Sometimes I feel like a failure as a spiritual teacher.
“Be happy for your friends’ success,” I say. “Don’t be jealous. Donate your money to organizations. Give some away on the street. Don’t be greedy. When you feel slighted, ask yourself why. Remember the world does not revolve around your ego. Thus, you will be happier. And you will cause less harm.”
But let’s get real. My students are already spiritually awake. At least, they are working on themselves. And within their small spheres of influence, they make a difference.
But my students are small players. The larger world is run by people so jealous, so greedy, so egocentric, we can’t even imagine their inner lives. Sometimes they gain by setting us against each other. Still, once upon a time, even the greedy were children. They, too, grew up in the care of a small circle of teachers. So, perhaps even small acts by teachers could make a difference.
Maybe. Or maybe not, says a midrash I recently studied with my students at the Vancouver School of Theology. This teaching story comes from Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer (Selections from the Teachings of Rabbi Eliezer), a 9th century anthology. Here’s the story.
God has just created a human. Already, the angels are jealous of Adam.
But God does not reassure them. God does not say, “Yes, you are all different. But I love you all equally.” Instead, God challenges them. “Do you really want to do Adam’s work? Can you name the animals?”
No, the angels cannot do Adam’s work. They admit this. But they do not say, “We get it now! Creatures are diverse. We have different talents. There’s room for all of us in the world.” Instead, they say, “We can’t best humans. So, let’s undermine them!”
So, lead angel Samael enters the mind of a snake — like a negative mood enters a person’s mind. The snake, like a person in a bad mood, believes its thoughts and feelings are realistic, accurate, and grounded. But actually they are not. A terrible spirit has seized him.
“Hello Eve!” says the snake, “Did Adam tell you not to touch the tree of knowing good and evil? Don’t pay attention to him. He’s just withholding gifts from you. If he loved you more, he would give you access to every talent, including this knowledge.”
So Eve touches the tree and ate its fruit. Then, Eve sees the angel of death approaching. “What?” she thinks. “Am I dying? Does that mean Adam will pair with another woman, to whom he will give everything? I’ll take him down with me. Come on, Adam, eat!”
Adam eats, without question, resistance, or argument. Then he says, “My teeth have been set on edge. So, humans forever will have their teeth set on edge.”
What a strange ending that is to the story! The “moral” is hidden in a cryptic expression. I know this expression from the Passover Haggadah. There it is part of the parable of the four children. If a “wicked child” implies that slavery was other people’s problem, only one response is fitting. “Set their teeth on edge!” says the parable. “Tell them, ‘If you had been there, then you would not have been redeemed.’” In other words, the wicked child sees only itself. Ego, jealousy, and greed drive the wicked child. No one can free this child but himself or herself.
This is the moral of Rabbi Eliezer’s midrash, too. All humans are born into these tendencies. Thus, each human must learn to manage them. And that’s Adam’s blessing to his great-grandchildren. “My lower and upper teeth don’t line up. In the same way, my real self does not line up with my ideals. Yours will not line up either. Learn to be better.”
But how do you do that? And what would motivate you?