The Philosophy of the Snake
The central part of this parsha involves the story of Adam and Chavah's brief stay in Gan Eden. God gave them permission to eat all the fruits in the garden, except for the fruit of the eitz hada'as tov va'ra (tree of knowledge of good and evil). The snake came to Chavah and persuaded her to eat of the forbidden fruit. The Torah provides us with the exact conversation:
The woman said to the snake, "We may eat from the fruit of the trees in the garden. But God has told us that we may not eat nor touch the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, lest we die." The snake said to the woman, "You will surely not die." (Bereishis 3:2–4)
You will surely not die — he shoved her until she touched the tree, then said to her, "Just as you didn't die from touching it, so too, you won't die by eating from it." (Rashi loc. cit.)
The snake's logic appears flawed. Chavah was pushed against the tree by the snake, and no adverse consequence resulted. The snake claimed that this proved that eating the fruit of her own volition would also not have a bad outcome. But the touching was unavoidable; the eating would be deliberate. How can they be compared? The following principle should surely apply:
The Torah exempts from punishment those who act under duress. (Nedarim 27a)
There is another problem. God had promised Adam and Chavah that if they ate from the fruit, on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die. (Bereishis 2:17)
How could the snake know (or claim to Chavah) that death would not ensue from eating the fruit? Perhaps only that day Chavah would die from touching the tree. After all, the "day" mentioned by the verse was not yet over. Let us try to resolve this by considering an important quote from the Rambam.
Understanding the Consequence of Mitzvos
The majority of mitzvos are advice from afar...to fix one's ideas and to straighten all actions. (Rambam, Yad, Hilchos Temurah 4:13)
Put into ordinary terms, this means that the actual mitzvah may be several stages away from its consequence. For example, forbidden fat is not actually poisonous, and so a Jew who eats it will not suddenly be struck down with fatal symptoms. Instead, consuming the fat has some slight effect, which in turn affects something else, and so on, until the punishment mandated by the Torah manifests itself. All the mitzvos work like this. Overall, the consequence of mitzvah observance is to push our actions and general spiritual disposition toward the Torah ideal, and, conversely, the consequence of failure and sin is that we are pushed away from that ideal. One must believe that the consequence of a particular action described by the Torah will eventually manifest itself, whether for good or otherwise. But it is clear that no instant results should be expected.
The Twisted View of the Snake
This view of the mitzvah system and the way it functions was rejected by the snake. Indeed, the Rashiwe quoted above contains enough information for us to deduce the snake's entire, twisted Weltanschauung. The snake's claim, as expressed by his words, was that causes have immediate effects. He saw the world in an apparently more simplistic way than we have described: if the tree and its fruit are prohibited under pain of death, then as soon as one touches it or eats from it one should die. If one doesn't die, reasoned the snake, then the punishment is not going to happen at all.
This Weltanschauung has a converse, a viewpoint espoused not only by the snake, but by wicked people throughout the ages: a mitzvah, if valid, should produce an immediate result. If it doesn't, this reasoning continues, then it's not worth performing mitzvos at all; they just don't achieve anything. Of course, this totally omits the more subtle rationale offered by the Rambam.
Blurring the Distinction
If one looks at the claim of the snake a little more deeply, an interesting and unexpected consequence emerges. Consider the case of two people who fell into a fire. One jumped in deliberately, and the other slipped and fell in by accident. Each is equally badly burned, regardless of how he came to be in the fire in the first place.
Likewise, if two people take poison, one deliberately and one accidentally, they will both die, irrespective of the circumstances. The snake saw mitzvah observance in this light. An action produces an immediate effect. This means that he blurred the distinction between those acts perpetrated deliberately and those committed accidentally. After all, the action produces a result. If death was promised for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, then of what relevance is it whether the act was deliberate or not? It's like taking poison by accident — you still die! At the very least, symptoms which will result in death should manifest themselves as soon as the act is committed.
The Snake's Logic
It should now be clear why, according to the snake's viewpoint, his logic was sound. We recall that he said to Chavah,
You will surely not die — he shoved her until she touched the tree, then said to her, "Just as you didn't die from touching it, so too, you won't die by eating from it." (Rashi, Bereishis 3:4)
Effectively the snake said to Chavah, "When I shoved you against the tree, you saw that nothing happened to you. You are just as healthy as before. If the punishment that God had promised is valid, then you would have died, or at least fallen ill straight away. As you didn't, there's nothing to be afraid of — you can even eat the fruit with no concern."
So by expecting immediate results from actions and blurring the distinction between deliberate and accidental acts, the snake persuaded Chavah to eat the fruit. It is important to realize that the snake expressed a totally warped view of reality to make an apparently logical case to Chavah.
Seeing the Goodness in the Fruit
This analysis can help us resolve another difficulty in the story. The narrative continues:
The woman saw that the tree was good to eat, desirable to the eyes, and that the tree was pleasant to the intellect, and she took from its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband with her and he ate. (Bereishis 3:6)
The difficulty here is obvious. How can one describe a taste with the sense of sight? The quality of taste is determined by the tongue, not the eyes. But now that we understand the snake's Weltanschauung, we can deal with this problem. We can assume that since Chavah went ahead and ate the fruit she accepted the claim of the snake and therefore the philosophy which lay behind it. She reckoned that as she had not been affected by touching the tree, then eating from it would also do her no harm.
It is with her sense of sight that she detected that the fruit was harmless, as it is this sense which loses its full capacity when illness and death approach. Since she could still see the tree, her sense of sight operating at full capacity, she deduced that its fruit was in fact "good to eat," that is, completely free from danger.
The Curse of the Snake
After the episode of the fruit, God cursed the snake in the following way:
May you be cursed over all the animals and all the beasts of the field. You shall crawl on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life. (Ibid., 14)
In his Aramaic translation and elaboration on this verse, Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel remarks:
...and deadly poison shall be in your mouth. (Targum Yonasan ben Uziel loc. cit.)
This is poetic justice. The snake claimed, as we have seen, that when God promises a punishment for a certain act, it means that performing that act is like taking lethal poison — it will kill immediately. Therefore, it is most fitting that the snake's punishment forevermore is to have the taste of deadly poison permanently in his mouth. He must realize the wicked consequences of his twisted life philosophy by tasting the real effects of poison for eternity.