In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the continued travails of the Israelites in the desert. Here we learn about a plague of poisonous snakes. To save the people Moses makes a Nehushtan or נחש הנחושת, a bronze snake upon a pole. There we read:
And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient because of the way. And the people spoke against God, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.’ And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many Israelites died. And the people came to Moses, and said: ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord, and against you; pray to the Lord, that God might take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people. 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 sees it, shall live.’ 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 at the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)
So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. What was the medicinal power of looking at it? The Mishna in Rosh HaShanah asks the same question. There we read:
But could the serpent kill or could the serpent keep alive? Only whenever Israel looked on high, and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven, were they healed; but if not, they perished. ( Rosh HaShanah 3:8)
As the Mishnah depicts it, it was not the bronze snake itself that saved them. Rather, looking at this piece of metal crafted by Moses inspired them, and that inspiration itself was what saved them.
From their herd mentality, to running after sex, to only thinking about food, throughout the book of Numbers we see the Israelites acting as animals. In this case they were complaining about their food and God sends snakes to stop their kvetching. As if to say, ” If you are going to act like animals, you can die like an animal”. It is only the inspiration of Moses sculpture that saves them. In appreciating the human capacity to create art they rise above their simple basic animal tendencies. Life is not measured simply by the quality of the last meal you ate. It is realizing this creative capacity that reminds us that we alone are created in image of the Creator. Art itself is our saving grace.
I was reminded of this recently when watching this TED talk.
Here we see human technology, innovation, design, and artistry imitate the natural world. As we see this robotic bird take off over the crowd we get a glimpse into what the Israelites felt when they peered at Moses bronze snake. Wow, if you can make that, what should I aspire to do with my God given talents? We should all take a moment to think about how we might tap into what makes us human to find new ways to soar above to ensure that we are all living inspired lives.