by Rabbi Mira Raz
What is the connection between the verse in our parasha (Numbers 21:9): “And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.” And the verse in Kings II (18:4) that tells about Hezekiah the son of Ahaz the king of Judah: “He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah; and he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan.”
The connection is a lie (in Hebrew connection – kesher, lie – sheker) and I will explain:
The People of Israel were fed up with the difficult living conditions in the desert. It was not the hunger, they were not hungry, but the unvaried food, compared with the food in Egypt where they had zucchinis, watermelons, onions and garlic. There is no vision and faith in the way and in its end, there are only complaints and misunderstandings – for what is all this… the result of all this was: “And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:6).
It is as if the Torah wants to tell us that as the snake in Garden of Eden separated between man and God and the natural unity between the spirit and its source was broken, so, every time that the People of Israel will be impatient and will not be ready for the difficulties of the journey to the Promised Land, they will burn themselves and the idea.
If it is so, how will they be nevertheless saved?
First of all, from the understanding that our attitude is wrong, especially in the light of the fact that nothing good came out of constant complaints, there is a feeling of depression and a death of the vision. As a result of this the response of the people was: “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee” and then they add: “pray unto the LORD, that He take away the serpents from us.” (ibid 7). Here we come to the heart of the story.
What does it mean take away the serpents from us?
To take away the real serpents that kills us? Or may be the Nachash (guess) (Serpent in Hebrew is nachash and also a guess, lenachesh is to guess) that is eating us up is the doubt that evades faith. When a man has difficulties and instead of coping with it by dealing with what caused it, tries to guess (lenachesh) his future. He escapes from the difficulties and looks only for the consolation of just knowing that everything will be all right. It is possible that despair and insecurity will continue to be in his heart unless he stops guessing and he changes his mind and strengthens his faith and confidence and through it he will be able to benefit from the world around him. And indeed Moses prays to God and God commanded:
“Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.” (ibid 8). It is the same God who said in the second command: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:3).
Is this same God is commanding to look to a statue of a serpent that is hanging on the top of a flagpole in order to be saved from death?
Here we see the educational greatness of the Torah and that despite everything G-d does not give up on man. It is as if we would have hidden a treasure in the ground some where and do not find it later, but decide (because we have faith that it is there) not to stop looking for it until we find it. So does God: “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7), meaning giving him of his own, never gives up on finding his treasure, the good in man, his soul – even if the man himself does not know it or its source, G-d. The treasure in the ground can say to itself – it is good here, I have peace and quite here, nobody disturbs me and I do not disturb anybody. A good and quite life… and it does not know (if it is a collection of jewellery) that it should shine and spread its beauty in the world, or, (if it is a lot of money), it should be helping to educate, provide welfare and work for justice.
Serpent on the Flagpole
The image of the serpent on the flagpole was meant to be the first rain that falls on dry land (the lack of faith of the man) and call the sleeping skeins (the potential faith and as a out come of it the doing) to wake up and do what they should do – to grow and flourish.
This image will help people with little faith to understand that although there is a source of hidden strength through which there is a capability to be healed from fatal illnesses. The hurt people ask Moses: “pray unto the LORD, that He take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people.” (Numbers 21: 7).
But, there is severe danger that the image itself has the power of healing. To this our sages said: .” Could, then, the serpent kill or bring to life? But it means when the Israelites looked (upward) to heaven for aid and subjected their will to that of their Father in heaven they were healed, but when they did not, they perished.” (Rosh Hashana tractate 29:71).
Meaning of this kind was shown in the war with Amalek. When Moses’ arms were up the People of Israel win. Our sages said: “Could then the hands of Moses cause war to be waged or to cease? (Nay); but it means that as long as Israel looked to heaven for aid, and directed their hearts devoutly to their Father in heaven, they prevailed”.
Means for Healing
So in our parasha, the copper serpent was meant to be only means for healing, not having the power to heal. The years are passing and after 600 years we read in the book of Kings that the serpent (nachash) became the Nechushtan idol and the People of Israel worshiped it. The means were forgotten – the spiritual work was forgotten – only and actual work remained. But we see also that king Hezekiah purifies the Temple and Jerusalem from paganism and crashes the object that became G-d.
How many objects in our days became idols?
The Mezuza guards, the Mikve protects, the saintly person’s tomb redeems, Shabbat candles bring blessing, charity saves us from death etc… As I said at the beginning, such a connection (kesher) to subjects is a lie (sheker).
The Mezuza, for instance is one of the means to remind us when we come and go, the meaning of the first verse written on the parchment in it: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (“שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד “). The meaning is that one source created us all, me and my client for example, and when I lie to him, I damage the unity of my family, the family of human beings who were created by G-d. I also add more damage to the world instead of fixing it.
We are commanded to live with consciousness and behave accordingly, without thinking about retribution. People can behave in the same way and to some of them good things will be happening and to the others bad things. What will we say? The Mezuza did not protect them? Nonsense, we will say that G-d acts in mysterious ways, and that we should internalize the spiritual values that the Mezuza represents without any condition. This goes for all rituals connected with objects. Everyone should try to find the spiritual value that the object or the worship of it represents and soon in the near future Zion will be redeemed, Amen!