Judaism: Hukkat: Why a Serpent?
Moshe KempinskiMoshe Kempinski, author of "The Teacher and the Preacher", is the editor of the Jerusalem Insights weekly email journal and co-owner of Shorashim, a Biblical shop and learning center in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The people of israel in the wilderness undergo great spiritual changes as a result of incomprehensible supernatural experience. Being mortal, the effects of these spiritual experiences have been world shaking for this newly formed people.
They were raised as slaves and now find themselves physically free. They had been surrounded and had been immersed in a culture steeped in idolatry and falsehood and suddenly they are surrounded by G-d's Presence.
Is it any wonder that they sometimes begin to flounder in their attempt to try to make sense of it all?
Their failures with the spies led to the long and arduous journey through the wilderness. Their subsequent failure with Korach led to a fear of the “holy and the sacred”.It is not surprising that they began to be mired in anxiety and fears regarding their own worth and ability to continue forward. The walk in wilderness forces one to confront one’s own limitations. As a result it is in the midst of their continuing journey that we hear of the crestfallen spirit of some.
And the people spoke against G-d, and against Moshe: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, nor is there any water, and our souls loathe this insubstantial food." And G-d sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died.( Numbers 21:5-6)
When they cried out in repentance Moshe is told;
"Make you a serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live."( ibid:8)
The story is astounding because of the imagery that is being used. The serpent ( nachash ) does not evoke positive memory. It was a serpent ( nachash) described in Genesis as "the most cunning (arum) of all beasts of the field which God had made…” (Gen. 3:1).“ that brazenly convinced Eve and then Adam to go against Hashem's wishes in the garden of Eden.
Furthermore, it is this very same copper serpent will yet lead to more downfalls in the future.
"And he ( Hezekiah) did that which was right in the sight of Hashem, according to all that David his father did.He removed the high places, and broke the images, and cut down the groves, and broke in pieces the brazen serpent( Nachash) that Moshe had made: for to those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. (2Kings 18:3-4)
So why would Hashem tell Moshe to put up a "Nachash"
Rashi explains "Does the serpent kill or give life? Rather, when Israel looked towards the heavens and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven they would be saved, and if not they would wither."
The message clearly was,' do not make the mistake in thinking that it is the serpents that are killing you or it is the serpent that is saving you. In fact it is only your Father in Heaven that will protect you.
Yet the question remains ,' why a serpent'?
We know that the serpent was "the most cunning (arum) of all beasts of the field which God had made…” (Gen. 3:1).“ Yet the previous verse uses a word to describe Adam and Eve's state of dress in the following way "The two of them were naked, (arumim), the man and his wife, and they felt no shame." (2:25).Though based on different roots the similarity of the word Arum to describe the serpent's cunningness and the word Arumim to describe Adam and Eve’s nakedness is striking.
After the sin of the eating from the tree , Adam and Eve hide and G-d calls out to them. "And Hashem G-d called to man, and He said to him, 'Where are you?' And he said, 'I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid'. And He said, 'Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?'"( Genesis 3:9-11),
What Adam was in fact telling G -d , is that he was naked of worthiness. He had discovered the naked truth of his own limited essence. At that point he could not conceive of encountering G-d. The serpent had long known of his limited nature and he clothed that naked truth with a slippery tongue and deceptive cunningness. Yet with Adam and Eve after choosing to disobey, their simple physical nakedness moved from being an innocent truth to a feeling of complete unworthiness.
The people of Israel in the wilderness lost their sense of worthiness "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( VaTiktzar Nefesh) because of the way. And the people spoke against God, and against Moshe (Numbers 21:4-5). The words translated as “becoming impatient” in hebrew is VaTikzar Nefesh HaAm. Literally that is translated as “the people's soul became shortened”. In essence,They felt smaller.
That same sense of unworthiness continues to bite and attack our people like venomous serpents. Our people lose the strength to walk the long voyage. They, lose the vision necessary to rebuild and resettle the land of promise. They try so hard to ameliorate and kowtow to the serpents that surround us.
The journey we all take through our own sense of wilderness forces us to confront pour own limitations. That confrontation can produce two distinctly different reactions. The first is to assume a sense of unworthiness and perhaps try to hide form loftier ideals and goals, much like Adam hiding before G-d’s voice. We can at other times mask this sense of unworthiness by adopting more self centered cunningness and ego-based bravado like the serpent. On the other hand the healthier option would be to accept our limitations and learn to soar above them by being connected to a higher ideal and purpose.
The serpent on the pole reminded the people that the serpents cannot destroy nor can they give life. So when they see the “creature that was more cunning/naked than all other creatures” they would be reminded that serpents do not bring death nor do they offer life. Our sense of worthiness and ability to march forward into the unknown is completely dependent on being linked to Divine destiny and purpose. That is so because when all else fails, all we have is to depend on Avinu SheBashamayim , our Father in Heaven - and as a result all hurts are healed.
( le-refuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved)