The Serpent and Its Transformative Power

Serpentine Symbolism

Rabbi Michael Ezra
Rabbi Michael Ezra.

Throughout history, the serpent has been one of the least understood of Biblical symbols, often described as evil and connected to the forces of temptation. By taking a deeper look at the Kabbalistic teachings behind the story of the Garden of Eden, we discover some astonishing insights about the serpent and its transformative power in spiritual development.

In the Chassidic tradition, one of the essential principles in gaining a deeper understanding of Torah is to use it as a manual to understand the inner psychology of the soul. Every person, place or event in the Torah represents an instinctual human drive or complex. Utilizing this mystical approach, we see that the serpent symbolically represents our primal drive for ultimate fulfillment. In fact, our sages say that the snake was originally intended to be the "great servant of man" (Sanhedrin 59b).

The Serpent's Primal Drive

The Kabbalah explains that the serpent had legs before it was cursed. Symbolically this means that the primal drive within each of us initially had the ability to "move and climb" upward in order to reach its ultimate fulfillment - the sacred Divine realm within man. At this pinnacle of consciousness, spiritual bliss became possible. But when the serpent was cursed by God to "lie on its belly and eat the dust of the earth," the primal drive within us changed drastically and was confined to lower forms of passion.

To understand this profound change, we again turn to the mystical tradition, which explains that the human composition consists of four levels that parallel the four elements of nature: the physical drive (earth), emotional nature (water), intellectual ability (air) and spirituality (fire) (Midrash Rabba BaMidbar 14:12). By removing the serpent's legs and forcing it to slither on the ground, our primal drive was confined to the earthly or physical realm. As a result of the serpent's curse, the primal energy that once impelled us to attain our spiritual potential was now in a natural state of confinement in the lowest energy vortex of the body associated with sexuality: physical passion and lust.

This is why many of the world's traditions have perceived this lower drive as mankind's major obstacle to achieving heightened levels of spiritual consciousness. Consequently, the serpent has been condemned as evil, and passion has been shunned in Western spiritual circles.

Insights from The Torah

Today, the conventional view that calls for the suppression of our sexual or serpent-like energy is, fortunately, being re-examined with a focus on mystical teachings. The Torah gives us very powerful insights as to how valuable our primal energy can be when it is re-elevated and channeled in the right direction.

For example, when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he is commanded to drop his staff to the ground and then raise it upwards. This is symbolic of the tikkun, or repair, that is needed for true spiritual evolution. In its fallen state, the staff was a serpent that evoked fear in Moses, but in its raised state it became a staff of God, through which Moses later works miracles (Zohar, Section 1, 27a). This comes to teach us that when our primal urges remain repressed at ground level, we are out of control; but when the same primal energy is raised and transformed, God works miracles through us.

Kabbalistic Holiness

By channeling our passions toward the spiritual we can transform a potentially destructive drive into one of our most holy and sacred. But because our passions can so easily be misguided, they must first be filtered through our intellect - our morality and ethics - if we want to achieve the highest Kabbalistic level of human nature - holiness.

In Chassidic philosophy, the yetzer harah "man's evil inclination' is perceived as nothing more than repressed energy that can be transformed when expressed spiritually. The Baal Shem Tov explained that the two Hebrew letters raish and ayin, which spell rah, or evil, can be reversed to spell the Hebrew word er, which means awakened. The yetzer ha'er would translate as the "the overly awakened inclination."

Snake Eyes

Like the snake whose eyes always remain open, there is a part of all of us that is in need of constant stimulation. Therefore, when we are not participating in some form of spiritual expression like song, dance, art, music or mysticism, the overly awakened inclination within us will be forced to seek stimulation through other avenues, most often detrimental ones.

Our sages explain that when two Hebrew words have the same numerical value, they are of the same essence on a more subtle and hidden level. Perhaps this is why the Hebrew words mashiach (messiah) and nachash (serpent) have the same numerical value of 358. While on the surface they seem to represent the two diametrically opposed forces of good and evil, they are related in their essence. In fact, our tradition explains that when the Messianic era arrives, our primal drive for lust and physical gratification will be 'removed' and everything will be transformed to complete well. Figuratively, this means that our passions will be elevated, the serpent will no longer be coiled and confined, and the primal drive within us will return to its original state of seeking ultimate fulfillment in a life of Divine living (Tikunei Zohar 21 (43a), 13 (29b)).

Celebration of Life

As for today, the message is clear. Life is a celebration to be lived, and when we deny our own natural instincts, we deny the very human glory within us; we deny life itself. If we allow our passions and desires to increase in spiritual and creative expression, we can truly blossom. Those of us who allow our primal energy to emerge will enter the doorway to the Divine, travel the road back to the Garden and experience the return to the Temple of God.

About this Contributor: Rabbi Michael Ezra is a spiritual life coach, rabbi, counselor and consultant.