If you’ve dealt with health care before, you’ve probably seen some form of this symbol. Maybe it looks like this…
The former being the Staff of Asclepius the Greek God, the latter being the Caduceus (the staff of Hermies). Without getting bogged town in too much history, the Staff of Asclepius was tied with healing but somewhere along the way got confused with Caduceus and now are both used as prominent symbols of health care. But in all likelihood, the symbol for a snake wrapped around as stick as a sign of healing may have originated in this week’s Torah portion, Chukas.
Chukas is a PACKED parsha, from the timeline jumping ahead 38 years, to the bizarre mitzvah of the red heifer, both Miriam and Aharon dying, Moses getting barred from Israel, and I think there’s a war towards the end. But within all that craziness is the incident concerning some snakes.
In a Nutshell
Once again Israel has found themselves tired of wandering and eating the maan (or mana) the dew like substance that fell from the sky and sustained them in their years in the desert. Immediately after, a plague of poisonous snakes swarms on the camp, biting many. Afflicted with the poison, the Jews apologize to Moses and he prays to God for remedy.
Now instead of God simply removing the plague, this time God instructs Moses to, “Make for yourself the image of a fiery [poisonous] snake and place it on a high pole, and it will be, that whoever was bitten shall look at it and live.” (Bamidbar 21:8)
Little odd of a remedy. Copper snake around a pole? Shouldn’t the people be looking to God, not some makeshift, copper totem? What’s the wisdom here? Here are a couple of ideas.
How Important is a Savings Account?
So what’s the deal with the snake to begin with? The Alshech brings the following idea. Why are they connected to Israel complaining about the maan? Funny thing about the maan, yes it fell from heaven and yes it was waiting for you each morning to collect. But the distance at which it fell from your front door was related to how good your connection to God was. Also you couldn’t save any leftovers. Meaning each day your sustenance was dependent purely on your faith in God. That gave them somewhat of an anxiety.
What does that have to do with the snakes? So back in the story of Gan Eden, we have the sin of eating from Etz HaDaas (Tree of Forbidden Knowledge). For his part in the debacle, the snake is punished in the following ways; he has to slither on the ground, he will always have enmity with humanity, and his food will be dust. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a snake eat dust. I’ve seen Youtube videos of them swallowing mice, insects, even other snakes, but not dust.
The Midrash says that this curse of eating dust means two things. One, that the snake’s food would always be readily available. The second thing (but really an extension of the first thing) his connection to God was severed. Hold up, never having to worry about sustenance is a curse? The Midrash emphatically says yes. Because he never had to rely on Hashem for anything, he lost his connection to Hashem. We don’t need to look further than the stories of billionaires who are desperately unhappy to confirm this. Or as Notorious B.I.G. puts it, “mo money, mo problems.”
Meanwhile Israel wanted comfort and stability and most of all the freedom to not have to rely on Hashem. But Rabbi Dovid Feinstein brings up a Mishneh that points to the tribe of Zevulun. What was that tribe’s symbol? A merchant ship. Zevulun was a tribe of sailors and merchants. He goes on to point out that sailors are often pious individuals. Why?
Back in the day sailing was very dangerous. It was uncomfortable, you could sink, drown, you could lose cargo, there’s even a blessing you’re supposed to say after you travel by sea. Rabbi Feinstein says they are always developing their relationship with God. As the old adage goes, “There are no atheists in the fox hole.” In the desert, Israel needed to be reminded that to always have their needs met without struggle or connection to Hashem is a curse.
The other idea is connected to way back when Moses speaks to God at the burning bush (Shemos 4:2-4). God has Moses throw his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake. Moses runs away, but God has him grasp the snake by the tail and take hold of it. So too here, Moses makes a copper image of a snake wrapping around a stick and holds it up for Israel to see as a cure.
Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein points out that Israel went through a trauma. If a person doesn’t deal with their traumas, they can be affected in profound and permanent ways. A child who almost drowned can form a phobia to water. A soldier of war struggles with the symptoms of PTSD from all kinds of triggers. And victims of abuse can suffer crippling obstacles in forming relationships.
The Torah is telling us that it is critical a person faces their triggers. Clearly that’s not an easy thing to do. But two factors will help. One, face it early and don’t let it fester. If a person is in a horrible car accident, it’s better they get back in the car sooner than later. Otherwise the association with trauma and the car will cement. The other idea is that a higher power will help you get through it.
Moses could have taken one of the snakes and put it on the staff, but he made a fake copper snake. He was telling Israel, it’s not the snake that’s the problem. Hashem gave you this trauma and only through looking to Hashem can you get through it.
This copper snake was actually preserved for generations for its healing properties until eventually it itself became worshiped on its own. At that point a sacred relic became an object of idolatry and had to be destroyed by King Chizkiyahu (Melachim 2, 18:4).
And that’s the third lesson. We can all find reasons to depart from Hashem, not feeling we have enough, not feeling stable, and even deeply rooted trauma. But if we take those fears and insecurities and use them to connect to Hashem, they can not only be extraordinarily powerful, but may even be the reason we are here. To elevate the bad to the good. But once we find that key to connection, that charm, that keepsake, if we start to give more power to the tool than what the tool connects us to… well then we may find ourselves right where we started, placing our trust in something worth not much more than a few pennies worth of copper.
Thank you to Rabbi Aryeh Kerzner. This blog is dedicated to the refuah shlema of Sarah Bas Bracha.