And the Lord God said to the Serpent: Because you did this, cursed be you of all the cattle and all the beasts of the field. On your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life. Enmity will I set between you and the woman, between your seed and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:14-15).
The Lord does not bother to interrogate the Serpent. With man and woman, there are motives to divulge, designs to ferret out: “Where are you?” “What have you done?” “Did you eat from the tree?”
When shamed, man will cloak himself in fig leaves and hide behind hydrangeas. Such is the crooked timber of humanity — one must peel away each subterfuge, strip back each layer of evasion to get at the truth. With a snake, on the other hand, just watch and wait; it will always shed its skin.
Allegorically, the Serpent is humanity’s penchant for evil. Of it, what is there to ascertain? As surely as a stomach lusts for food, evil craves man’s heart. It can make no excuses. It exists for its own sake. Even diminished — without legs, claws or cleverness — it still crouches at the door, poisoned fangs ready to strike. “Its desire is for you” (Genesis 4:7), so Cain is warned. Once unleashed, its venom marks him forever.
Even still, we wish to hide from it. “My punishment is too great to bear,” Cain cries out. Better to flee, to become “a nomad and a wanderer” than to face the evil in our midst (Genesis 4:13-14).
This Shabbat, amid a war in Israel and relentless turmoil around the globe, we begin Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. After 40 years of rootless travel, the Children of Israel are on the cusp of a long-sought dream. Yet as Israel looks expectantly toward its future conquest in the West, the gaze of Moses is locked firmly on the past. His opening words contain no claim of triumph or call to arms, rather his recollection of history is littered with Israel’s many failures … “your trouble, your burden, your disputing” (Deuteronomy 1:12).
Alongside battles won and lost, recountings of journeys and encampments, Moses does not obviate from mentioning Israel’s grumblings and complaints. He persistently refers to how Israel “rebelled against the word of God” (Deuteronomy 1:43). Of Moses, we are later told that even on his dying day “his eye did not dim nor was his energy spent” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Moses was of unclouded sight and unwavering conviction.
This past year or so, the West has fallen to an awful nadir. Our sight has dimmed, our strength has seemingly been depleted. We stare into the Serpent’s clouded eyes, and instead of crushing its head, we turn heel in fear of its bite.
Not too long ago, Syria’s Bashar Assad was on the verge of collapse; a few more rifles and a few aerial attacks and his regime would have folded. Instead, his militias were given respite while we averted our eyes from the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands.
We were relieved to finally leave Iraq, and have since watched (or not) the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rise up and massacre Shiites, Christians and Kurds.
Ongoing sanctions of Iran may as well be pardons for all the difference they make. We seem destined to follow a similar course with Russia. What might Vladimir Putin do next if Europe does not have the nerve to act? We speak much, do little and look elsewhere at the first opportunity.
Observing Israel these terrible last few weeks, it is plain that Israel has been remiss for quite some time. As we hid behind our Iron Dome, our F-16s and drones, a warren of evil entrenched itself under Gaza, its tentacles burrowing deeper and deeper into the Holy Land. Unbeknownst to us, a den of vipers became a kingdom of cobras.
Is it too much to assume that if we had watched better, understood what simmered beneath, acted sooner, fewer soldiers would return home draped in Israeli flags? Could it be said that more vigilance might have prevented much of the death and decimation we are forced to witness each day?
Next week we observe the 9th of Av, in memorium of our two fallen temples, and the many tragedies that have befallen Israel at the hands of our enemies. On this day, we do not avert our gaze from the past, but look on it truly.
“Inquire, pray, of past days, which were before you,” Moses instructs us (Deuteronomy 4:32). Learn from the past, or be doomed to repeat it.
“The wicked flee when none pursueth,” so goes the proverb. There is a profound lesson the world needs to learn from Hamas: Flee the Serpent, and it will follow.