Listen carefully. This is an actual teaching by the ancient Hebrew sages, as recorded in the Talmud:
“After seven years, the hyena turns into a large bat. After seven years as a large bat it turns into a small bat. After seven years as a small bat it turns into a thorny weed. After seven years as a thorny weed it turns into a thorn. After seven years as a thorn it turns into a demon” (Talmud Bav’li, Baba Kama 16a).
Wow. Like how does one begin to comprehend the meaning of this seemingly nonsensical teaching? What were they smoking back then? What were they on?
In order to explore this obscure lesson, we need to first understand that the mystical wisdom of Judaism does not consider the beginning chapters of Genesis as the “story of Creation,” but rather as the “creation of Story.” This is more the root meaning of the popular Kabbalistic term “Sefirah,” as in “the Ten Sefirot.” Most students of the Kabbalah have been schooled to understand the term Sefirot as representative of the emanating radiance of Divine Luminations that carry the Intent of Creator for Creation to become and unfold. Absent the variety of vowels that adorn it with meanings ranging from “sapphire” to “sphere” to “sefer” [book],” at its bare root the term implies the more down-to-earth concept of “story.” In the words of the 18th-century Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen: “The universe is God’s book; the Torah is its commentary” (Tzidkat HaTzadik, No. 219). This “Book,” or Story, is in turn, divided into three segments, each of which, in Hebrew, is spelled exactly the same: סְפָר סָפֵר סִפֵר – Boundary [space], Counting [time], and Telling [matter] (Sefer Yetzirah, 1:1) — the laws of the Universe, the dynamics of Time, and the drama of Everything. The first, סְפָר, is the story itself. This is it, and it is what it is, and this is how it works. It is unchangeable, so much so that God would have to re-create the entire universe from scratch if salt, for example, were to be rendered sweet or your nose was to be situated in the back of your head. The second, סָפֵר, is about the context in which the story unfolds, the scenario through which the story weaves, all of which is determined by the fluid nature of Time, which flings open the gates of absolutes to the endless horizons of possibility and change. And the third, סִפֵר, is the actual telling, the actual playing-out of the story. It is Matter’s translation of Space as filtered through Time. It is Creation creatively weaving Creator’s intent, partially sticking to the script, partially improvising, which is what translation is all about.
The hyena is a creature symbolic of scavenging, known for its tendency to move in on what others have achieved through their own hard and patient efforts, only to snatch it away from them. This is Hyena’s story, its nature, how its script was written at the time before time when God thought “Hyena.” As Hyena journeys impulsively through its pre-scripted life cycle, the dynamics of Time gradually morphs it into a blind creature that flies about erratically and is also known for its blood-sucking tendencies, namely a large bat. Hyena has not made much use of its eyes and had surrendered its life path to the radar of its ears and nose which in turn drove it to wherever there was a recent kill, to wherever there was an opportunity to take advantage of someone else’s endeavors. As its gluttony intensifies, the hyena, now in the form of a large bat, further translates itself into a smaller bat, enabling it to feed on yet more possibilities, smaller, more accessible meals, and with greater expediency. Lazily resigned to the automated flow of Space and Time, absent personal participation in the direction of its story, the hyena’s life journey continues exclusively focused on scavenging and usurping, so much so that in time and with time it morphs into a weed, where it no longer has to move all over the place in search of sustenance, it simply can just stay put where it is and usurp the nutrients intended for others.
The weed remains the hyena. The story remains the same, only the translation has over time mildewed in Darwinian reversal. The translation continues yet further when the hyena-turned-weed is so entrenched in its newfound way of scavenging without the hunt that it becomes fearful of losing its precious ground and focuses on becoming self-protective, so much so that in time and with time it morphs into a thorn. Along each phase of its shape-shifting, the hyena grows farther and farther distant from its core essence, from its original story, its aboriginal roots, to the point where its life focus eventually turns into an obsessive but futile attempt to fill the vacuum created by lifetimes of desperately trying to satiate the longing within through the accomplishments of others. In other words, in time and with time, it ultimately morphs into a demon. Because, basically, that is what a demon is all about. It is a shapeless creature that manifests and thrives within the vacuum; it is an entity that flourishes in the twilight of oblivion, in the undefined chasm between story and translation (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 7:7; Maharal, Derech Chayyim, folio 236).
This Talmudic narrative is then about the default fate of the hyena’s shape-shifting process. What I mean by that is this: Life goes on and the world continues to spin with or without our participation. The story unfolds in spite of us. However, absent our involvement, the story eventually dissipates into the ether, and life empties into the Abyss of the Great Void. Sort of like what Solomon may have implied when he wrote: “All of the rivers empty into the sea, yet the sea is never full” (Proverbs 1:7). This is the difference between Chapter One and Chapter Two of the Book of Genesis. They are not two different accounts of Creation, as posited by too many well-meaning modern-day scholars. Rather, Chapter One is about the Creation and Chapter Two is about how the activation of Creation awaits the participation of Creation: “And all of the trees were not yet upon the earth and all of the grasses of the field had not yet sprouted because God had not caused it to rain upon the earth and there was not yet a Human to tend to the earth” (Genesis 2:5).
If a hyena chooses not to participate in the translation of its story and redirect its shape-shifting from one that is subject to the whim of chance to one that is consciously directed to unfold in cadence and in congruency with its story, its ultimate shape-shifting undergoes the aforementioned phases of metamorphosis and climaxes in shapelessness. And in the process of disconnecting from its story, the hyena loses its self-essence and is no longer Hyena.
And what applies to the hyena applies to us humans as well, “for the circumstance of the human and the circumstance of the animal is one and the same circumstance; as with one, so with the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). After all, it was we who defined the animals (Genesis 2:18). It was we who in that moment integrated their story within ours and our story within theirs. “The souls of animals and of humans,” the Zohar teaches, “are imprinted one within the other” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 20b). Or, in the words of the 13th-century Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, “the souls of animals are sparks of the human souls” (Manuscript Parma-de Rossi 1221, folio 288b). No doubt that the Talmud’s depiction of the shape-shifting of the hyena is cloaked in allegory to gently remind us of our own like process and its challenges. And just in case you truly think they were just talking about the animal world, and that you and I as humans are scot-free, the teaching continues with one more passage: “And as for you, O human, after seven years, you will turn into a snake! – by way of your spine.”
So, the default metamorphosis for a hyena is bat, then weed, then thorn, then demon, and the default metamorphosis for you and me is snake. Why snake? What in the nature of our relationship with Snake would make it so that Snake becomes our default metamorphosis? Because in the beginning Snake was the very first creature to activate, to “break the ice,” to take the initiative and move beyond itself and engage Other. It even spoke our language. And it awakened us out of our primeval stupor with the cunning use of one of its most creative inventions: Question. Question, in turn elicited Response. And the elicitation of Response, in turn, created the very first dialogue. Snake, in other words, initiated us into the world of Response. The shadow cost of all this was the introduction of ey’vah, of enmity (Genesis 3:15) — Adam blames Eve, Eve blames Snake; everyone’s pissed-off at each other for what happened. Where Snake went wrong was in its failure to allow Adam and Eve the space to long for, to want, to desire the fruit, and so they ended up eating of it not out of their own volition, their own personal translation of the story, but out of submission to a voice, an interpretation, not their own. Therefore, Snake is our default metamorphosis. If we resign to just roll along in life and not participate in the translation, we’re as good as Snake. Our spine, our backbone, the very pillar that holds us upright in our life walk, shape-shifts into Snake, and, like in the Garden, we lose our connection with our essential selves and the story out of which we emerged.
To avoid such a fate, the rabbis suggested, we ought to get into the practice of being thankful for what he have, for what Creator gifts to us morning, afternoon, and evening daily, especially those things we tend to take for granted. In this way we remain connected to our story, and we actively participate in and contribute to its translation. And so it is to our advantage to use our spine toward this objective, as in “bowing in gratitude.”
Adam and Eve did not get involved in the translation; they left it completely up to the snake. And so they ended up making love to demons for 130 years (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 24:6). If you ever studied that particular midrash, you may still be traumatized by such a horrific statement. What?! — Adam and Eve spent 130 years screwing demons? Maybe not literally, but that is precisely akin to what happens when we cast our lives into the vacuum of resignation as opposed to the fecundity of participation. We go the way of Hyena.
Creation is a story. Your life, your choices, your actions, they are all your unique take on the Story as it unfolds in the distinct scenario of your personal life walk. My spine is my snake self, and how it will manifest, whether as a rerun of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden story or of something totally different and perhaps even healing for me — by shedding layers of what went wrong in my own personal Forbidden Fruit escapades – depends on me, on my translation. It depends on whether I deceive myself into thinking that “my power and the might of my own hands alone has accomplished all this” (Deuteronomy 8:18), or whether I open my eyes and heart to the gift of simply being, and express my gratitude for that and for all the trimmings that go with it that are so easily and so commonly taken for granted. And so I will pray my gratitude in the declaration of ba’ruch atah, “Blessing Source are You!” And while doing so, I will shape-shift into a bamboo shaft or a snake, or, in the tradition of the second-century Rabbi Shey’shet – both! For it is said that “when he would recite ba’ruch [“Blessing Source”], he would bow like a bamboo shaft bending in the wind. When he would next recite atah [“are you”], he would slither upward like a snake” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 25b). In other words, how we use the snake we already are, largely determines the snake we will ultimately become – self-deceiver, or self-healer. After all, who did Moses wrap around the Tree of Life in order to heal us? None other than the very same snake who talked us into eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moses daringly re-interpreted the snake story from one of nemesis to one of genesis (Numbers 21:9). He restored Snake to its original story, so that Snake might have the chance to do a better job at translation, since the first time around a lot got lost in translation, to the detriment of both Snake and Human.
The question Creator posed to humanity in the Garden was: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Or, paraphrased: Will you resign yourself to Snake’s choice of translation for your story? Will you absently glide with the flow of Space and allow the dynamics of Time to morph you by default into the whimsical vacuum of demonic oblivion? Or will you actively participate in the drama of the translation, and become involved in your own shape-shifting, so that you never in the process lose your connection with the Story? Will you resign to the seeming hopelessness of world events as they spin out of control toward the black hole of chaos, or will you hold steadfast to your continued participation in and contribution to the translation of your story?
How we shift within our own personal stories has a rippling effect on the macrocosmic Story. In the words of the Zohar: “With the arrival of the New Year [Rosh Hashanah], we blow our breath through the ram’s horn [shofar] to unify the elements of Air [space], Fire [time] and Water [matter], and to merge them into a single voice that is the Song of Earth [our story]. Through this sound we awaken the Voice of the Above [God’s story] so that the Song of Heaven joins in unison with the Song of Earth until they become one unified resonance that shatters and confuses all of the forces of divisiveness” (Zohar, Vol. 4, folio 99b).
So may it be, beginning with 5775.
Rabbi Winkler lives in Thousand Oaks and is the author of Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism as well as numerous other works on Jewish mysticism, history, law, lore and theology. Together with his beloved, Rabbi Dr. Miriam Maron (www.miriamscyberwell.com), he directs the Walking Stick Foundation, which he founded in 1997 (www.walkingstick.org).