Excerpted from Awake at the Wheel




Here are some imagined headlines as they might have ­appeared in a Gan Eden Gazette.

Consternation Is Reported Among the Animals

Let us permit ourselves a little anthropomorphism in order the better to understand the shattering impact that these headlines would have had upon the animals that were leading their peaceful and precisely structured lives in Gan Eden.
What happened? They are all being summoned so that Adam HaRishon could get acquainted and assign names to everybody.
I am trying to imagine how, let us say, a couple of antelopes might have been impacted when they realized what was going on. Here is what they might have murmured to each other.
“Who is this interloper? What does he want with names? Where does this ridiculous idea of attaching names to animals come from? All right, names are useful in pinning down definitions. But who or what would be interested in defining us? Each of us is what we are, responsible to no one but ourselves and our children, living by reliable instincts that never let us down. If, all of a sudden, names are going to play a role in our lives, that portends some very profound and significant changes. Who needs changes? Who wants changes?”
We must certainly have had some very worried antelopes here.
If someone would have pressed them to say whether the ideas of “good” and “bad” played any roles in their lives, they would have shrugged off the question. Of course there is “good” (that which will keep us alive) and “bad” (that which will hasten our death). But they would have pointed out that they never thought in those terms. In fact, they did not think at all in the sense that humans think. Instinct took care of everything; things were placid, predictable, and pleasant.
Let us leave the antelopes to their problems. It is time for us to get away from silly word-games and to become serious.

Please note that this chapter is not an attempt to come to grips with the story of the Tree of Knowledge and the tests to which Adam was exposed. Such an analysis is way beyond anything that I would have the right to undertake.
In this chapter, for reasons that will become clear as we go along, I am interested in the nachash. I came across R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s treatment of this difficult concept and was swept away by the profound simplicity with which he dealt with it. I am going to share it with you and to use it as a springboard for the matters that I want to discuss in this chapter.

I am going to preface our discussion with two quotes from the Hirsch Chumash.
The first comes from the commentary to Bereishis 2:16 where the Ribono shel Olam tells Adam that he is forbidden to eat from the “tree of knowledge of what is good and what, evil.”

The commands set forth in verses 16 and 17 begin man’s training for his moral calling. It begins human history and it shows all future generations the path in which they are to walk. The interdiction against eating from the Tree of Knowledge is . . . not a rational prohibition. On the contrary, all the perceptive faculties given to man—taste, imagination, and intellect—oppose this prohibition. Man, with his own intellect, would never have decreed upon himself such an inhibition. What is more: even after the prohibition was expressed, he could find no reason for it—other than the absolute Will of God.

Our second quote comes from Bereishis 3:1 where the story of the nachash begins.

The animals are truly “Godlike” in their knowledge of good and evil. They are endowed with instinct, and this instinct is the voice of God, the Will of God as it applies to them. Whatever animals do is in accordance with their instinct. For animals this instinct is Divine guidance operating within them. What animals do in accordance with their instinct is good, and any act from which their instinct restrains them is bad. Animals cannot err; they have only their one nature, whose call they must heed.
Not so for man. He is to opt for good and shun evil out of his own free will and sense of duty. Even when he gives his physical nature its due, he must do so not because of the allure stimulated by his senses, but out of a commitment to duty. Even when he takes physical pleasure he must act in moral freedom. Man must never be an animal.

The antelopes were right to have worried. Profound changes were indeed in the wind. On the sixth day of Creation things changed irrevocably for them. They, as members in excellent standing in the animal world, would nonetheless become subordinate to man. He would rule them and he would use them. To use them well, he would have to know their nature. It became necessary to understand them, in short, to name them.
We have italicized the last sentence in the second Hirsch quote because it is the basis of all we hope to cover in this book. Much of the struggle that we are called upon to undertake in order to practice a meaningful Yiddishkeit consists of renouncing the undemanding world of instinct and, instead, making the extreme effort of engaging our minds. Indeed, we must persuade ourselves that man must never be an animal.
But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. This, after all, is only a beginning.
In the meantime, though, we can say that, as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch reveals to us, this short sentence underlies the entire confrontation between the nachash and humankind. We might go so far as to say that the nachash was telling the truth as he, as an animal, saw it. We might paraphrase his ideas as follows:
“Look, Chavah, I am speaking from experience. It is simply not true to say that in order to really know ‘good’ from ‘evil’ you have to have eaten from this tree. Believe me; I have dealt with good and evil all my life—I do so all the time. I have never tasted anything from that tree and nonetheless the decisions that I am constantly called upon to make are unerringly true. I know how to keep myself alive ( good) and what to avoid because it poses danger (bad). So there is no reality in what God is telling you. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are very simple concepts. Everything that you need to know is defined for you by your instinct, which, by the way, is also planted in you by God. There is no reason to fear that by eating from this fruit you will die. The tree looks good (instinct) so it is good. The prohibition is simply a powerplay on God’s part.”
Was he right? Of course he was right—speaking as an animal. It was all a matter of definition. For dealing with “good” and “bad” as these terms have meaning in the animal world, nothing outside them is required. The built-in instinct works like a dream. The nachash did not realize, or if he realized, was determined to deny, that with the creation of Adam a different kind of “good” and “bad” had been introduced into the world. Morality had crashed into history and of what was “good” and “bad” under that frightening regime only the Ribono shel Olam, never instinct, was going to be the arbiter.
That is what the confrontation in Eden was all about. The nachash, as king over the animal world, was making a stand against the changes that would disturb his hegemony if humanity were to take God’s charge seriously.
The nachash refused to kowtow to the Ribono shel Olam. He was not about to tolerate a change in his autonomy.
The battle lines were drawn.


Dear Reader:
Do you mind if I ask you a question? Please excuse my curiosity. Perhaps I sound like a yenta. If so, so be it.
Do you happen to know the nachash? Have you ever been accosted by him?
Do you have a conscience? Is it active or stuck in sleep mode? If you heard the Ribono shel Olam call Ayeka?—Where are you?—What would be your answer? Would you offer your address and perhaps even add your mobile number, or would you pick up the sheer terror of the implications living just beneath the surface of that simple question?
Okay, so you are getting angry at me. Who am I to go prying around like that and, anyway, what possible contact could you, an upright and serious Jew, have with, of all things, the nachash? Well, you are right on the first part; I have no right to ask you such questions and would not dream of doing so in a forum that would require you to answer me or anybody else. About the second part, I would counsel a little patience. Read on and reserve your reaction until you get to the end of this letter.
Let me ask you a personal question. No need to worry. Nobody, not I or anybody else, will ever know your answer. I assume that in the last twenty-four hours you bowed down at least three times as you were reciting Modim while davening the Amidah. Right? How profoundly were you touched on each of these three occasions? How life-altering were these three experiences? And, as long as we are asking some pretty impertinent questions, I will ask just one more. Were those bowings really “experiences” in any real sense of that word?
Here is why I am asking these questions. I want to get you to think about the affinity that [may] exist[s] between you and the nachash.
Here is a quote from Bava Kama 16a.

Seven years after his death, a person’s spine turns into a snake. This only happens if, while he was alive, he did not bow down when reciting Modim.

What could this possibly mean? Here are some excerpts from the Maharal, Nesivos Olam 1, Nesiv HaAvodah 10.

It is entirely appropriate that someone who does not bow down when he recites Modim should “turn into” a nachash. There is a marked affinity between man and the nachash. Were there not, the nachash could never have had any type of contact with either Adam or Chavah.
. . . The act of bowing low before the Ribono shel Olam is symbolic of utter subordination. We bow when we feel ourselves to be in close proximity to Him. At that level of closeness there can “be” nothing other than He. Our approach to Him signifies our willingness to lay down our lives for Him, to nullify our entire being. The act of bowing marks us as His servant.
The nachash was absolutely unwilling to undergo such self-abnegation. He who does not bow down while reciting the Modim marks himself as a human nachash.

And now, just to round things off, we will quote another piece of Maharal, this one from the Chidushei Aggados on the Bava Kama passage:

The reason that it is specifically the spine that “turns into” a nachash is that it is just the spine that most clearly expresses the affinity that exists between man and the nachash. The spine allows us to stand upright and it is just that stance that proclaims kingship. Originally the nachash, too, stood upright, since he, just like man, was royalty. Then came a test. Man passed, the nachash failed. To be deserving of royalty, one must be able to subordinate himself to a greater king; in this case the Ribono shel Olam Himself. Adam, the first Ba’al ­teshuvah, did just that and retained his standing of kingship. The nachash, by rebelling against God’s command, showed himself to be unfit for the mantle. He was punished by losing his upright stance and having to spend eternity slithering along the ground. If man, by not bowing while reciting Modim, proves himself, nachash-like, to be insubordinate, it is fitting that his spine turn into a nachash.

Think about this. If we could get ourselves to be interested in turning our often thoughtless genuflection into a real act of divine service, things could change pretty quickly in our lives. Don’t you agree?
But doing this meaningfully and consistently requires an active and well-oiled conscience, one that will draw our attention to the fact that a puppet-like jerk taken perfunctorily without thoughtful self-effacement just because that is what we have always done will simply not suffice. You know why? It is because at bottom, deep, deep down where things matter very much, it stems from a noncaring that can only grow from practical denial.
Do you see where we are heading? Is there perhaps something of the nachash in us?
How are we to understand what kind of a creature this nachash was? I am no zoologist, but I am pretty certain that nothing like it can be found today.
In our sources the nachash is usually called HaNachash HaKadmoni, the original nachash. Please look at the first footnote below and give the matter your most dedicated interest. This is very important material.
When the Ribono shel Olam created man, it was necessary that He also create a form of “anti-man,” a creature that shared certain characteristics with man but which, because of this commonality, stood in implacable opposition to him. The Nachash HaKadmoni seems to have been a one-time phenomenon that paralleled Adam HaRishon and was determined to find the soft spots in Adam’s spiritual armor, thereby determining what kind of a person the “Adam” of history would be. Had Adam HaRishon remained untouched by his confrontation with the Nachash HaKadmoni, he would have kept the pristine purity and all-comprehending knowledge with which he had been created. He did not remain untouched and we all are witnesses to the results.
We are close to the end of this letter. It is time for me to apologize for the seemingly aggressive and offensive questions with which I opened it. Please believe me that I am very far from wishing to offend anybody, more particularly you, my friends, who are demonstrating your friendship by plowing through this impossibly long chapter. Here is my excuse. I was trying to catch your attention. I wanted you to listen carefully and meaningfully to the message that I am now going to spell out.
The Bava Kama passage that we have been studying should have a very sobering effect upon us. Obviously none of us can have any kind of an idea what “spines changing to snakes after seven years in the grave” might mean. That is not really important. I imagine that those who will pass the “Verher” (Yiddish for test) will find out once they learn Bava Kama in the Mesivta shel Ma’alah (the celestial Yeshiva). What we can and must pick up is the knowledge that the nachash is a baleful presence (at least in potential) in our lives. God forbid that we would ever be identified with it. But, the Gemara tells us, the possibility exists.
It all hinges on, of all things, the way we bow down at Modim!1
Earlier in this chapter we examined what was implied in that simple act. Let us assume that you who are reading this, as I who am writing it, have been merrily bowing away for years and years without any of these thoughts intruding upon us in the least. We probably had some vague ideas about thanking the Ribono shel Olam for the many favors that He does for us, although what bowing has to do with that was probably not clear to us; none of us do much bowing when we thank friends who did us a favor, but that is about it.
What did our conscience do about this unsatisfactory state of affairs during all these years? Except around the Yamim Nora’im, probably not much. Welcome to the nachash within us.
That is what this book is all about. It sets itself the task of strolling around our daily lives and checking off some of the simple things that we do all the time that could enhance our Yiddishkeit boundlessly if we gave some thought to what we are really doing.
Come, join me for the trip!

Here is a dictionary definition of anthropomorphism: Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. Please do not get me wrong. I am resolutely against the anthropomorphism that energizes many of the children’s books that tragically make their way into many of our homes. The havoc that the Berenstain Bears and their ilk have wrought in the way that modern America looks at life is truly catastrophic. Still, I felt that just for a couple of minutes, we can use this artifice in order to generate the impact that these thoughts ought to have on us. There are, after all, innumerable midrashim that do this kind of thing.

The word is usually translated as snake. We are going to stick with “nachash” because this creature has very little in common with the reptile we identify as a “snake.”

Taken from the Feldheim, Judaica edition.

See Sotah 9b: God said, “I had decided that the nachash was to be the king of the animal world. Now, however, he will be the most cursed from among the animals.” It was apparently the nachash who was supposed to rule over the animal world. Because of the role that he played in the drama of the forbidden fruit, he lost that kingship.
It seems to me that it is boundlessly significant that his place was taken by the lion (Chagigah 13b: The lion is the king among the animals). The original king was apparently chosen for his intellect (The nachash was the most cunning . . .), his successor, for his brawn (. . . strong as a lion [Avos 5:20]). Even the animal world seems to have experienced a precipitous drop through the eating of the forbidden fruit.
This, as also the rendering of the next Maharal to which we now go, are approximate paraphrases rather than any form of actual translation.

Please note that it is not HaNachas HaRishon, the first nachash. Kadmoni, the original, conveys the idea that we express with the prefix ur. Nachash HaKadmoni = the urNachash, the one that stands for all that can be subsumed under the name nachash, none of which can ever be an exact replication, but to all of which it is father and inspiration.

See Sotah 8b: The Ribono shel Olam is speaking: I had said, “Let him walk in an upright posture as do humans. Now that he has sinned he has lost that privilege, let him slither on the ground.” I had said, “Let him eat the same foods that humans eat. Now that he has sinned, let him eat dust.”

The Maharal always returns to the assertion that in the absence of any commonality there can be no antipathy. What we have in common creates a degree of contact within which belligerence is possible. Absent such commonality, we would simply pass each other like two ships in the night.

This is not the place to discuss why this was necessary. For our purposes, we can simply take this as a given and move on from there.