The struggle between good and evil is the most interesting plot on earth. Works of fiction through the ages revolve around this essential human conflict: heroism and greatness or selfishness and destruction. Something within us responds viscerally to this theme because it is the central theme of our lives. On an unspoken level, perhaps even an unconscious level, all of us know exactly what these stories are talking about.
The Torah begins the human narrative with a story about this struggle. The Almighty frames the human drive towards selfishness and destruction in the character of a snake in Parashas Beraishis. The snake is sinuous, conniving, and seductive. Selecting his goals with vicious brilliance, the snake slinks into the most vulnerable pockets of the human heart so slyly, so slickly, that his presence is barely detected - until he attacks. Then it is too late.
He Wants to Kill You
The snake begins by selecting his first target: Chava (Eve). Chava had not received the commandment forbidding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil directly from the Almighty. She had received the commandment through her human partner, Adam, making her far more vulnerable to the snake’s wiles.
Throughout his sneaky dialogue with Chava, the snake reveals nothing of his secret intentions. To the contrary, the snake is all smoke and mirrors, a game of carefully crafted misperceptions leading the careless observer directly away from honest recognition of his objectives.
Even today the snake has many of us fooled. Rabbi Avraham Twerski explains that we think that he wants to make us sin, a goal that at least some parts of our personalities can heartily agree with. At least some parts of us believe that the snake is our friend.
Yet the snake’s true goal is not to make you sin. He doesn’t care whether you sin. What the snake wants is to kill you. His other names include “yetzer hara”, the evil inclination, and “malach hamaves”, the angel of death. His true objective is that, swallowed by the sucking black hole of your own selfishness and gluttony, the “you” in you ceases to exist. This is his true purpose. He is not your friend.
His plan in the garden trips Chava up completely.
The snake’s first move vis-à-vis Chava is a brilliant mixture of sympathy and encouragement. With all the warmth of a lover, the snake offers Chava a “safe place” in a cold world:
“Did, perhaps, God say: ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” (Beraishis-Genesis 3:1)
But was Chava living in a cold world? Had God so unfairly forbidden her from eating any of the luscious and beautiful fruits surrounding her in Eden? This is what the snake implies. Note the classic manipulation: I am your friend because the other is your enemy. I am better because the other is worse. I am superior because He is inferior. Is this true?
See for yourself:
“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (ibid 2:16-17)
Just a few verses earlier, the Almighty makes plain that He is nobody’s enemy. He permits and indeed invites humanity to enjoy every pleasure the world had to offer save for one small exception. Only one tree among many is forbidden, and for good reason, but the rest are just as delicious and free for the taking. Aside from the one that happens to be poisonous, every single tree in the garden is fair game!
Yet the snake skews reality to fit his own twisted objectives. Every good lie has a little bit of truth, but truth taken so grossly out of context that it misleads the listener into an entirely mistaken conclusion:
“Did, perhaps, God say: ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” You poor things!
Even the snake’s clever phrasing undercuts the truth of the situation: “Did, perhaps, God say…?” Not, did God command? Not, did God warn you?
Rather, the snake insinuates that God did not command, He just “said”. Perhaps. Everything is taken oh-so-lightly, all sophistication and panache. All false and rotten to the core.
Chava tries to rebut the snaking vines of his manipulations, but the damage is nonetheless evident even in her rebuttal itself:
“Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat. Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden God has said: ‘You shall neither eat of it nor touch of it, lest you die.’” (ibid 3:3)
Oh, Chava! Gone are God’s lush invitations “of every tree of the garden you may freely eat”! Gone is the broad, truthful perspective that the entirety of the Garden of Eden is at your fingertips! Now Chava’s world has been narrowed into a single ravenous pinpoint: “the tree which is in the center of the garden”. This is not a casual description, is it, Chava?
We allow ourselves to slip into this foolish mindset sometimes, obsessing over a single forbidden act when worlds of equally pleasurable options are freely available to us, permitted completely. We long to dive into what we think will satisfy us when the very thirsts that leave us enflamed would be met so easily if we would only reach out for the permitted enjoyments available to us.
A singer becomes religious and fears she must throw away her guitar. Is this true? Of course not! An athlete becomes religious and thinks he has to leave the boxing gloves at home. Is this accurate? Not at all. Creative expression and physical fitness - not to mention having fun – are an essential part of Torah observance.
Yet these are the lies the snake tells us every day. The more we believe him, the more we associate pleasure with secularism, life with secularism, a total farce, a terrible lie.
Chava falls for it hook, line, and sinker.
Like a rampant disease, the snake’s next tactic nestles him even deeper into Chava’s psyche. He has already convinced her that without the forbidden fruit her life is no life. He has convinced her that whatever or Whoever has prevented her from experiencing this wonder is clearly and fundamentally against everything that Chava is and can be. The stage has been set. All that is left is to drive the dagger home:
“’You will not surely die; for God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (ibid 4-5)
“Nothing about this delightful thing will hurt you!” the snake seems to claim. “To the contrary!” The very next verses confirm his snare of lies working with cruel precision:
“And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom, and she took of its fruit and ate…” (ibid 6)
Suddenly the world changes. Suddenly the magic is over. Suddenly the truth is obvious and the game is done. The garden is closed. Death wins. The snake wins – that time.
Left in his slithery wake is impotent fury, fury at the seductive liar now conveniently disappeared, the snake lying in wait for nothing but his next diabolical opportunity. He gains nothing. His victims lose everything, most of all themselves.
Ever met him? You know the answer to that. The battle of Eden is long over yet the war rages on.
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender