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This Week in Torah

Bereshit 5775 (2014)

Genesis 1:1-6:8

Isaiah 42:5-43:10 or Isaiah 42:5-21

Cleverly Naked

People love “Just So” stories, etiological sagas that attempt to explain creation with easy to understand tales of how we got to be as we are and where, depending on our actions, we might be headed.  For example, Rudyard Kipling’s rhinoceros got his unattractive skin not so much because of divine punishment but more as the logical consequence of the reasonable revenge taken by the “Parsee Man” in response to the rhino’s devouring of the man’s cake.  It is not a bad story as far as it goes, but it is of limited utility in a world that is far more mysterious than Kipling’s rendition for childhood consumption of what may have been an earlier Arabic literary tradition.

The Torah also addresses origin questions but in a way that reflects the complexity of creation, the intricacy of the creatures in it (both human and beast), and the consequences of our being, at the same time, both clever and naked.

The interconnectedness of being clever or smart and being naked or vulnerable is evidenced by the dual meaning of the word arum (ערום) introduced in this parashah and continuing throughout the Tanach.  In adjacent verses we are told, first, that Adam and Eve were, “both of them naked” (arumim) but they were not “ashamed or embarrassed,” and then that the Nahash (maybe a serpent) was “the most clever (arum) of all the animals of the field.” (2:25 & 3:1).

A very flexible word, arum, can refer to our intellectual abilities.  For example: “Fools inherit folly but the smart (arumim) are crowned with knowledge.” (Proverbs 14:18) or “A prudent person (arum) sees evil and hides from it, a fool transgresses and is punished.” (ibid 27:12).  Arum can also indicate lowly and embarrassing status.  “…as my servant Isaiah walked naked (arum)… so shall the King of Assyria lead away Egyptian captives and Kushite exiles, young and old, naked (arum) and barefoot...” (Isaiah 20:3-4).   The implications of being arum may be dependent on location.  The Talmud suggests that in the Diaspora, seeing yourself ‘arum’ in a dream means that you are without sin but in Israel, the same dream means that you are devoid of any credit for mitzvot. (Berachot 57a).

As we know, encouraged in their gustatory experimentation by the clever Nahash, the woman and man come to realize their vulnerability and, embarrassed, they hide from God or at least they try a cover-up with fig leaves.   Knowing full well that humanity’s “eyes had been opened,” God challenged them asking: “How did you come to know that you are smart?”   And then they were really embarrassed – because they knew that, having achieved the ability to know right from wrong, they would be held accountable for both their actions and inaction.

If they managed their world and governed their lives correctly, then they could stand proud and erect and maybe someday re-inherit the garden from whence they came.   If they were arum in the wrong way, they could end up slithering on the ground and eating dirt.  It was now in their hands.  But, because Adam and Eve had come to an awareness of their powers and their vulnerabilities, God quickly clothed them in “or(עור) – a skin and, eventually, robed their descendants in ‘ohr’ – (אור) the Light of Torah.

And it was just so, that woman and man achieved the benefits of discernment, the burdens of responsibility and the assistance of their Creator.

Rabbi Steve Denker

This week, Rabbi Denker’s message has been distributed nationally by the Jewish Federations of North America.  Please ‘like’ Rabbi Denker’s Facebook page “Rabbi Steven L Denker” and follow him on Twitter @RabbiDenker.