In Chukkat, this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the nation of Israel was being killed by a plague of Snakes. The came to Moses to beg for the snakes to be taken away. There we read:
8 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he see it, shall live.’ 9 And Moses made a nachash nechoshet– bronze snake, 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 bronze, he lived. (Numbers 21:8- 9)
What is going on here with this this bronze snake? What is this magic?
In the Mishna in Rosh Hashanah 29a, we learn that it was not magic that saved them from the venom of the snakes. The Mishna asserts that it was not the bronze snake that healed the Israelites, but rather their looking up and seeing the snake and submitting themselves to God that saved them. The snake was just the inspiration. The Mishna explains that it was not magic and the reason the object was set high on a pole. But it still the Mishna does not explain why a snake. Understandably, they asked Moses to intercede and to get God to “take away the serpents”, the snakes were killing them. Why is it that the cure came in the same form as the poison?
The exercise is not to remove the snakes that are killing the people, but rather to have them see the snakes in a new way. The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that the essential meaning of a word in the Bible comes from its first use. Where did we meet the nachash first? We first meet the snake in the Garden of Eden when it tempted Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. So while they might succumb and die as animals in the desert Moses was asking the people of Israel to see their creative divinity and be inspires beyond the limits of their animal beings. When we ate of the Tree of Knowledge humanity tasted the fruit of having to determine right and wrong for ourselves. We became mortal but also moral creatures. It would not have been enough to remove the snakes, they needed to rewrite their own story. They needed to return to Eden and see how the story would end this time around. In the moment of being inspired by God they return to the Garden. For a moment they are immortal and the venom of the snakes have no consequence.
Many times I have reflected on if choices I have made when I was younger. I believe that everything happens for a reason and with the duration of time we have the chance to reconnect and recommit ourselves. We always have a choice how to experience life. ( See Victor Frankl here) Can you have a Gan Eden without the Nachash? There needs to be some real work in this process. It is tempting to imagine getting the results without the sting of the bite, but it cannot be so easy. The snake needs to be the cure. There is going to be some discomfort, but we can rewrite our stories. And when we rewrite these stories, it is never “what if” but what next. We all need to keep our heads up and keep our eyes on the prize of trying to get back to being the best people we can be.