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Jewish World Review
Oct. 15, 2004
/ 30 Tishrei, 5765
Serpents of desire: Good and evil in the Garden of Eden
Rabbi David Fohrman
Adam, Eve and the Serpent are familiar to us from childhood, yet the meaning of their story seems maddeningly elusive. For example, why did the Divine prohibit our eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Did He really not want mankind to be able to distinguish right from wrong? Starting this week, a new series that will take us back to the Eden story, revealing progressively deeper layers of meaning.
This series is meant to be interactive. Feel free to e-mail the author, who will reply.
Paradoxically enough, a big problem in studying the Bible is that its stories are so familiar to us.
No matter where you grew up, no matter what level of education you've had, you've come across the story of Adam and Eve tens, if not hundreds, of times. We've heard the story in school, and we've learned it at home. We drink "Adam and Eve" apple juice, and see Adam and Eve icons on shampoo bottles. We know that story, we assure ourselves. Indeed, we know the story too well for our own good.
When we know a story "too well", we become easy prey to a syndrome I like to call "The Lullaby Effect". The lullaby effect retards our ability to ask even to see the really important questions that the Bible begs us to ask of it. The "Lullaby Effect" anesthetizes us through the stupefying effects of familiarity. Here's how it works:
When was the last time you bothered thinking about the words of the lullabies you sing to your children. Stop for a moment and think really think about what their words actually mean. For starters, try that perennial favorite of ours, "Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop". Imagine your child was actually paying attention to the words you were singing: "....when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, baby and all...".
Now, you can certainly get a kid to sleep by singing this. But if your sweet child was actually listening to what you were singing, she'd be in for a rude awakening. Lots of questions, I imagine, would quickly come to mind. If we bothered listening, they would come to our mind, too:
"Exactly how far off the ground was the cradle when it fell?"
"Did anyone call 911?"
"Who put the cradle on the bough in the first place?" "Was the parent trying to get rid of the child?" "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
But no one asks these questions. Few of us are even remotely disturbed by the violence that gushes from us when we sing our children to sleep. Why? Because we've simply stopped listening to the words. We have heard them too many times. We heard them as children before we even knew what they meant; and now, even as adults, they fail to shock us.
Biblical stories are a lot like lullabies in that way. Almost every major Biblical story has its "elephant in the room" some major problem, or a series of them, that cries out to be addressed. "Why would G-d tell Abraham to take his son and kill him, only to retract at the last moment and say He didn't really mean it?". What, exactly, did G-d have against the building of a Tower in the Land of Babel? Why would G-d bother bargaining with Pharaoh to let the Jews go, only to harden his heart once the Egyptian monarch finally agreed? But the stories are too familiar to us. We've heard about them so many times, they've become part of our cultural fabric. We soak in the stories through osmosis, the way we unthinkingly develop accents that reflect the place in which we grew up. We fail to see the problems anymore.
In this column, I'd like to challenge us to change that. I want to ask you to come along with me on a journey; an adventure in Biblical text in which we read these stories that we thought we knew with fresh eyes, and ask the questions that any intelligent reader would ask about them.
If this idea makes you nervous, relax. We needn't fear these questions, for they are not really problems; they are opportunities. They are windows that the text gives us to begin to perceive its deeper meaning. Sure, you can keep the window closed and pretend it isn't there. But if you don't open it, the treasure that lays beyond a richer, three dimensional understanding of Chumash, not to mention an entire world of Chazal and Medrash will remain sealed off to you forever.
So here's the deal:
We've just started the cycle of Torah portions anew. Oftentimes, we don't give the first Bible portion the attention it deserves. It tends to get swept away in the flood of Simchas Torah celebrations all the more so this year, when Simchas Torah fell out on Friday. Let's take a deep breath, and look at Bereishis the beginning of the Torah more carefully.
If you would, crack open a Bible to the story of Adam, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Yes, I know: You know the story already ever since sixth grade, you've had this image in your mind of the snake wound around the tree, offering Eve an apple. But that's precisely the point. You need to forget all that. You need to erase those images and read the story anew. You need to break the lullaby syndrome.
Read the story slowly and carefully. Just the text; no commentaries. And as you do, ask yourself these questions: If I was reading this for the first time, what about it would strike me as strange? What are the "big questions" that the Torah wants me to ask about this story? What are the elephants in the room?
You've got a week to think about it. I'll meet you right back here and we'll compare notes.
See you then.
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JWR contributor Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, and is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Biblical Themes. He has also authored several volumes of the ArtScroll Talmud.
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Have some time in the car? Try one of Rabbi Fohrman's tape sets on Biblical Themes. You can find them at http://www.jewishexplorations.com.
© 2004, Rabbi David Fohrman