Parashat Chukat: Of Snakes and Staffs

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“Why don’t you change?!” So often, we look at others with expectations that suddenly they will understand something clearly at last and change.  We might even expect that of ourselves.  These expectations are often not only unrealistic, but often conceal the true incremental changes that can and often do emerge in the process of time.  If this is true on the level of an individual, how much truer it is on the level of a people.

Educating a people is not a generational phenomenon; rather it is a historical process that can take decades or even centuries.  In our parashah we hear once again a refrain we have heard before.  We find the people complaining once again about the water and the food of the wilderness.  Why has God taken us into this wilderness to languish and die?  Really, how many times can a people fail to learn?!  After all they have seen, even water flowing forth from a flinty rock, do they not realize the secret of faith?

To complicate matters even more, this complaint is not the complaint of a people in the first two years following the Exodus, but rather are the cries of people after a forty-year sojourn in the desert.  For this younger generation, the reality of the desert is the only thing they have actually known.  For those forty years they had been protected and fed by the Divine clouds.  What has changed which would engender such a response?  Apparently, their crisis seems rooted in the fact that they must travel a circuitous route to avoid the land of Edom (Numbers 21:4).  At the first moment of challenge as they finally approach the land of Israel, they utter the same words of their parents forty years earlier.  They despair of ever leaving Egypt in the first place, a place this generation never even knew.  Clearly, changing an ingrained perspective of the world takes more than one generation, and miracles and wonders are not enough to change the inner heart. At first glance, this story is very sobering.  Forty years in the desert and the people have learned nothing!

Moreover, the response of God is also perplexing, adding to their doubt.  God sends fiery serpents into the camp, and the poisonous serpents bite many and kill.   In recounting the wilderness experience, Moses mentions specifically that not only did God provide them water and bread- things about which they are complaining, he also protects them from the serpents and scorpions that were found all around them (Deut. 8:15-16). Far from instructing the people to fear God, the dangerous serpents of the desert might reinforce the very source of vulnerability which is the source of their complaint. They implore Moses to intercede, and Moses agrees.  God tells Moses to fashion a copper serpent and place it atop a staff.  If one is bitten, they should approach the staff, gaze upon it, and they will be healed.  How is this at all instructive? That God would command people gazing upon the form of a serpent and be healed seems magical to say the least, even idolatrous.  In fact, in later Jewish history King Hezekiah will destroy the serpent-staff, realizing that it has become an object of adoration and worship (Kings II 18:4).  Given these facts, what could God’s command mean?

While it seems that nothing has changed over the generations, in fact something has., but it is subtle.  The people immediately admit to Moses, “Indeed we have sinned.” They admit their lack of faith and resolve.   What motivates the sudden confession?  In suddenly becoming subject to the inherent dangers of the wilderness, they become sensitized to the miracles performed for them in the previous thirty-eight years.  The crisis of the snakes awakens them to the fact that their vulnerability is not rooted in any lacking in God’s power, but rather in their own lack of faith.  This mindfulness, this ability to connect their present reality with their actions, reflects a growth within the people.  Yet, like so many other times in the Torah, they turn to Moses to intercede, and he acquiesces to their request.  Thus, while the people admit to their error, they still see Moses as the key to their healing.  In other words, their heartfelt confession does not immediately lead to any change in behavior.

Often people will say that regret without corrective action is meaningless, but it is not true.  Regret without corrective action is the beginning of a process, but the process is incomplete.  The process of corrective action may happen in an instant, but more often it takes time; sometimes it takes a lifetime.  God’s response to Moses’ prayer not only provides a cure to the physical ailment but it also is meant to instruct the people, providing them a strategy in moving forward.   True, Moses creates this brass serpent on a staff, but to be healed they must first come to the serpent and gaze upon it.  They must participate in their own healing.

Nonetheless, this corrective action- this ‘prescription’- is peculiar.  What does gazing upon this object do?  Rabbinic tradition is adamant that this has nothing to do with magical powers of the object per se:

The verse states: “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he sees it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8). It may be asked: Did the serpent kill, or did the serpent preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they rotted from their snakebites (Mishna Rosh HaShanah 3:8).

The Mishna is alerting us to the inner meaning of this narrative, which I believe is instructive to us.   At first glance, the answer to the rhetorical question of the Mishna would seem to be affirmative.  Serpents do indeed kill, and looking at this object seemed to provide the cure .  At first glance, the story would lead us to believe in magical amulets, and under King Hezekiah this is precisely what the people believed, which led Hezekiah to destroy it.

However, I think the key to unpacking this Mishna is the very fact that the source of danger and the source of healing seems to exist within the same object.  The rabbis teach us that the person needed to come before this brass serpent and gaze upon it.  To gaze upon it does not mean to simply look at it, but to really consider what is being seen and experienced.  If the person took the time to notice, they might conclude that this reality seems contradictory, even paradoxical.  However, the paradox is solved when one realizes that ultimately one’s fate is not determined by merely rational considerations but adopting a more spiritual framework.   In seeing the absurdity of a snake that simultaneously causes death and heals, a person ‘turns their eyes’ upward.  This turning their eyes heavenward is the very corrective action required.  That they did not turn their eyes heavenward in the beginning was the cause of the crisis.

God can heal their bodies, but God cannot force a person to believe.  They must consider the paradox of the snake, and through this they might reevaluate their life and values.  Thus, God does not simply heal them in the story, but educates them in the ways of faith and personal growth.

In our own life and in our dealings with others, we should not only accept the reality that change is slow, but also we should gently instruct in ways that allow a person to grow personally.  Whether it be with children, friends, a spouse or ourselves, we should understand that each of us are on a journey, and there are times on that journey we will fall short.  While we may assist those who are in crisis, we must allow them to exercise their own agency to affect the inner changes for which we hope.  This same rule applies to us as well.  No one can save us from ourselves; we must do the demanding work and find the perspectives required to make change.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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