Tag Archives: the serpent

Healing the Wounded

Snake swallowing tailWhen the Egyptians realized that they were being attacked by supernatural forces at the Red Sea, they said, “I must flee from the presence of Israel, for G-d [Havayah] is fighting for them against Egypt.” (Ex. 14:25)

As you know, Pharaoh derived sustenance entirely from immature divine consciousness [mochin d’katnut], which is alluded to by the word “End”.

The words usually translated as “Red Sea” [in Hebrew, “Yam Suf”] really mean “Reed Sea”, and can also be read as if they were vocalized “Yam Sof”, meaning “Sea of the End”. The “end” is the final sefira, malchut, which descends into the lower worlds, i.e. the lower levels of divine consciousness. Relative to its native environment, these lower levels of consciousness are “immature” or “constricted”.

This is the significance of [the fact that] the snake puts its tail in its mouth.

Pharaoh personified the Primordial Snake.

From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“The Snake at the Sea’s End”

This is Part 3 in a 3-part series. Before reading this, see Part 1: Overcoming Evil and Part 2: The Primordial Serpent.

The surprise appearance of Pharaoh, King of Egypt (yes, “that” Pharaoh, King of Egypt…the one that gave Moses so much trouble) in the role of the primordial serpent may take you a little off guard, but from the perspective of Kabbalah, many things look different. In Judaism, the serpent is less a specific being or entity (i.e. Satan) and more a representation of an idea or a force, in this case, the personification of the evil inclination. In this sense, you could have many evil people across history personifying the snake. Hitler could be a personification of the ancient serpent of Eden.

But there’s more:

This being the case, Pharaoh was both a head and a tail, in the idiom of the verse, “G-d will cut off from Israel both the head and the tail…on one day.”(Isaiah 9:14)

Pharaoh, here signifying the evil inclination in general, acts as the tail, the lowest consciousness of the Jew, and as the head, i.e. the tail elevated to and usurping the role of the head, proper divine consciousness.

This also alludes to the [Primordial] Snake. Originally, he was the tail and Adam was the head, but [because of the Primordial Sin] this was inverted and the snake became the head and Adam the tail.

Adam here personifies the Good Inclination, or divine consciousness. Sin consists of reversing the hierarchy between divine and material consciousness.

This is the mystical meaning of the verse “He will hit you on the head and you will bite him in the heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Man hits the snake on the head because the snake has usurped man’s role as the leader; the snake bites the heel because by sinning man has become the heel/tail instead of the head.

This is very interesting when your deconstruct the role of snake as Pharaoh back to the original appearance of the serpent in the Garden, and then re-visit the relationship between the snake and Adam (which I suppose we could project back up to the relationship between Pharaoh and Moses).

Adam is the heel (or tail) rather than the head because by sinning, he exchanged roles with the serpent. Instead of man ruling over Creation, now evil rules and man struggles to allow good to ascend while evil inhibits his efforts. The snake bites the heel but the heel will crush the snake.

In Christian thought, the heel of man is symbolized by Jesus crushing the evil of Satan, and Rabbi Wisnefsky, when recounting the wisdom of the Rebbe in his article Transforming the Primordial Snake, presents an interesting interpretation that seems to apply:

Since the snakes were deadly, anyone who had been bitten was for all intents and purposes already dead. Healing the bitten person was thus tantamount to resurrecting him.

Now, in order to resurrect a dead person, it is not enough to simply infuse his body with life, because the body has already lost its capacity to support life. First, the dead body had to be made capable once more of living. This can be done only by a force that transcends the laws of nature, including the dichotomy of life and death. Infusing this transcendent force into the dead body restores its capacity to support life, after which the person’s soul can re-enter it and he can live again.

This is why G-d also commanded Moses to heal the people using a snake. By using the image of the deadly, Primordial Snake to restore life, G-d indicated to them that resurrection requires eliciting a level of divinity that transcends the dichotomy of life and death. When people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good.

What was that? Resurrect the dead?

River of LifeLet’s weave Rabbi Wisnefsky’s commentary into more familiar language. When man fell in the Garden, he was “bitten” by a “poisonous” snake and that “poison”, the evil within us, has continued to sicken humanity down through the ages. Christianity considers a sinner as “spiritually dead”, unable to perceive God let alone to attempt to perform His will.

Jesus, by his death and resurrection, provides the means by which mankind can be healed of our poison and by which we can be brought back from the dead. The commentary above talks about the restoration of the soul and the resurrection of the body, both of which we see in the promise of Jesus Christ. The last paragraph of the Rabbi’s missive illustrates that we must see and be aware of our evil inclination, how it serves as the barrier preventing us from a holy life, and also shows us how we can conqueror that nature and bend it to our will and God’s will (Romans 8:37).

I’m sure that Rabbi Wisnefsky would say that I’m playing fast and loose with his interpretation of the Rebbe’s teachings, but there seems to be more than a casual similarity between the Rebbe’s lesson and what we know of the role of the Messiah relative to the subjugation of evil. Jesus came during the Second Temple period to provide for the repairing of our damaged souls, to reconcile us with God, and to prepare the way to eternal life. When he returns, he will finish the job and completely heal us and the world of the evil that plagues us and restore us to the state which we enjoyed with God in Eden.

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.” –Sanhedrin, 11:1

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. –Revelation 22:1-5

We’re not there yet. We’re still in “exile”. However, God is here with us.

Perhaps, for you, this exile is not so bad. And you feel you are doing whatever you can about it, anyway.

But it is not just you. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all their children through all the generations, as well as all the heavenly hosts,
the entire Creation—all is unfulfilled, in exile and imprisoned.

Even the Creator, blessed be He, locks Himself into prison along with His Creation.

Until you get us out of here.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“Pity on the Cosmos”

The Primordial Serpent

SerpentWhen people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good…The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling G-d’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes the source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.

From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“Transforming the Primordial Snake”
[Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 13, pp. 75-77]
Kabbalah Online

This also alludes to the [Primordial] Snake. Originally, he was the tail and Adam was the head, but [because of the Primordial Sin] this was inverted and the snake became the head and Adam the tail.

From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“The Snake at the Sea’s End”

This is Part 2 in a 3-part series. Before reading this, see Part 1: Overcoming Evil.

The serpent of Eden isn’t quite what you expect him to be when you encounter him in Judaism, and particularly within the realm of Kabbalah. While not an entirely pleasant fellow, he doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as Christianity paints him. The “Transforming the Primordial Snake” article quoted above tells us that the serpent; the evil inclination within us, “impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement”. The commentary goes on to explain that we can “convince” the evil inclination that the best way to meet its goal is to meet our goal of a life of holiness. Once the “serpent” is sold on this idea, the “snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life”.

Makes the snake sound almost reasonable, doesn’t it? However, the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria paint a darker portrait:

In the Zohar, the imagery of the snake putting its tail in its mouth is used to illustrate the sin of “the evil tongue”, i.e. slander, a gross misuse of the power of speech. (Zohar III:205b) People commit this sin when material consciousness gets the better of them. As is explained in the Tanya (ch. 32), those who give their bodies preeminence over their souls see only the outer shell of their fellow man, which differentiates between people, and are oblivious to the inner souls. They thus fall into the sin of hatred, which leads to slander.

Rabbi Luria makes slander sound awful, but how bad can it be? I mean, it’s not as bad as say, murder, is it?

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of gehinnom. –Matthew 5:21-22

I guess it is that bad.

But who is the serpent? Is it some sort of talking animal, like Balaam’s donkey or is this Satan, the Adversary, in disguise? Let’s cut to the chase and look at him from a traditional Jewish perspective:

Satan in Judaism is a very different beast than satan in popular culture (pun intended)

The snake in the garden of Eden is identified as the personification of the “Yetzerh Harah” (Bad/evil will/desires/inclination) by the midrashim.

The Talmud also states that the Yetzer Harah, Satan, and the angel of death are one. (Some might understand this to mean that they are ‘bad things’ which really are good, and necessary.

In Judaism, the Satan is an angel commanded by Gd to accuse human beings of wrong things. In modern terms, you might call satan the heavenly prosecutor, who seeks to bring all people to court.

-from the Jewish Life and Learning discussion board

Eve and the SerpentThat would seem to mesh somewhat with the Christian interpretation, however, the person who made this post offered a follow up:

A strict reading of the bible would tell you just a snake, and nothing else. An interpreted reading of the bible based on Jewish sources would tell you its the Evil Inclination. An interpreted reading of the interpretation based on Jewish sources would tell you that the snake represents three things. (Which, could be seen as a reason for only the serpent to be mentioned in the first place)

This is consistent with other Jewish sources which state that Adam personified the Good Inclination while the serpent was the embodiment of the Evil Inclination. In Kabbalistic thought, the serpent wasn’t so much a personality as a force of nature, or at least a representation of other forces. The serpent was the external manifestation of the evil inclination which, once Adam and Eve sinned, became man’s internal inclination for evil.

However, as I’ve heard it said just recently, “let Scripture interpret Scripture”:

The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. –Revelation 12:9

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. –Revelation 20:1-2

Now we have to assume that the “ancient serpent” being referred to in these verses is the same one we see tempting Eve in the Garden, but that’s an assumption Christianity takes for granted. It’s not one that Judaism would make for obvious reasons.

A recent CNN news story, which was critical of the ability of many Christians to read and remember the Bible correctly (that part seems sadly true) suggested that the serpent was just a serpent (albeit an intelligent and talking one) and that the Adversary (HaSatan) was never mentioned. While it is true, Genesis doesn’t go out of its way to say, “Hey! The snake is the devil!”, the passages from Revelation seem to be a “smoking gun”.

Judah Himango started a conversation about this topic on his Kineti L’Tziyon blog the other day, and from his point of view, the matter is settled. Still, looking at the serpent through the lens of Jewish mysticism, there’s more to his story than meets the eye. Part 3 of this series, Healing the Wounded, will cover that tale in the next “morning meditation”.

Overcoming Evil

Primordial SnakeThe vilna gaon, rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna, 1720-1797, one of the most influential Rabbinic figures since the Middle Ages, wrote on this topic in Even Shelaima. In commenting about how it was possible for Adam and Eve to sin if the evil inclination hadn’t fully be incorporated within humankind, he insists that indeed they did have an evil inclination. However, since they were fashioned from the “Hand of God,” their God-consciousness was so strong that it was axiomatic they would do the correct thing. As long as their inner-voice and spiritual essence radiated, it subdued any outside influences that may challenge this level of connection.

The primordial snake turned out to be just the agent to stimulate the notion of rebellion, ignite a spark of doubt in the divine command to refrain from eating of the Tree of Knowledge, and from the moment they imbibed in that forbidden fruit, their “eyes were opened.” From now on the possibility for allowing external stimuli to penetrate their inner-core of the soul’s sanctity and disturb their cleaving to God was activated. Humankind is constantly being tested with how much light their souls (inner essence) can muster to dispel the darkness associated with the myriad temptations of the world, which every moment attempts to suppress the sublime luster of that soul.

-Rav Aaron Perry
found at VirtualJerusalem.com

Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.Anne Frank

Although I didn’t intend it this way, this “morning meditation” is Part 1 in a 3-Part series. See the bottom of this article for information on Part 2.

Given Anne Frank’s brief and tragic life, I’ve always wondered how she could say that. Living in the shadow of Nazi oppression and the horror of the Holocaust, I would imagine she’d see people as anything except “good at heart”.

Christianity teaches that created man was initially good and obedient to God but, thanks to the temptation of the serpent and Eve and Adam subsequently giving in to temptation, the fundamental nature of all human beings throughout time became evil. In other words, all people are inherently evil beings and only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ can we overcome our evil nature (“more than conquerors” as in Romans 8:37) and do good. According to the church, Anne Frank is wrong.

Actually, looking at the bloody and cruel history of humanity, it is easy to agree with Christianity’s viewpoint of man’s grim nature, and to conclude that Ms. Frank was a good but rather naive person. Yet Judaism has a very different take on the “primordial sin” of Adam and Eve.

Depending on who you talk to, Judaism believes that man was essentially operating under a “good inclination” (that’s just like it sounds, man was inclined to do good which in this case means obeying God) internally. Evil existed in the world in the form of the serpent (and at no time in this early Genesis narrative is the serpent equated with Satan) but as an external influence. According to this view, man had an internally good nature but could be impacted by external evil forces.

Rabbi Perry gives us a slightly different view of this, saying that man possessed an internal good and evil inclination. Referencing the Vilna Gaon, he states that, “…indeed they did have an evil inclination. However, since they were fashioned from the “Hand of God,” their God-consciousness was so strong that it was axiomatic they would do the correct thing. As long as their inner-voice and spiritual essence radiated, it subdued any outside influences that may challenge this level of connection.”

In other words, it was possible, but highly unlikely for man to give in to his evil inclination, because his “God-consciousness” overwhelmed the evil within him and generally dampened external evil influences. Once man sinned against God, the barriers inhibiting man from sinning were breached and now, humanity struggles between the two internalized inclinations for good and evil.

BurningDoes that mean, from a Jewish point of view, that Anne Frank is right? Are we really “good at heart” but with our goodness inhibited by our inclination for evil? If so, why is human history so dismal and corrupt? Why don’t we see a more “balanced” expression of human motivations, illustrating whole people groups who were essentially good and righteous vs. others who were dark and monstrous?

I’ve already addressed the issue of the “primordial sin” once before in my blog post Gateway to Eden and suggested that the way we can return to intimacy with God, at least to some degree and for a brief time, was to embrace Shabbat keeping. However, I didn’t try to directly confront the nature of humanity, although I did find this helpful quote:

After man ate from the Tree of Knowledge, however, he acquired the intimate knowledge of and desire for evil. The evil inclination was no longer an external force, represented by the Serpent. It was within. Our physical flesh was now a confused mixture of good and evil. Death was introduced into the world: human flesh, separated from the spirit, was a creature of the finite, physical realm — one which must ultimately decay and die. Man would now face a much greater challenge than before. He would no longer battle a Serpent from without. He would have to battle his own sluggish yet desirous flesh within.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
The Primordial Sin, Part II
Pirkei Avos Chapter 6, Mishna 5(b)

There is a drive among people, particularly people of faith, to rise above the mud and slime of thousands of years of war, crime, and misery, and to reach out for the heavens and the Throne of God. The Divine spark within us seeks out its Source and cannot be buried, no matter how depraved a people we become. God once chose to destroy all but a tiny handful of human beings and flooded the Earth because we had become so totally immersed in evil, but every time we see a rainbow, we can recall the promise that God will not repeat this action.

God gave the Children of Israel the Torah to establish a nation of mercy and justice and with the intent of sending the Torah from Zion and into the nations. God sent his “only begotten Son” so that everyone could be saved and none should perish for lacking the ability to have a relationship with the Creator.

We’ve previously encountered the question of how man could do evil if he was essentially good. Now we must ask ourselves, if man is essentially evil, why would he even desire to do good? Why would man seek God? For it seems “…man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7 NASB).

Bending the verse just a little bit, I rather prefer, “For man is born to trouble but our sparks fly upward.” None of the translations available present the verse in such a way, but I think my version paints a truer picture of humanity…we battle between the inclinations of good and evil within us, but always present is the image of God in which we were created, and the slender, illuminated thread that inexorably attaches us to Him and leads us upward and back toward home.

All we have to do is resist the evil and seek the good within ourselves.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. –Romans 12:17-21 (Deut. 32:35 Prov. 25:21-22)

It is not so much that we need to be taken out of exile. It is that the exile must be taken out of us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Inner Exile”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

We are in the last nine days of the three weeks of mourning between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is believed that the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were sent into a 2,000 year exile due to their display of “wanton hatred” among each other. Right now, Jews all over the world are observing a period of intense mourning and prayer as they seek to put aside the desires of the evil inclination and turn to the God of their Fathers.

May we all pray for the courage and strength to do the same.

Part 2 of this series will be published in tomorrow’s morning meditation: The Primordial Serpent.