Re: The Nachash [Snake]

Robert Klein (
Wed, 1 Jan 1997 00:18:07 +0200 (IST)

In TF 3:5, Yosey Goldstein takes Isaac A Zlochower to task for his emphasis
of the symbolic nature of the story of Adam and Eve. It seems to me that in
an attempt to correct Zlochower, Goldstein "is going down a path that is not
compatible with the traditional commentaries on the Torah, and many of the
points he makes are in direct conflict with the words of Chazal [our
sages]", to use Mr.Goldstein's own words.

> for us to understand the different meanings put into the Torah one must
>rely on the traditional commentaries.

This is mostly correct. However, "chiddush", innovative interpretation, is
a completely valid and important part of Torah study. So long as the
chiddush does not conflict with the statement of a sage, it is legitimate.
If it does conflict on a particular sub-issue, then one needs to also find a
sage who supports the idea. But it is possible to have an insight which
does not rely on any traditional commentary.

>to glibly say the Torah is not meant to be understood literally and it is
>all "symbolic" or a metaphor is not valid.

Apart from the unfair way in which Mr.Goldstein accuses Mr.Zlochower of being
"glib", Mr.Goldstein has also erred in presuming that chazal see the story of
Adam and Eve as primarily literal. In the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For the
Perplexed) Book II Chapter 30, Maimonides hints at the true meaning of the
story. There he states that the events of Genesis 2 and 3 *could* have
happened since nature was not yet fixed. Maimonides then continues that
there's a deeper meaning which is *completely according to the tradition of
chazal*. On this section the commentator Crescas writes, "I think that no
man doubts that with regard to the creation of Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth,
the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge, that not everything goes
according to its apparent meaning." Until Mr.Goldstein can bring a sage who
wrote differently, he will have to accept this statement.

Maimonides' explanation of the story itself is intentionally sublime, and
even with commentaries I only understand the bare bones, but essentially,
the story of Adam and Eve is the description of how the human soul came to
be in its current form. Adam and Eve are aspects of the intellect (probably
active and passive/5 senses), the Snake is the imagination
(Nachash=nichush), its legs are its ability to manifest itself, its rider
(as brought in the midrash) is the evil inclination, and the trees are
Divine knowledge. It should be kept in mind that despite the complexity of
the metaphor, Maimonides certainly believed in a literal Adam and Eve. But
the essence of the story is to be found in its metaphysical interpretation.

Next, Mr.Goldstein attempts to answer a number of questions posed by

>Question #1: " If the snake was once a walking, talking, thinking creature,
>then its curse is far greater than the loss of "legs"...Why is only its
>slithering fate mentioned?" See the OHR HACHAIM on Chumash for an
>explanation that will answer this question. Alternately one may say that
>the Gemmorah says the Nachash wanted to marry Chava/Eve. i.e. The snake
>was jealous of what human's had and wanted it for himself. His punishment?
>The removal of those exact qualities that made him close enough to be able
>to desire that which human's have.

Neither the Ohr HaChaim nor the Gemara address Mr.Zlochower's kasha (problem):
Why isn't the loss of the power of speech mentioned as a punishment of the
snake? The simplest answer is because the "Snake" never lost the power of
speech! Remember, the Snake is the power of imagination, and it "speaks" to
this day. However, its power to manifest itself was reduced by Hashem, and
its only means of attack is indirect, subconscious, "in the heal", while our
means of defense is by conscious suppression of its false images, i.e.
striking it in the head.

>Question #2: "why doesn't G-D question the snake on its rationale, but,
>instead, immediately pronounces its fate?" This question is posed by the
>Gemmorah/Talmud and the Gemmorah says, this is the source that one >does
>not allow for any defense of a Maysis- one who seduces another into
>disobeying G-d's commands. (See Rashi who quotes the Gemmorah in Sanhedrin.)

Correct. To go a bit deeper, the Gemara brings a wonderful defense for the
Snake: Eve should not have listened because the halacha is that one listens
to the Rabbi and not the Student, here: Hashem's decree vs. the Snake's
suggestion. But this is the very point. One who gives evil counsel can
always say that the listener ought to know better, and indeed, the one who
listens and obeys is punished for their deed, but giving evil counsel is a
sin in itself precisely because it is an attempt to increase evil in the
world. In terms of the operative metaphor, we can always defend ourselves
by saying that it is Hashem who put the force of imagination and the evil
inclination in us, but Hashem expects us to overcome these challenges.

>Question #3: "Why were Adam and Eve given an arbitrary prohibition that
>they could not long withstand?" How can anyone call a Divine command
>"Arbitrary"??! Just because a human being is not privy to the reason G-D
>has for anything, does not give anyone the right to belittle G-d's

I agree that it is not for us to decide what is arbitrary or not, but
calling a command arbitrary is not in and of itself an example of
"belittling" the commandment. For example, a number of sages suggest that
the laws of kashrut, and purity in general are arbitrary, yet serve the
purpose of curbing our appetites and refining our habits.

>The other problem I have with this statement is: Who says
>they could not withstand this prohibition? In fact the Seforim say that if
>Adam and Eve were to control themselves for a mere few hours until the
>onset of Shabbos, then humanity could have remained in the Garden of Eden.

Isn't that odd? According to this midrash, the fruit of the Tree was
forbidden for only "a few hours"! If it is unclear why I say this, bear in
mind that if they just had to wait until Shabbos, it necessarily follows
that after Shabbos they could have remained even if they "transgressed".
What made this food inedible late Friday afternoon, but edible on Shabbos (a
remez to cholent??)? It must be remembered that we are not dealing with food
as such here. Nor are we dealing with a tree. Breishit Rabba 15:8 brings
all the suggestions, including wheat, but concludes with the words of Rabi
Yehoshua who states, "Chas v'shalom! [on the other suggestions] G-d never
revealed the tree to Adam, and never will!" Maimonides concurs, adding that
it must be so according to the nature of the universe. When we sin, we are
distanced from G-d. When we obey we are closer. And when Shabbos comes, we
are elevated and able to experience the Shechina (Divine Presence) more
directly. So it will be in the Shabbos of Shabboses, Olam Haba. We will be
able to taste of the fruit freely, but we will never see the source.

>Question #4: "Why are the punishments so severe; this, after all, is only a
>first offense?" This shows a lack of understanding as to what it means to

Actually, no such lack of understanding is revealed here. The Gemara in
Shabbat 55b brings a midrash that the ministering angels asked G-d why he
had punished Adam with death, implying that they too were surprised by the
severity of the punishment, so Mr.Zlochower's question is an "angelic" one.
the other hand, G-d's response is that the sole commandment he had given was
an easy one to keep, so Zlochower's suggestion (Question #3) that abstaining
from the Tree was impossible to withstand is incorrect. It was in truth
very "withstandable". This fact just underscores how careful we must be not
to let our imagination misguide us into justifying breaches of any of the

>Questions #5 & 6: " What is wrong with wanting knowledge, and how can a
tree provide it?" Nothing is wrong with desiring Knowledge.

Here Mr.Goldstein unwittingly takes the bait. Earlier he said that there was
nothing arbitrary in the prohibition of eating from the tree. Now he says
that there is nothing wrong in eating from the tree per se. It would seem
that Mr.Goldstein now agrees that the prohibition itself was arbitrary, but as
I said earlier, that does not belittle the command, for the very existence
of restraint can be a positive force. Nevertheless, I would argue that
wanting Divine knowledge when one is not ready for it is wrong and harmful,
and that is why G-d temporarily prohibited its access.

>G-d placed humanity in this world for one purpose and one purpose
>only . To do what he has commanded and to reap the rewards that G-d wants
to shower on man for obeying. (See the Messilass Yeshorim/ Path Of the Just.)

Knowing that every commentary I've ever read has said the commandments are
only secondary to the true purpose of man, I found it hard to believe such a
well-known philosopher would say such a thing, so I looked up the Mesilat
Yesharim and found that he too holds like the rest, and I quote, "Behold
that which our sages taught us, that man was created for no other purpose
other than to rejoice in G-d and to enjoy the radiance of His Presence."
(Ch. 1, Para.2) The next paragraph begins, "And the means which bring him
to this end are the commandments..." It is clear in chazal that the
commandments are secondary to the purpose of man. This is a most important
point, for turning the commandments into an end in themselves is to
virtually practice a different religion altogether. I know Goldstein knows
this, but in this day in age when so many are so far from observance, it's
easy to lose sight of the real purpose when we are busy seeing the means to
the purpose being ignored.

>He wrote that Man was never
>meant to remain in Eden. We have written that if he would have controlled
>himself until Shabbos he WOULD have remained in Eden.

This last point dovetails into a number of threads that have developed in
Torah Forum. As I've written, I agree with Mr.Goldstein on this point that
Adam's sin was not inevitable, and Eden was a legitimate possible milieu for
the history of mankind. But it should be remembered that without the sin of
Adam, there would have been no Exodus from Egypt, no Mount Sinai, no Torah,
no King David, and no Mashiach! So I would like to conclude this letter
with a question: Is sin ordained by G-d in order to bring about the
ultimate redemption, or is sin a stumbling block to redemption, but G-d in
his Mercy repairs the damage by planting the seeds of redemption in the very
pieces of the wreckage created by sin? One's answer to this question
profoundly affects how one looks at such incidents as Lot and his daughters,
the selling of Joseph, and Judah and Tamar.

Robert Klein