The story of the sin of Adam and Eve and the serpent has drawn the attention of Chazal and Torah commentators for generations, suggesting many different interpretations of this story. The Torah begins the description of the Sin, in the following manner:
“They were both naked (ערומים), Adam and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) Immediately afterwards the Torah states: “ Now the serpent was cunning (ערום) beyond any beast of the field that Hashem God had made.” (Genesis 3:1)
The Torah chose the cognate words “ערומים” and “ערום” in connection with Adam, Eve and the serpent, a description that raises a question of translation and commentary: what is the Torah’s intention in using similar words for very different understandings?
Most commentators follow the understanding of Onkelos who translates ערומים as ערטילאים, naked, whereas he translates ערום, the word used to describe the serpent, as “וחויא הוה ערים”. From his language, his intent appears that the word is intended to mean “shrewdness”. Based on this interpretation, the Midrash of Chazal expands its understanding — that the serpent saw Eve naked and desired her. Chazal emphasize that the main messages of the story of the Sin are lessons of lack of control over urges and, similarly, desire, jealousy and chasing after glory. However, this commentary is surprising because it ignores the symmetry of the use of the identical root which is found in the word ערומים stated by Adam and Eve and the word ערום used in connection with the serpent.
In light of this puzzling language, we should try and find a unified understanding of the word “ערומים/ערום” and to understand the message that the Torah is trying to convey by means of the story of the sin. The Gemara (Chulin 5b) explains the verse: “O Lord, you save both man and beast” (Psalms 36:7) as follows: Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, “ These are people who are mentally crafty and make themselves like beasts.” Rashi explains: “They are cunning in knowledge like Adam but place themselves like animals – of lowly spirit.” This statement attributes wisdom to Adam and at the same time modesty and humility, “place themselves like animals – of lowly spirit.” This Talmudic commentary to the verse “O Lord, you save both man and beast” integrates the maximization and the utilization of the human ability to develop and to improve the world, together with the awareness of humility and modesty. The idea that comes from the Gemara leads me to the following: The Torah describes Adam and Eve as “naked” (ערומים) meaning “wise”, thereby interpreting the word identically to the meaning of “ערום” written to describe the serpent. However, there is an essential difference between the wisdom of Adam and Eve and the wisdom of the serpent. Adam and Eve did not use their wisdom in order to prevail over Creation and the other creatures, but to help the world to become better “to work it and to guard it”. (Genesis 2:15) They saw themselves as part of the natural harmony in the sense of “O Lord, you save both man and beast”. Adam and Eve “were not ashamed” in the sense that they were part of the natural world despite the fact that they were distinguished in intelligence from all other creations. They did not feel that they had a need or a right to exploit the strength of of their wisdom, that was given to them by Hashem, in order to obtain control or rulership over the rest of the world’s creatures. Compare this with the serpent who “was cunning (ערום) beyond any beast of the field”. The serpent, when comparing himself to all other creations, felt, because of his wisdom, that he was unique and able to use his wisdom to exploit creation for his personal benefit. Adam and Eve interfered with the serpent in this course of conduct as they did not see eye to eye in using their wisdom in this way.
The serpent turned to Eve with the suggestion to use the wisdom for purposes of dominance and authority: “you will be like God, knowing good and bad”. (Genesis 3:4) The serpent describes to Eve a reality in which she is “God” and not just another being, in which she rules and is not ruled, she leads and is not led. Eve sees the Tree of Knowledge with a different perspective after hearing the words of the serpent: “the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom”. (Genesis 3:6) Suddenly, she sees the tree, not as part of the Garden and nature, but as a means to gain the power to “be like God”. Eve felt the intoxication of the sense of strength and power which she could obtain, if she would use her wisdom, not as part of world harmony, but outside of it. Eve becomes excited with this idea and shares it with her husband. He also eats from the fruit. However, eating from the Tree of Knowledge did not bring the realization of this personal fantasy, inasmuch as “God was ‘walking’ in the Garden toward evening” (Genesis 3:8) and Adam feels fear and dread. The meeting between the wisdom of mankind which wants to rule the world and the Source of wisdom, God himself, comes to a boiling point when God asks Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). God asks Adam, “where is your wisdom? How did you abuse the Godly gift that was given to you? Are you going to live your life intoxicated by the senses of lusting for dominance and exploitation of those weaker than you, or will give of your wisdom for developing the world with caring for another, for the weak and the needy?”
This explanation brings to light another message in the story of the sin of Adam and Eve, a message that focuses on the question of the realization and effectiveness of human wisdom. Does Man, the crown of creation, use his intelligence to partner with Hashem in the preservation and development of creation, or does he exploit his power to dominate and create a monopoly for his personal gain? Hashem wants the maximization of our cognitive abilities for the world’s benefit, not just for our own personal benefit. Hashem curses Adam and Eve with hard work and the pain of childbirth, yet, at the same time, He creates an opening for humanity, down through generations, to fight this curse and to succeed.
Humanity has succeeded in limiting the “sweat of your brow” with technological innovations in the field of agriculture and in limiting the pain of childbirth with medical inventions. Humanity in Parshat Bereishit develops “harp and flute, copper and iron”. Noach invents the plow – he is the first to go against the decree “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Genesis 3:19), and according to many midrashim, that is the reason that he was chosen to save humanity. Humankind continues to evolve and has succeeded in curing the world of many diseases. Life expectancy has increased, birth rates have increased and destructive diseases no longer run wild and destroy one third of the world’s population. However, human ability also caused a distancing from Hashem, a distancing of certain groups, possessing intellectual abilities superior to the surrounding society. There are intellectual groups who exploit their intellectual prowess to create ivory towers for themselves, whose heads are in the clouds, who do not share any of their wisdom with others.
An article in The Economist (September 15, 2018) deals with the history and the future of the liberal movement. One of the points raised by the article is that the movement forgot from whence it came and why it was formed. The heads of the movement formed for themselves “ghettos” of intellectuals and the wealthy, estranged from regular people and their needs, and to a great extent, they changed themselves into the very same movement against which they fought in the previous century. When the intellectual power is exploited for evil, a social and spiritual rift is created.
Another example of this can be found in the words of the Gemara, Taanit 20a, which describes a story concerning Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon. One time Rabbi Eliezer was coming from his Rabbi’s house. He was riding a donkey, strolling along on the banks of a river. He was very happy, swollen with pride because of all the Torah that he had studied. On the way home, an extremely ugly person greeted him, but Rabbi Elazar responded in a haughty and disrespectful manner, going so far as to say “How ugly this man is!” A possible explanation for his behavior might stem from the fact that Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon apparently felt that he obtained such intellectual and spiritual understandings at his teacher’s home that it caused him to separate himself from people not on his level. He could not relate to the person who greeted him and he despised him. The feeling of distance and superiority, dominance and pride that can flow from intellectual critiques regarding those not on the same level, can lead to the edge of the abyss — that is the danger. Because of this Chazal required ”If you have learned a lot of Torah do not credit it favorably for yourself, because for this you were created.” (Avot 2:8) Human wisdom was given to Man with the expectation that it be used for the betterment of mankind and not just the personal betterment of the individual.
Moshe Rabaynu proclaims to the entire nation: “See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances as Hashem, my God, has commanded me.” (Deuteronomy 4:5) Chazal explain: “Just as I teach you for free, so too shall you teach for free.” (Nedarim 37a), that is: the great Divine kindness, the giving of the wisdom of Torah to Moshe, was given for free, out of love and the desire to share this wisdom in order to provide tools to humanity, at the head of which is the Jewish nation, to improve the world. Not in vain did Chazal say: (Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:7) “Students are called children”, that teaching wisdom to another is bestowing a part of who we are, “part of our body” to another person and to change him into a part of us. One of the most difficult things to bestow on another is wisdom, because our wisdom consists of intellect and life experience that has become part of our personality. The human challenge, which comes from the story of the sin of Adam and Eve,is the challenge of our life. How will we utilize our cognitive abilities? How will we use the latent potential that is within us? Will we only help ourselves? We will we cover ourselves with clothing and build an ivory tower? Or will we look upon creation as a harmony in which everyone has a role to play?
Education and internalization that “the fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Job 28:28) and “wisdom is found from nothingness (Hashem who is ‘without end’) will help humanity to continue to march on the upward path leading to the Garden of Eden with courage and pride together with humility and awe.