreshing, and checking stats like a mouse tapping a lever for a pellet.

The best way to beat our temptations is to cut them off before they start. If we’re not planning on drinking, why look at the wine aisle? If we’re trying to stick to a diet, why look at dessert recipes on Instagram? Don’t start the conversation.

With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Benjamin Elterman, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, and Rabbi Lori Shapiro

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