Chukkat: Facing Our Fears

The image of one or two snakes coiled around a staff is the familiar symbol of the medical profession. Depicted in several variations, it is called the “Caduceus,” the “Rod of Asclepius,” or “Hermes’s staff,” and dates from Greek mythology.   But we Jews have a much older tradition of a serpent on a staff.  It appears in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, and evidently played a significant part in our history for at least half a millennium.  By looking at it psychologically, we can continue to derive deep significance for our lives.

Traveling through the desert, the Israelites repeatedly lashed out at Moses and G-d.  At one point (Numbers 21:6-9) G-d sent serpents to bite them, and many Israelites died.  They repented and asked Moses to intercede on their behalf.  G-d did, whereupon G-d instructed Moses:

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שָׂרָף וְשִׂים אֹתוֹ עַל־ נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל־ הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי: 

 וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵהוּ עַל־ הַנֵּס וְהָיָה אִם־ נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת־ אִישׁ וְהִבִּיט אֶל־ נְחַשׁ הַנְּחשֶׁת וָחָי:

“Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard.  And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live.”  Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard, and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and live.

I find this passage intriguing.  Why would G-d instruct Moses to erect an image of any object or creature, let alone doing so for the express purpose of saving lives?  Wouldn’t that constitute a fundamental violation of the second of the “ten commandments” forbidding making a carved-image of any figure in the heavens, on earth, or in the sea?   

Wasn’t G-d – who described G-d's self in those same “ten commandmens” as a “zealous/jealous” G-d, who forbid the Israelites from having any other god, and who was furious at them for doubting Him/Her and His/Her prophet, Moses, virtually ensuring that the people would begin worshipping this image?  

We learn from the Book of Kings (2:4) that this was indeed the result. In the 8th century B.C.E., roughly five centuries after G-d instructed Moses to erect the serpent image, Hezekiah, son of [the evil] King Ahaz of Judah, became king and “abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehustan.”  Copper serpents have also been found at various excavations in Israel.  Both the physical evidence and the text thus support the apparent emergence of a powerful serpent-cult.  Surely, G-d foresaw that any object established for prominent attention as a literal life-saver – especially at G-d’s own command! – would be worshipped.  

Moreover, why a serpent?  We know from Genesis that, because of the serpent’s shrewd treachery through which Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, G-d cursed serpents and created eternal mortal enmity between them and people.  It’s certainly “fitting” and understandable that G-d would thus send human’s worst enemy to bite the rebellious Israelites in the desert.  But why would G-d pick an image of that same hated and feared enemy as the means of recovery from the harm that the same animal had inflicted?

While I am not a psychologist, I believe that this passage holds deep psychological lessons for us.   Contrary to the saying “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” many experiences leave deep emotional and psychological damage.  Often, we don’t even realize how profoundly our fears grip us and affect our actions and relationships.  As just one of any number of possible examples, a victim of childhood violence may never again feel secure, even if, decades later, he lives in a gated community, has a big dog, installs high-tech security systems, keeps doors and windows locked, and so on.  But perhaps by confronting the fear itself rather than just reacting to it, its grip can begin to loosen.  

Moreover, as we read Torah, we sometimes get the feeling that G-d had a “learning curve” in dealing with G-d’s complicated creation of humans.   First, G-d regretted having created humans and destroyed all of them except Noah and his family.  Later, G-d threatened on at least two occasions to do it again and start over with Moses.  Although Moses talked G-d out of it, serious punishments for bad behavior ensued (e.g. skin affictions, plagues, military defeats, the ground opening up to swallow rebels, banishment of the generation of the Exodus to die in the desert, etc.)  

G-d always relented, but unless I am mistaken, this serpent-on-a-stick episode is the first time that G-d, after cooling down, seemed to change tactics and ask G-dself, “what can I do beyond punishment to change this rebellion dynamic and help My people cope?”  Requiring them to face their deepest fears in order to be healed may have been G-d’s answer.  G-d may have learned from many aggravating and unsuccessful previous encounters that only by confronting our worst fears, the very ones that had so injured us, would help us (and G-d was willing to risk or accept serpent worship for 500 years as a necessary price of offering us healing).    

Whether of not we believe the Torah’s account, or even whether or not we believe in “G-d,” we can ponder this strange episode, marshal our courage (with or without prayer) to look more deeply at our fears, and begin to confront them (probably with professional help).  

Only then can we hope to be truly healed of our fears.   

Shabbat shalom.              

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  • Chukkat: Facing Our Fears



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