Parshat Bereshit

Torah Reading for Week of October 11-17, 2009

“Redemption of the Snake-Crossing Boundaries”
by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
President, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA

While it is true that on the literal level (Pshat), the snake in the Garden of Eden is accused of causing Eve to sin, and is cursed as a result, on a more esoteric level (Sod), we may say that the snake represents a very important teaching for us. After all, the Kabbala, equates the Nachash (snake) with Moshiach (Messiah) through Gematria (the system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase). In this case, they both equal 358 when you count their letters. The Kabbala also points out that the word Chet (sin) equals Chai (life) through Gematria, both equaling eighteen. Moreover, the Parsha Bereishit, containing the story of the snake and the Garden of Eden, always occurs after the holiday of Sukkot; an abode in which we must dwell, and which can only be reached by crossing a boundary. Though Judaism emphasizes the importance of maintaining strong boundaries, it is equally important to realize that it is, at times, essential to cross boundaries in order to grow and find greater harmony.

Though Eve was delighting in the Garden, she dwelt in a world of beauty that consisted of one eternal light, a one-sided goodness. The Garden encased Adam and Eve in the safety of a place of ideal beauty and loveliness, the fantasy that most people long for. While this state protects us from having to face change, and temporary chaos, it also prevents us from facing the unknown which leads to growth. We must all leave the Garden. (G-d pre-ordained the Chet that would lead to Chai). So something shifted in Eve in her encounter with the snake to make a bold move and disobey the literal word of G-d because of some higher esoteric calling (Et La’sot L’Hashem). She brought an aspect of the unknown into paradise, for this is an essential ingredient for growth and individuation, for consciousness. Sinning becomes the name of following one’s inner authority, and becoming aware of one’s inner authority becomes necessary while walking the path of individuation. The process of encountering newness encourages a type of movement. This movement provides the option of momentarily letting go of the known and gives the ability to move into the unknown. Psychologically, this is a courageous step one takes towards the threshold between the known and unknown. The snake became the catalyst for Eve to step into the threshold; the no man’s land, the passing into the Sukkah. The snake symbolizes this by shedding its skin and growing a new layer, throwing off the past and continuing to live, death and rebirth, transformation. Eve was able to slough off the known rules of the Garden and embark upon a new path of her own creation. It was a movement from obedience to the literal, to an outer authority, to listening to the Voice of G-d within, the inner dimension of the Torah, obtained through conflict and a new way of hearing. The snake thus opens the path of individuation for all humankind, Chet becomes Chai, Nachash becomes Mashiach, when we, through inner faith, cross the threshold into the Sukkah, where Hashem truly protects us.

The snake has been vilified for suggesting an opposing view to the one-sided goodness. But I do not think that this is the truly Jewish view, which encourages struggle with the opposites, and movement toward growth as a result. (Our world is a world of “Bet-duality” (‘Bereishit’) and not “Aleph” (the world of the one-sided Garden). I believe the snake shared this divine thought with Eve. It had innate instinctual wisdom. It told her that eating from the fruit would not kill her but would lead her to a life of greater depth. Of course, the ego which wants simplicity and unity suffers as a result and attempts to pull us back into a world of literalism and fundamentalism, but once we walk past the threshold, once we leave the Garden, we can not return in this simplistic manner. We learn to live with conflict that leads to depth and discovery, and feel greater conviction towards our inner authority, towards G-d’s strong Voice supporting us. Though change appears to be a traitor to everything that promises to endure, Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter, the Sfat Emet, teaches that “exile (Galut) has an innate purpose that leads both to inner redemption (Geulah) and redemption of humanity by revealing (Gilui) the hidden light submerged in exile.”

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