Cunning and Subjectivity

In Parsha Bereishit, we find a very interesting episode. Chava is convinced by the serpent to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. She then proceeds to tell Adam that he should try the fruit, and now, we schmegegges get to dwell in this crazy world. We could be prancing in the Garden of Eden, but because of Adam and Chava, we are stuck here. However, let’s put the grudges aside. There is something rather fascinating to unpack in this story. We read that “…the serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made, and it said to the woman, ‘Did God indeed say…You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden?'” (Bereishit 3:1). Now, Chava knew that they could not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but the serpent responded, “You will surely not die” (Bereishit 3:4). And it was true: Chava touched the tree and ate from it, and she did not die. The fact that Chava did not die was enough evidence for Adam to then take the fruit from Chava. Following this incident, “…the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles” (Bereishit 3:7).

Allow me to bring up a small detail in this scenario that may inform our worldview. The word used for cunning, when referring to the snake, and the word used for naked, when referring to Adam and Chava’s state of being, is the same word, עָר֔וּם. Though the translations and concepts seem disconnected, the Hebrew word is the same – one strongly informs the other. 

Let’s analyze! The snake used its cunning to deceive Chava, and by that effect, Adam, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Once they ate, they realized that they were naked. Before they ate the fruit, they knew right and wrong: don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge, do be fruitful and multiply. They only saw an objective reality. The issue is that wisdom, which came as a result of eating from the tree, is one of Hashem’s many attributes; it is an expression of Hashem, but not Hashem himself. An attribute of Hashem must be good, therefore it must be good to eat from the tree. Not because they desire wisdom, but because it is objectively good to emulate Hashem. Adam and Chava took wisdom out of context, placed it above Hashem, and worshipped it by eating from the tree.

Though Adam and Chava sinned, they did it through an objective lens. Had they acknowledged and recognized Hashem, and not just one of His ways of interacting with the world (wisdom) they would have never sinned. That is opposite of today; nowadays, we can say and believe that Hashem’s law is binding, but still sin because we desire to. Adam and Chava did not have the ability to acknowledge Hashem’s law as ultimate and yet sinned because their emotions told them to.  

Once they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they lived in a subjective reality. They perceived good and evil subjectively and essentially made themselves deities. 

Today, good and evil are processed through our intellect, our emotions, and other faculties used to experience this world. Very often, these faculties distort objective right and wrong. The truth does not have feelings. When feelings are introduced, they often cause us to desire or reject something on an intuitive level, and in turn, our intellect steps in to make an argument to justify our feelings. Adam and Chava did not originally have intellect or emotions the same way as we have them today. As a result, we have the potential to feel that something is good, when it is in fact wrong. At the same time, we can feel that something is evil, when it is in fact the right thing to do. 

The question that remains is, why is the Hebrew word עָר֔וּם use for both “cunning” and “naked”? And why is that so important to the discussion above? If we take a look, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, “the eyes of both of them (Adam and Chava) were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles.” 

Before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Chava were unaware and unashamed of their nakedness. Nakedness was a neutral trait, a part of life, the same way we blink, walk, and sleep. Yet, something transformed nakedness into an object of shame that needed to be covered up. What was this something? It was cunning. Cunning, the ability to reason and distort objective right and wrong, is what transformed the objective reality of the Garden of Eden into the subjective world we live in now, a world of good and evil. 

When good and evil were introduced, every trait became vulnerable to this subjective reality in which humans can reason their way into making their choices. Unfortunately, with a lack of objectivity, evil can easily satisfy our baser instincts for a short term gain, and all this can be disguised by our ability to reason. Thus, when Adam and Chava ate the fruit, their nakedness, originally a neutral trait, became exposed to the yetzer hara (the evil inclination). You see the connection now? Cunning, the ability to justify our feelings and emotions with intellect and even wisdom, was used to distort right and wrong and therefore expose the potential of our nakedness. Hashem gave our bodies a lot of power: the ability to create a life, the ability to be intimate and become one with our spouse. But the same nakedness can be used for extreme evil. When Adam and Chava became aware of their nakedness, they became aware of their nakedness’ potential and realized that this potential must be guarded with modesty. 

Perhaps, for this reason, the word cunning and the word nakedness are the same word in Hebrew. Cunning exposes us; in a broader sense, it leaves our traits naked and bare. It places us in a subjective reality in which we become subject to the elements of good and evil. Being in a constant state of subjective reality leaves us very vulnerable; it is a state in which one’s guard must constantly be up, in which one must constantly build fences to preserve and direct his nakedness in a modest fashion towards good. If not actively tended to and taken care of, our traits naturally veer towards that which is negative. Evil is often disguised as comfort and momentary gain, and can be justified by our intellect. 

One may ask, what can we do about this today? How do we build this fence? After all, we live in a post-Garden of Eden world in which reality is such that we are exposed to subjectivity, in which our emotions and desires drive us, in which we have the ability to reason our way out of and into anything. The answer is simple; doing it perhaps is not as simple. We have a Torah. Hashem gave us His rules and teachings in His book; it is an ultimate, objective Truth. A Truth that can guard us and preserve the holy positive potential of our nakedness, our traits. 

In the Garden of Eden, we lived in a world in which we did not need to be mindful of our nakedness; however, there is greater potential today. Adam and Chava did not need to direct their nakedness towards good; that was a natural state of being. Today, we have the ability to choose good and evil; this choice, and the effort that comes with it, has the potential to bring much more holiness and closeness to Hashem. But we must remember that this cannot be done by our conscience, by our ability to reason, or even by our intuition. These are supplemental traits that must be directed by one thing and one thing only, submission to Hashem’s Torah. The Torah tells us what is right and wrong, and in turn, it gives us the ability to experience and find true joy in Hashem’s good, with the ultimate culmination being the coming of Mashiach, may it be speedily in our days Bezrat Hashem. 

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