The Israelites’ journey through the desert en route to the Holy Land was dramatic, adventurous, and Utopian. Enveloped in the Clouds of Glory they were protected from the inevitable dangers of the desert; they ate manna from heaven and drank water from a rock, their clothes were never ragged and their shoes never tattered. In the communal realm, they had many peaceful moments; like when they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and when they fought various enemies, but in the intervals they continuously quarreled between themselves. Spiritually, they went from the highest levels to the lowest in a very short time and then rose up again; they witnessed God’s revelation at Horeb, worshiped the Golden Calf, and built the Tabernacle in a matter of six months!
These extreme polar swings are recognized by God’s different statements of this fateful generation. The prophet praises: “Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying, Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land [that was] not sown.”(Jeremiah 2:1-2) The Psalmist criticizes: “When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with [this] generation, and said, It [is] a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.” (Psalms 95:9-11)
The episode of the copper serpent probably falls in to the second category; and this is how it reads: “And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses… And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a saraph and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-10)
The scripture is both inspiring and strange. The Mishna inquires, “Could, then, the serpent kill or bring to life? It means when the Israelites looked to heaven for aid and subjected their will to that of their Father in heaven they were healed, but when they did not they perished” (Rosh HaShanah 26a). While this makes sense of the miraculous cure of the copper snake, it still fails to address a fundamental problem with it, if the serpent served as a mere tactic to divert the Israelites’ eyes and hearts to heaven, Moses could surely have used any random object. So why then did Moses choose the contradictory and ironic option by taking the killer to be the savior? Moreover, he thereby defied a famous and self-understood rule of the Talmud “an adversary cannot serve as a defender” (Brakhot 59a). When we reexamine the Mishna, we can find this same question in its words: “is the serpent a killer is the serpent one who gives life?” In general, we can ask, what is the connection of the blasphemy to the punishment?
There is an ancient Hasidic parable about a king who had many riches and priceless possessions. In his service, a minister stole precious valuables from the king’s treasures. When the king learned of it, he ordered the amputation of the minister’s hand, the hand that had betrayed the king. Moreover, the king said, he himself would execute the verdict to convey a message to all others. The king summoned all ministers to the palatial orchard for the next morning and at the set time; he cut the traitor’s arm with his royal sword. Meanwhile, a venomous snake stung the crown prince who was standing to his father’s right. The king instinctively drew his sword and sliced off his prince’s arm. The son looked to his father, dumbfounded and confused. He asked, “Am I not more to you than a traitor that you treat us in the same manner? Are we equals in your eyes?” The king looked at his beloved son with pity, embraced him and said, “no, my son! Him, I punished; you, I saved.”
Let’s take the metaphor a step further. Say the king decided not to answer his son’s questions and just leave him there with his bleeding arm. The prince would live a life of resentment, anger, and misery. The knowledge that his father valued and treated him like a criminal would never leave his heart. The instantaneous mind shift from cruelty to love and from punishment to healing was a small sentence uttered by the king. While nothing changed physically, and the prince and traitor still shared identical handicaps, the perspective and reason was enough to make all the difference in the world.
The Torah tells us that all problems started when Israel was discouraged as they learned of their postponement to entering the Holy Land. The chain reaction was their rebellion against God and Moses. Consequently, God punished them by sending the serpent. It was a symbolic manifestation of their rebellion against God, for the serpent was who cursed humanity by seducing Eve to ignore God. Later, when God told Moses to heal them, Moses understood that while the snakes were definitely a punishment they well deserved, perhaps it could serve as a messenger too. Therefore, Moses took the very same serpent and raised it high.
The serpent, like any other challenge or pain, Moses taught, is neither a killer nor a healer; the way we perceive it is what creates its effect. If we run away in despair and fright, it will kill us ruthlessly, but in the light of heaven and in the context of a loving king, it can be a source of strength and life. To the Israelites in the desert, the lesson was regarding their reaction to the aforementioned delay. To us it is relevant whenever we feel challenged. Whether they come in the form of small ordeals or even fiery serpents, we can choose how to react and it will affect our lives accordingly. Therefore, we need not and should not look far for answers; rather, Moses encourages us to stare the source of our pain in the face but with a different perspective, with backdrop of heaven. The snake inspires us to recognize that the very same venom that threatened us yesterday can be the antidote of today.