Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes is quite common.  Officially this is known as the abnormal fear of snakes.  I don't see anything abnormal about the fear of snakes.  And I know what I'm talking about because I just returned from Washington, DC.  Oh, not that kind of snake!  In any case, this a wide spread phobia, and according to an article in National Geographic: A new study suggests that such fear has been shaped by evolution, stretching back to a time when early mammals had to survive and breed in an environment dominated by reptiles, some of which were deadly (October 4, 2001).  Furry fears scaly.  Not to mention that they're slimy, poisonous and convince you to eat forbidden fruit.  This is one of the few things that I share with Indiana Jones, I really don't like snakes.  So, I don't enjoy reading the verses this week about the snake attack on the Jews in the desert.  But it's the aftermath of the attack that I truly find fascinating.

            Before we get to the end of the story, we must get a little perspective on the story itself.  Here's the scenario.  The Jews again start complaining about conditions in the desert and God sends poisonous snakes which bite and kill many of them.  At this point the Jews are again ready to recant their evil ways, and request that Moshe intercede on their behalf with God.  Now the question arises, why snakes?  There are two famous approaches to this question.  Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) presents one opinion.  Snakes were a normal desert hazard.  This is expressed by Moshe:  God led you through that great and awesome desert, in which were snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought water for you out of solid rock (Deuteronomy 8:15).  These snakes were always there, but only became problematic when the Jews through their sinful complaints lost the Divine protection, which had protected them from these dangers.  Lesson one is that the world is a dangerous place when we eschew God's help and support.

            The other way of understanding this slithering phenomenon is in the Midrash.  Snakes were the specific punishment for the behavior of the Jews because snakes represent sins of the spoken word.  The snake from the Garden of Eden is the paradigm for transgression of speech.  Also, the motion of a snake's forked tongue is very threatening.  It appears that the danger and even death comes from the tongue.

            So, the Jews are contrite and ready to repent.  They beg Moshe to pray on their behalf, and God sends the proper treatment for their ailment, a copper snake on a stick.  How does that work?  It's a famous Mishneh:  "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole, and every one that is bitten when he looks upon it shall live." Could this serpent kill or bring to life? But it was thus: when the Israelites looked to heaven for aid, and subjected their inclination to the will of their heavenly Father, they were cured, but when they did not, they perished (Rosh Hashanah, chapter 3, mishneh 8).  In other words, the point of the snake sculpture is that it's not the snake.  The point was to look beyond the snake to the source of all in heaven.  And what's this story doing in the tractate about Rosh Hashanah?  It's there with the laws of blowing shofar to remind us that the purpose of the shofar blasts aren't the notes, but the emotions which they dredge up from deep inside ourselves directed towards God.

            The vital importance of these symbols as guideposts toward a greater reality is emphasized in the dramatic conclusion of the copper snake saga.  A number of items were placed in the Holy Ark which was to become the center piece of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There were the Tablets (broken and whole), a bottle of manna, the staff of Aharon, an original copy of the Torah, and the copper snake.  All of this was lost with the destruction of the first temple (586 BCE), and there are still people looking for this stuff, another Indiana Jones reference.  However, by then the snake was gone, because Hezekiah (ruled 715-686 BCE) had already destroyed it over a century earlier.  Here's the text:  He removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4).  What went wrong?

            Just like in the desert, the Jews lost the proper perspective.  The copper snake on the post reminded the Jews to focus on their Parent in heaven.  But with time our ancestors forgot.  Here's how the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235) explained it:  They thought it a good intermediary to worship G-d, and since the time of Moses it had been kept as a memoriam of the miracle, like the container of manna… Hezekiah saw fit to abolish it, just as he did idol worship, for in his father's time it was worshipped just like the idols; and even though the better people were reminded of the miracle by it, he said:   better to destroy it and let the miracle be forgotten than to let it be, and have the Israelites go astray.

            When the copper snake riveted our attention on God, it was wonderful; when the snake eclipsed God in the imagination of the people, it had to go.

            We make similar mistakes all the time.  We confuse the medium with the message.   From the beginning of time snakes have represented the obfuscation of God and the right path to follow.  Let's straighten the coils and curves of life, and again find clarity in directing our worship straight to God.  Anything can become a distraction in our devotion to God, never worship the symbol.  Now we can understand another Mishneh:  Even if a snake wraps around one's heel, one should not interrupt prayer to God (Berachot 5:1).  Don't let snakes of any kind disrupt your relationship with God.    


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