Drash on Parashat Chukkat
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM
UPJ Movement Rabbi
The rod of Asclepius is universally recognised as the symbol for medicine and the healing professions. It shows a serpent twisted around a staff. The symbol derives from Greek mythology, but a similar image is found in Torah. Hidden away in this week’s portion, in the midst of momentous events that befall the Jewish people as they near the end of their wanderings– the deaths first of Miriam and then of Aaron, Moses’ fateful striking of the rock in order to draw forth water, the refusal of the Edomite king to allow the Jewish people to pass through his territory – we encounter the “copper serpent” (n’chash n’choshet, a beautiful play on the Hebrew words) perched on a pole. The people are complaining yet again about the “miserable food” (the manna) that God has provided for them. God sends “fiery serpents” to punish the people for their incessant whinging. The copper serpent cures anyone who looks at it from the toxic bite of the fiery serpents. What is this strange story all about? What is it doing here?
The use of the copper serpent is a striking example of homeopathic therapy, or sympathetic magic. The cure for snake bite is to gaze upon a copper snake. But doesn’t that seem to give the copper serpent a power that in reality it doesn’t possess? To put it even more dramatically, there is hardly any episode in Torah that comes closer to idolatry. And idolatry, as we know, is the cardinal sin in Torah. Surely, the people’s whinging doesn’t come close to it in sinfulness.
The risk that the copper serpent might come to be treated as an idol is so obvious that later in the Bible it is destroyed precisely for this reason. We are told that King Hezekiah “abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars… He also broke into pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been offering incense to it; it was called Nechushtan” (2 Kings 18:4). The idol even had a name, which is a mixture of the two words used to describe it in the Torah account, and King Hezekiah is praised for getting rid of it since it had clearly become an object of veneration.
Jewish tradition has never felt comfortable with this episode, neither with the idea that God would send fiery serpents to punish the people, nor with the means of protection afforded to those who were bitten. Several rabbinic commentaries argue that it wasn’t the copper serpent that cured the people, but rather the fact that it was mounted on a pole; by peering up at the serpent, the people were reminded of God on high and led to repent for their lack of faith (this explanation is put forward in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8 and other ancient sources).
To support this understanding, the tradition refers to another apparently idolatrous act in Torah. During the battle against the Amalekites, when Moses holds up his staff the people are victorious and when his hands fall they are overcome. Again, does a raised staff have the power to win battles? The explanation given is that the people would look up at Moses holding aloft his staff and they would be reminded of God whose cause they were championing. It is this awareness, not the staff held aloft, that gave them the strength to triumph.
Sometimes we need aids or instruments to guide our awareness and help us succeed in situations in which we might otherwise fail. Indeed, the Torah itself might be seen as an aid to intensify our spiritual awareness and enable us to achieve our higher goals. So, too, the institutions of which we are a part, like synagogue boards and committees. These are instruments that can help raise us to higher levels. The risk is always that we mistake the contemporary equivalent of the Torah’s copper serpents for the power that actually resides elsewhere. That is truly idolatry.
In an insightful commentary on this passage Rabbi Niles Goldstein writes, “To me, this strange story is about spiritual rather than physical death – and about how spirit can be revived and renewed even after it has been injured, whether by serpents, fears, doubts or our own inner demons. It is about how we can repair the rupture and separation from God that we so often feel when we face life’s trials and challenges. The tale of the copper serpent is about our capacity to grow, and ultimately triumph, in spite of the destructive power of sin.”