The Snake: Torah’s Psychological Insights

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

How does a person transition from a sinful life towards a perfected life? What are the steps and changes we undergo? As one learns what is truly good and beneficial, his mind cannot deny these new truths he has grasped. He abandons his previous flawed values as he sees that they are false and cannot provide happiness. A person cannot knowingly harm himself and choose something bad and unhappy over something good and fulfilling. Rabbi Israel Chait called this the “reality principle.” One must follow what he sees as being the true good; it's impossible to do otherwise. With this new found knowledge his values naturally attach to the good and his actions follow suit, which is what we refer to as “perfection,” our goal as humans. This is the transition. This teaches that with greater knowledge, one can live a happier life. The more one dispels fallacy and acquires greater knowledge of truth and the good for man, the more one advances towards living the good life and increases his happiness. 

When discussing Eve’s sin, Maimonides says (Guide, book II, chap xxx): “The serpent had a rider, the rider was as big as a camel, and it was the rider that enticed Eve: this rider was Samael. Samael is the name generally applied by our Sages to Satan.” Samael means “to blind one from God.” And Satan means to “turn one away.” 

But Genesis does not mention any rider on the snake. What was this rider? Eve’s desires and fantasies about the fruit blinded her from following God’s command:  “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). Eve’s words about the value of the fruit (in her imagination) convey that it was her value system that misguided her and which employed her instincts into action to sin. Metaphorically, her value system is referred to as the snake’s “rider.” The snake is her instinctual drives, but they do not to choose where to apply their energies; this is based on one’s values. And as Eve (incorrectly) valued  the forbidden fruit, her instinctual energies followed her values at that moment and she sinned. Our values are controlling, and why they are viewed as “large as a camel” while the instincts are not as large. But if we study Torah’s truths, our values adapt to what is good and we redirect our instincts towards following Torah. Our values (camel) direct our drives (snake). The snake alone is neither good nor bad. 

Maimonides also says the following: “It is especially of importance to notice that the serpent did not approach or address Adam, but all his attempts were directed against Eve.” Here, Maimonides hints to the truth we stated: the snake represented Eve’s instincts, a faculty that can communicate only with Eve. Eve’s instincts have no pull—no communication—with Adam or others.