This week, as we begin again to encounter Torah, we are back at the beginning. The first chapters encompass so much: The world is created: human beings exist, and interact with all other forms of life on earth as well as with each other. And there, of course, is where it gets complicated.
Here’s where we start: “They were both arumim, the man and the woman, and they were not embarrassed.” (Gen.2.25)
This is followed immediately by “The nakhash was arum, more than any other creature of the field which HaShem had made.” (Gen.3.1)
What is most interesting here is that first instance of arum here is translated “naked”, and the second is translated “clever” or “wily,” or, in Talmudic usage, even “wise.” We can explain this away as an instance of a homonym – two words that sound alike but mean different things. Or we can consider that this was originally an oral text, heard rather than read as words on a page. The similar sound of these two words invites us to consider the associations that we may experience.
In what way might we need to be naked in order to become wise?
To be naked is to be vulnerable. Sooner or later we all feel that we are under attack; our natural response is to withdraw behind layers of covering. Perhaps one covers oneself with guile, or wariness, or a lot of joking around. None of those “clothes” are impenetrable, though; and what one learns as one lugs one’s suit of armor around is that it gets tiring. To be vulnerable is to be human, and sooner or later we all must admit to that kind of nakedness. Significantly, it is only through that vulnerability that we connect. It is scary, and sometimes it hurts, but in the end it is the only human way.
To be naked is to be open to connection. For example, in order to immerse ritually in a Mikveh one must be naked, radically so: one is not only to remove all clothing, but also any piercings, paint, and jewelry. As you came into the world, so also you go into the Mikveh. Only in this way is a ritual immersion possible; only when all that exists between you and the water disappears can you truly experience tevilah, immersion. To be naked is to be open to your connection to that which is outside you but is also part of you: you are physically connected to the water of the mikveh; religiously, to the community that creates the mikveh; spiritually, to the Torah, which is compared by our ancestors to life-giving water, and the G*d we seek through it.
To be naked is to be seen. The story is told of a Rabbi dying, disciples gathered around. “Rabbi,” one pleaded, “give us your blessing.” The Rabbi responded, “May you revere G*d as much as you do your neighbor.” “But Rabbi,” another protested, “what kind of blessing is that?” “Ah,” replied the Rabbi, “if you think your neighbor sees you, you watch your behavior. May you always remember that G*d sees you.”
It is written לעולם יהא אדם ערום ביראה – “One should always be arum in reverence [for HaShem]” (Proverbs 15.1) May you learn how to go around naked all the time inside your clothes, and thus may you find your life blessed by immediacy, joy, and, finally, the wisdom that only comes to those who dare to be open and vulnerable to life.