This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ben Kaplan
The story of the “original sin” is embedded into both the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness. While many of us take this story for granted, looking into it on a deeper level can help us understand deep truths about the human condition. In particular, analyzing the linguistic nuances of the original Hebrew can provide deep insight into two distinct types of human desire.
Seemingly identical words lie on each side of the border between the second and third chapters of B’reishit:
וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.
וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.
In the second perek, the root ערם clearly means that the humans were “naked”, while in the third perek, since presumably none of the animals in the garden were clothed, it is instead translated as “clever.”
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, a proponent of the idea of the deep and interconnected nature of the Hebrew language, separates the two instances of ערם into two distinct linguistic roots. He connects the root’s definition as “clever” to the Hebrew word ערמה, heap, since a clever person takes many seemingly small actions which are “heaped” together to great effect. Rav Hirsch concludes that the form of ערם meaning naked comes from the root עור, meaning skin. So too, a blind person is called an עור (vowelized differently) since the primary sense he uses to find his way around is touch, which is sensed through skin.
Even if we assume with Rav Hirsch that the two words come from unrelated roots, the use of the same letters to describe humans and animals seems intended to draw a parallel between the naked man and woman and the cunning snake. The deliberate nature of the juxtaposition grows more evident with the acknowledgement that the chapter separation between the two verses is not intrinsic to the Torah itself, but was added by later (by a Christian archbishop in the 13th century). The Masoretic notes make neither a p’tuchah nor s’tumah separation between the two verses.
Some hints from the language of the Torah, as well as from a (somewhat baffling) midrash, may yield a unified definition for the two instances of the root. Rashi on verse 3:1 quotes B’reishit Rabbah as saying that the snake wanted to cause Adam and Chavah to sin due to the desire he felt at seeing them being publicly intimate with each other. This is a reasonable implication of 2:25. The Torah then describes the serpent tempting Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. At first, Chavah seems to have no desire to eat from the tree, simply answering the serpent’s questions about which trees she may eat from and which one she may not, citing the danger of death. The serpent rejects her concerns, informing Chavah that God does not wish her and her husband to eat from the tree because then “their eyes will open” and they will becomes like gods. Only after this speech is it stated that Chavah desired the tree.
ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל.
It should be noted that the verse refers to eyes and seeing twice, “Chavah saw… that the tree was temptation for the eyes.” Noticing the oddity that Chavah is only seeing these aspects of the tree now, Rashi comments that it was not the tree that Chavah is seeing, rather she is “seeing” i.e. agreeing with, the argument of the serpent. After Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit of the tree, they begin to feel its effects.
ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.
Interestingly, the serpent’s promise is partially fulfilled, as the verse testifies that “their eyes opened and they realized that they were naked.” What exactly was the nature of the change wrought by the forbidden fruit? What does it mean that it opened their eyes?
Eyes and vision play a prominent role in the story, as has already been demonstrated. Additionally, seeing and desire seem to be closely related. Chavah “sees” and desires the tree, which “desirable for the eyes.” Additionally, the “opening of the eyes” caused by the fruit of the tree seems to have awakened some form of desire for evil in Adam and Chavah, as is stated explicitly by Rashi in 2:25. However, it seems odd to take this at face value, since the desire to deviate from God’s command clearly existed before eating from from the tree. After all, the very act of eating from the tree was an evil act!
A possible reconciliation of this contradiction is that there was a form of desire that existed before eating from the Eitz HaDaat and a form of desire that only entered the human consciousness afterward. Base, physical desires were absent from the human consciousness until after they ate the forbidden fruit. However, cognitive desires of the mind still existed. This is why the serpent was able to persuade Chavah to eat the fruit and why she only desired the fruit after the serpent gave her an intellectual argument of why she should. The “opening of the eyes” caused by eating the fruit was the human consciousness awakening to the existence of this physical type of desire. As is pointed out by the S’forno (on 3:1), the distinction between cognitive and physical temptation is explicated in Bamidbar 15:39.
וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם
The Torah here warns both not to follow the temptations of the eyes (physical temptations) as well as the temptations of the heart (cognitive temptations). The new awareness of physical temptation is what causes Adam and Chavah to be ashamed of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. The knowledge that they are displaying the parts of themselves that ignite temptation in others is shameful.
If sight is symbolic of the ability to desire that which is external, then nakedness is symbolic of one’s internal existence as an object of desire. As was indicated by the midrash, Adam’s and Chavah’s nakedness ignited temptation in the serpent. If this is true, then a unified definition of ערום can be proposed; namely, an object of desire. While Adam and Chavah ignited physical desire in others, the serpent was ערום in the sense that he ignited cognitive desire in others. His “cleverness” is what allowed him to tempt Chavah to sin. It then makes sense why Rashi connects Chavah’s act of “seeing” to the words of the snake rather than the tree itself. Since physical desire was only awakened by eating the forbidden fruit, the temptation that Chavah “saw” must have been that of the snake’s words.
The idea of a snake being harmful to look at is not only present in our parshah, but in secular sources as well. In Greek myth, the Medusa was a creature with snakes for hair; those who gazed upon her would turn to stone. Likewise, the basilisk featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (inspired by the creature of European myth) causes death to those who look into its eyes. In the Disney films The Jungle Book and Aladdin looking into the eyes of a snake (or in the latter case, a snake-shaped staff, which conjures other biblical parallels) causes the gazer to come under its thrall.
Rav Hirsch’s idea of ערום stemming from עור, skin, fits well into this concept as well. The Gemara in Arachin (15b) draws a parallel between a snake who bites and does not eat his prey to one who speaks lashon hara (evil speech). One who speaks lashon hara is inherently making himself into an object of cognitive desire, as it is forbidden to listen to lashon hara as well as to speak it. Since the snake in B’reishit misuses his faculty of speech to tempt others to sin, one who speaks lashon hara is compared to the snake. As is stated on the same amud, the punishment for speaking lashon hara is tzaraat, an affliction of the skin, the עור. This connection is seen strikingly when Moshe is given signs to prove to B’nei Yisrael that God has sent him. The first two signs he is given are his staff turning into a snake and the skin of his hand being covered with tzaraat. Rashi comments on Sh’mot 4:3 and 4:6 that these signs hinted to Moshe that he spoke lashon hara about Israel by saying they would not believe him.
While certain ascetic streams of thought would have us focus on rooting out physical temptation from our society, B’reishit indicates that the “original sin” had nothing to do with physical desire. Rather, promises of power and glory as well as clever schemes designed to harm others caused the first ever sin. Chazal draw the parallel of such cognitive sins to lashon hara, often spoken in an attempt to increase one’s own place in the social pecking order. In order to truly correct humanity’s most fundamental flaw, our focus must be on treating our fellows well and using our knowledge and cunning to assist our brothers and sisters, rather than using them as stepping stones for our own material gain.
Ben Kaplan (SBM 2017) graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in bioengineering in May 2017. After spending the summer in SBM, he made aliyah in August and is currently working as a madrich at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion.