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Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

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Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

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John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

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April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

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Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

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Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

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April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

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The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2004 / 27 Kislev, 5765

Serpents of desire: Good and evil in the Garden of Eden — A Dark and Rainy Night in Manhattan

By Rabbi David Fohrman


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The ninth installment of a weekly series examining themes in the Book of Genesis, with the goal of revealing progressively deeper layers of meaning in what too many dismiss as myth. Links to the previous lessons can be found at the end of the article.



http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Last week, we suggested that "knowing good and evil", might be shorthand for the way the world looks when subjectivity clouds my moral perception; when my quest to identify G-d's desire is complicated by the hidden currents of my own desire. When desire is so substantial a part of my personality that it inexorably becomes part of the lens through which I view my decisions, I no longer live in the world of "true and false", I live in the ever-so-slightly-different world of "good and evil".


As a way of illustrating the distinction between the two "worlds", I left you last week to consider four moral dilemmas. I proposed to you that only three of the dilemmas were genuine, while one was "illusory". The "fake dilemma" can be called illusory because it presents a struggle only when seen in the mixed-up world of 'good and evil'. In the pristine world of "true and false", the struggle simply doesn't exist; it is easily exposed for the sham it really is.


Here were the dilemmas:


  • "Is it OK to take the dying man off the respirator?"

  • "My elderly mother needs help organizing her house before she moves — but my kid needs me to help him prepare for finals. Who do I spend the evening with?

  • "Should Billy lie to the teacher to protect his friend Bobby, when the teacher asks him whether Bobby was cheating on his test?"

  • It's a dark and rainy night in Manhattan. You throw your trusty Chevy Suburban into reverse and begin to back out of your parking spot, when you hear a sickening thud. You get out of the car to behold, right behind you, a shiny black Lexus convertible — with a badly dented front end. You look around. The street is entirely dark, not a soul to be seen. Do you leave a note or not?


WHICH ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER?
Well, did you find the impostor? If you identified the illusory dilemma as the last one — the dark and rainy night in Manhattan — then you and I are on the same page. If you didn't — well, we can still be friends. But in any case, here's my thinking:


The first three dilemmas share a certain, basic quality. They are choices between competing ideals. Each ideal is worthy or noble in its own right, and the dilemma arises only because the two ideals are forced to compete with one another.


For example, take our respirator case: Everybody agrees that prolonging a life is a noble thing, and everyone agrees that improving the quality of a life is also noble — but what happens when you are forced to choose between the two? And consider Bobby and Billy. Honesty and loyalty are both things worth fighting for. But when each value leads you in a different direction, which one wins out? And so it is with mom and the kids: I have obligations towards both these relatives; how do I weigh my competing obligations?


All these choices are genuine. There are two "boxers in the ring", as it were — two competing values — and the question is: Which boxer wins? Which value is dominant? How does my Creator expect me to act?

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But let's turn now to the last case: It's that dark and rainy night in Manhattan, and am I pondering whether I am going to leave that note. Let's try and identify the competing "ideals" here. Well, first we have honesty. Honesty says leave the note. OK, now where's the counter-argument? Think carefully...


There is none.


One second. If there's no second ideal, you might ask, then how come its such a struggle to figure out what to do? It should be a no-brainer. There's only one "boxer". Shouldn't he win by forfeit?


The answer is: There is indeed another boxer here. But its not an ideal. It's a boxer named desire.

A BOXER NAMED DESIRE
In this last dilemma, the battle is being waged between an ideal — honesty — and what you would rather do. The two boxers are simply named: Honesty vs. the fact that you don't want to leave the note.


That, of course, is not how your brain presents things to you, though. No ma'am. Let's listen in on our internal dialogue as you inspect the mangled front end of the Lexus and wrestle with your decision:


"You know, I really should leave that note... But ... one second — before I do that, do I really know for sure that I'm the one who made that dent? I mean, sure I heard a noise when I backed up, but maybe I just ran over a soda can in the gutter or something. And I just tapped that Lexus anyway; could I really have made such a big dent?


Boy, I sure would be a sucker if that car was already dented and I left a note. Anyway, what business did he have parking his toy so near my truck? What a fool I'd be to leave him a note. Look, its not like he'll be out any money or anything. Heck, his insurance company will pay. That what's uninsured motorist insurance is for, isn't it?...".


By the time you're done, you've convinced yourself that it would be positively virtuous to just walk away. Its Robin Hood, vs. the Big Insurance corporations; it's the little guy vs. the rich and arrogant; its you vs. your own naivete — why, you wouldn't be so naive as to think he would leave you a note if he was the one who hit you? But its all a sham. All those "boxers" are phantoms. The real name of the second boxer is simply desire.


Welcome to the world of "good and evil".

THE MIND-GAMES OF DESIRE
A fascinating Midrash echoes this idea. The last time I quoted a Midrash in this space, I got a lot of incredulous emails from readers — so a quick word to the wise: The ancient rabbinic commentary known as Midrash generally speaks in the language of allegory, and it often intentionally cloaks its message in outlandish garb. [Traditional commentators from Luzzatto to Maharal have rarely taken the statements of the Midrash literally.] The trick is to read between the lines and to piece together what the sages are driving at. So take a deep breath, and try this one on for size:


The sages of the Midrash state that after a person dies, the Heavenly court allows him to view his Evil Inclination — his "yetzer hara", as it were. The sages go on to say that if the person was righteous in his lifetime, his Evil Inclination appears to him as a mountain, and if he was wicked, it appears to him as a lowly hill. In either case, the person is astonished: The first person is amazed that he managed to surmount the mountain, while the latter is astonished that such a measly hill deterred him.


What do the sages mean to say here? At first blush, their teaching is counterintuitive. If anything, one would have expected the reverse: Wasn't the wicked person tormented by the "mountain", by roiling desires he found impossible to subdue? And wasn't the righteous person the one with the tamer sense of personal desire, the mere "hill"?


A friend once suggested to me an interesting explanation: Perhaps the difference between a righteous person and a wicked one is not so much that one has a greater or more intense yetzer hara than the other; its that by and large, the wicked person succumbed to that yetzer hara whereas the righteous person didn't. And that changes what each sees when he looks backward: The righteous person sees desire that has not yet been sated, whereas the wicked person sees what desire looks like after one has given into it.


When desire is yet to be satiated, it looks like a mountain. Just before you eat the chocolate macadamia fudge tort, you can't imagine anything more delicious. But through the rear view mirror, desire gives a different appearance. Once you've finished off the last crumbs, the mountain is gone, and you see reality for what it really is: The tort tasted good for all of thirty seconds, and now you've got two hours ahead of you in the gym to work it off.


Such are the pitfalls of subjectivity. In the post-tree world of "good and evil", a dilemma is born on the rainy streets of Manhattan. Desire, for all its size and power, dwells unseen within ourselves, hiding easily behind "phantom boxers". In this world of subjectivity, evil can get dressed up in pretty clothes — and when it does, its hard to know the difference between that which is truly virtuous and compelling, and that which is merely seductive.

THE BEGINNINGS OF DESIRE
The snake's argument, perhaps, stands as a living example of this kind of seductiveness masquerading as virtue. Like that rainy night in Manhattan, the choice whether to eat from the tree or not may have seemed to Adam and Eve like a legitimate dilemma:


"Which 'voice' of G-d do I listen to? The desire inside me, or the voice that commands me with words?"


It seems like a reasonable enough question. And there were good reasons, perhaps, to advocate partaking from this tree of desire. There were good reasons to think it would be right and good and laudable to bring desire into our lives more powerfully than before. After all, the snake is not altogether wrong about instinct and desire constituting the "voice of G-d". Passion does come from G-d, and experiencing it seems to be an essential part of what makes us human. What would it be like to wake up in the morning with no sense of ambition, or to look at a spectacular sunset without a sense of yearning? What if great art seemed humdrum; if romance was wooden and unappealing; if poetry failed to stir our souls? We can well ask if life would still be worth living. To some extent, passion is the very stuff of life.


Its all very reasonable, isn't it? But like that rainy night in Manhattan, there's a sub-text to this dilemma. The intellectual arguments mask another agenda. Even as Adam and Eve stood in the world of true and false, the world of "good and evil" beckoned to us, and desire began to assert its subtle influence.


The astute reader will notice that when Eve paraphrases to the serpent G-d's command to avoid the Tree, she changes a few nuances in the command. At face value, the changes seem fairly innocuous. For example, Eve identifies the tree she and Adam must avoid as being in the "center of the Garden". But if you go back to chapter two, you'll see that this wasn't where the forbidden tree was really located....


If you look at the verses carefully, and you'll find that this is not the only change she makes — there are actually a whole bunch of other ones as well. Which brings me to your homework assignment: Get out those number two pencils and see if you can make a list of these discrepancies over the coming days. "In what ways did Eve miscommunicate G-d's restriction?" Now, when you've got your list together, ask yourself: Why did Eve change these details?


Well, its possible, of course, that Eve was the unfortunate victim of a communications failure. She wasn't created yet when the original command to avoid the tree was given, and maybe Adam repeated it inaccurately to her. Maybe. But its also possible that something else was afoot.


Look carefully and see if you think there is any pattern to the various discrepancies between the original command and Eve's paraphrase of it.


I, for one, think such a pattern exists. Crack open your Bible, and see if you agree with me.

Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes inspirational articles. Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Ready for a change from talk radio? Explore the Bible from the comfort of your car with fascinating tapes and CDs by Rabbi Fohrman. Visit http://www.jewishexplorations.com or call 410-764-7488 to get your set today.

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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PREVIOUSLY:

A World of Broccoli and Pizza
Beauty and the Beast
What's in it for the Snake?
The naked Truth
The dark side of paradise
A Tale of Two Trees
Adam, Eve, and the Elephant in the Room
Serpents of desire: Good and evil in the Garden of Eden





© 2004, Rabbi David Fohrman