Once again, the fact that we already “know” the story of the Garden of Eden from childhood presents the biggest impediment for understanding it. Let’s step back and consider the following: God’s modus operandi in this world is to test us in order that we grow and reach our potential. (This is a common theme of the Midrash, particularly Midrash Tanchuma). Now consider whether Adam had any clue about this notion. He had no Torah from which to perceive a pattern of how God runs the world. It all started with him. So when God said not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam probably thought, big deal, I can do that – end of story. However, this is where the story begins. Could Adam have imagined a scenario where God is going to test him. This was no ordinary test, rather one in which God formed a one of a kind walking, talking being. A creature whom God would allow to suggest the most insidious yet tempting arguments – that if Adam and Chava would eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they could become a god. In fact the snake’s presentation led them to believe that eating from the forbidden fruit was the right thing to do – even a mitzvah. All this surely took Adam by surprise. Perhaps that’s why Adam was so angry about being caught red-handed that, according to the Midrash, he actually cursed God. (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3)
God made me do it
Now let’s return to our original question. Can we really blame the snake? The classic commentator on Midrash Rabbah, עץ יוסף (Eitz Yoseph), says that the יצר הרע (Evil Inclination) was the driving force behind the snake’s actions:
הוא היה רוכב על הנחש כדי לגרום על ידו תקלה לאדם וחוה:
“The ‘Yetzer Hara’ Was riding on the snake in order to make (the snake) responsible for the downfall of Adam and Chava.” (Eitz Yoseph on Midrash Rabbah, 20:1)*
All this begs the question, if the snake was doing the bidding of God, then why was it punished at all. The answer has to be that the snake went too far. It was instructed to convince Chava to eat from the forbidden fruit. It was never told to slander God, or to seduce Chava. Perhaps the Midrash is hinting at this when, in the middle of discussing the snake’s punishment, it suddenly turns its attention to the end of days. At that time, idol worshipers, who stole from the Jews, will be sent to Gehenom.
אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא הַקָּבָּ”ה נוֹטֵל אֶת עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים וּמוֹרִידָם לַגֵּיהִנֹּם, וְאוֹמֵר לָהֶם, לָמָּה הֱיִיתֶם קוֹנְסִים אֶת בָּנַי, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִים לוֹ מֵהֶם וּבָהֶם הָיוּ בָּאִים וְאוֹמְרִים לָשׁוֹן הָרָע אִישׁ עַל חֲבֵרוֹ
“Rabbi Levi said that in the future God will take the idol worshipers and send them down to Gehenom and say to them ‘why did you rob my children?’ They will respond ‘among them are those who slander each other.’” (Bereishis Rabbah 20:1)
In their defense they will claim they did so because Jews slander one another.
Why would they bring the fact that Jews engage in slander as an argument in their defense? I believe that their appeal to God was on two accounts. First, they were telling God that the oppression of Jews has always been a role that nations of the world undertook on behalf of God. Since this was God’s will, it should not be a punishable offense. Second, they know how God hates slander so those Jews who engage in it, really deserved to be punished. God responds that any Jews who engaged in slander will go to Gehenom as well.
It’s true that the Jews deserved punishment and nations of the world were used by God to oppress them in order to stir repentance. This does not get them off the hook for going too far in the severity in which they oppressed the Jews. The classic case of going too far is the Roman General, Titus. He went beyond his mission to destroy the Second Temple. He brought prostitutes into the Holy of Holies and blasphemed God. (Midrash Tanchuma Korach)
The snake went too far as well. Besides Adam and Chava being expelled from the Garden of Eden and losing immortality, there was even more damage done.
Two more crimes to add to the snake’s rap sheet.
The commentary, Yiffei Toar, says that the snake impacted the relationship between Adam and Chava. Rashi mentions it in the form of a conversation between Lemach and Adam. Lemech accused Adam of being a hypocrite for suggesting that Lemech abstain from having relations with his wife because it was God’s will. After all, Adam himself abstained from having relations with Chava for 130 years – something God never asked for. Apparently the emotional trauma of bringing death to the world took its toll on their marriage.
וַהֲלֹא פָּרַשְׁתָּ מֵאִשְׁתְּךָ זֶה מֵאָה וּשְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה מִשֶּׁנִּקְנְסָה מִיתָה עַל יָדְךָ:
“Haven’t you separated from your wife for 130 years because death was decreed on the world because of you?” (Rashi Bereishis 4: 25 based on Midrash Rabbah 23:5)
The second source of pain that the snake inflicted on Adam and Chava was to suggest to them that God hated them. According to the Midrash, the snake argued that God willingly desired to hold them back from the ultimate in personal growth – the empowering experience of being a god. All because God is jealous of other gods whom God sees as competitors threatening His power base. (Midrash Rabbah 19:6). According to the Yiffei Toar the snake presented all this to prove his diabolical idea that God hated His own creations.
Some outreach professionals have encountered Jews who left the path of Jewish observance for this very reason. That God hates them and it is futile to try to rectify the relationship. This deep misconception is a terrible irony because throughout the written and oral Torah God professes His love for His people and yearns for them to get closer. So the fact that the snake injected this poisonous idea into Adam and Chava, is all the more outrageous. Perhaps this is why, according to the Midrash, God did not even want to hear what this creature would say in its defense. Rather the snake was sentenced to become the morally, lowly creature that it was.
What we should learn from the snake is that baseless slander has the potential to uproot a society and an entire way of life. That’s why the snake was punished to look like one long tongue and it is covered with rough patches. These, according to the Midrash, are a sign of Biblical leprosy that the Torah declares to be the punishment for slander. (Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Metzora).
* This viewpoint was originally found in the Zohar