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Yoni Mozeson
Yoni Mozeson

The pathology of a serpent in paradise

All of us in life received a mixed basket of talents and character traits which make up a complex divine system of reward and punishment. We are constantly being tested — providing us with countless opportunities for learning and growth throughout our life.  Could it be that the evil snake from the Garden of Eden also had the opportunity to rise above his circumstances and become more virtuous and spiritually aware.  

 I believe that the Midrash is addressing itself to this very question and wants to make us aware of exactly what the talents and abilities the snake was created with in order to understand its challenges in life. According to the Zohar,  the snake was the embodiment of the Yetzer Harah – the evil inclination – on a mission to test Adam and Chavah. (Zohar Bereishis 35b*). I don’t think that this view precludes us from deriving moral lessons from the snake’s challenges and choices. After all, the snake was punished with an exacting punishment to fit it’s crime (see below) so it must have had free will to make the wrong choices. 

The snake as a misfit

We are all familiar with the Midrash that says that the snake was an upright creature who could talk. However, consider whether there could have been any psychological fallout from this unusual combination of anatomy. Here you have a creature that was “top dog” in the animal kingdom but physically and intellectually belonged among humans. (Bereishis Rabbah 20:5) These humans happened to be immortal, while we have no reason to believe that the snake was as well.  So the snake was too lofty for the animal kingdom but not lofty enough to be human. Perhaps this is what drove the snake to desire Chavah as a mate and concoct the ill-fated plan to get rid of Adam. In any case, the snake’s possible perception of being neither here nor there might have caused the anger which the Midrash highlights with a  quote from Kohelet: which seem to showcase the snake’s vulnerability and the emotional issues it was 

וְהַנָּחָשׁ הָיָה עָרוּם (בראשית ג, א), כְּתִיב (קהלת א, יח): כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב כָּעַס וְיוֹסִיף דַּעַת יוֹסִיף מַכְאוֹב 

And the snake was wise” (Bereishis 3:1) It says “Because an abundance of wisdom brings an abundance of anger and adding knowledge adds anguish.” (Bereishis Rabbah 19:1)

One of the classic commentators of the Middle Ages, Ibn Ezra,  interprets this quote from Kohelet to be, indeed, addressing many of the issues that may have plagued the snake. The doubled edged gift of higher intelligence and dealing with one’s own mortality:  

כי. כאשר ביקש לדעת השכלות ראה כי המשכיל המכיר דברי העולם ברוב חכמתו תמיד יהיה לו כעס ומכאוב…. ויום המות נתון בין שתי עיניו

The thinking person  can use his intellect to become keenly aware of the workings of the world which can put him in a constant state of anger and pain (or depression) … as long as his day of death is his focus.” (Ibn Ezra on  Kohelet 7:3 אבן עזרא על קהלת א׳:י״ח:א׳)   

The snake is ranked up there with some of the greatest narcissists in Tanach 

A composite picture of the serpent begins to emerge as the Midrash goes on to compare the snake’s anger with that of  Korach, Haman, and the baker from the Yoseph story. The Midrash points out how the same word אַף, which can mean “anger,” appears in each story.

, אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן סַנְסָן אַרְבָּעָה הֵןשֶׁפָּתְחוּ בְּאַף וְנֶאֶבְדוּ בְּאַף

Rabbi Chanina the son of Sanson said that for all four of them, the story started with the word  אַף and their ultimate downfall came through אַף  anger.” (Midrash Rabbah 19:2). It seems that all of them became angry after they hyper-focussed on something that upset them, which lead to their downfall

As we mentioned, the snake’s anger may have been  an outgrowth of his superior intelligence. The Midrash outlines the snake’s plan. Get Adam killed for eating from Tree of Knowledge, while the snake and Chava ride into the sunset. (Bereishis Rabbah 20:5) It seems that his anger may have interfered with his superior cognitive abilities. Or his ego got the better of him. Either way, it never dawned on him that an all-knowing God would “know” his plan, so it had absolutely no chance of success.

We are not familiar with anger on the part of the chief baker in the story of Yoseph. However, a commentary to Midrash Rabbah, Nechmad Lemareh,  fills in the details. It seems that both the chief baker and the chief steward dreamt the interpretation of the other’s dream (Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 88:4). So after Yoseph interpreted the wine steward’s dream to mean that he would regain his post, the chief baker got angry. ‘What was the big deal,’ he thought, ‘even I knew the interpretation of the wine steward’s dream!’ The Nechmad Lemareh suggests that because of his anger at Yoseph, he ended  up being hanged.

In the story of Korach’s rebellion, Datan and Aviram expressed their anger at Moshe for the fact that the generation of the desert was now unable to enter the Land of Israel and take possession of their respective portions of the land.  However they were completely oblivious to the real cause of the generation of the desert being barred from entering the land  – the Sin of the Spies that immediately preceded this episode. Datan and Aviram were swallowed up by the earth.

Haman’s anger flared against the Jewish People because Mordechai would not bow down to him. Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev tells how Haman wrote a letter to everyone in the empire justifying why the Jews had to be killed out. He describes how Pharaoh gracefully welcomed the Jews only to be met with deceit. The Jews borrowed gold and silver for a 3-day religious pilgrimage and never came back.  Later on,  the Jews mercilessly slaughtered the innocent and completely virtuous Amalekites. Haman might have taken a lesson from history and not started up with the Jewish People. Instead he spun a fake narrative, only to clash with Jewish destiny. 

Does it all come down to a lack of gratitude

The Midrash offers another way of interpreting כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב כָּעַסAn abundance of wisdom brings and abundance of anger” which can help us see the see a deep message in the snake’s downfall, The anger referred to is God’s anger. God punishes you based on how much  potential you wasted. The snake has a severe punishment because he was blessed with the physical and intellectual gifts to know better and live a more meaningful life.

אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּה אֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִיךָ מֶלֶךְ עַל הַבְּהֵמָה וְעַל הַחַיָּה וְאַתָּה לֹא בִּקַּשְׁתָּ, אֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִיךָ שֶׁתְּהֵא מְהַלֵּךְ קוֹמְמִיּוּת כְּאָדָם, וְאַתָּה לֹא בִּקַּשְׁתָּ, עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ. אֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִיךָ שֶׁתְּהֵא אוֹכֵל מַאֲכָלוֹת כְּאָדָם, וְאַתָּה לֹא בִּקַּשְׁתָּ, וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, אַתָּה בִּקַּשְׁתָּ לַהֲרֹג אֶת הָאָדָם וְלִשָֹּׂא אֶת חַוָּה, וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה

“God said, I made you king of the animal kingdom and gave you the ability to walk upright like a human without you even seeking it. Therefore [you are punished to] crawl on your stomach. I enabled you to eat like a human without you even seeking it. Therefore [you are punished to] eat dirt all your life. What you sought was to kill Adam and marry Chavah,  therefore [you are punished that] I put enmity between you and women.”  (Bereishis Rabbah 20:5)

Instead of the snake looking at himself as an aberration, he could have looked at himself as the fortunate recipient of extraordinary gifts from God. Gifts which enabled him to interact with the most elevated spiritual creatures that God planted in the Garden of Eden. Instead the snake saw the blessings as debilitating deficiencies.  A source of existential anger.  The snake suffered from an immense lack of gratitude.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             There is a famous dictum in Pirkei Avot: 

רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר הַקַּפָּר אוֹמֵר , הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם       

Rabbi Elazar Ha-kappar said: envy, lust and [the desire for] honor puts a man out of the world.” (Pirkei Avot 4:21) 

This is most certainly true for the snake, except that he took the whole world with him.  Midrash Tanchuma in Parshat  Re-eh provides a creative extension to the obligation of tithing: 

 כַּבֵּד אֶת המֵהוֹנְךָHonor God from everything you were blessed with” (Proverbs 3:9) 

This is exactly the opposite of the path that the snake chose. Therefore we must be grateful to the snake for the highly important lesson he taught us. Be grateful for all the gifts that God has bestowed upon us. 

*א׳:ל״ה ב Zohar

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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