Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Hukkat: Confronting the copper serpent

0 Comments 28 June 2017

In this week’s commentary to Parashat Hukkat, Rabbi Galia Sadan examines the mysterious story of the “copper snake.” How can this snake help us overcome the challenges and despair we face in our lives?

In 1508 Michelangelo's image of the Israelites deliverance from the plague of serpents by the creation of the bronze serpent on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In 1508 Michelangelo’s image of the Israelites deliverance from the plague of serpents by the creation of the bronze serpent on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

By Rabbi Galia Sadan

The Torah reading for this week, Hukkat, is loaded with many matters: the matter of the Red Heifer and the ceremony for purification from the impurity of the dead, the death of Aaron and Miriam, the extraction of water from the rock, many conquests (that are also mentioned in the haphtarah reading from the Book of Judges) and also “the copper snake”.

This is how the story of Nahash HaNehoshet (the copper snake) is described in the Book of Numbers, chapter 21:

4. They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom, and the people became disheartened because of the way.

5. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.’

6. The Lord sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died.

7. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He remove the snakes from us.’ So Moses prayed on behalf of the people.

8. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.’

9. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.

10. The children of Israel journeyed on and camped in Oboth.

11. They journeyed from Oboth and camped in the wasteland passes in the wilderness, which faced Moab, toward the rising sun.

12. From there they journeyed, and they encamped along the stream of Zered.

The story of the snakes opens with these words:

4. They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom, and the people became disheartened because of the way.

In light of the refusal of the Edomites to allow the people of Israel to pass through their boundaries,  as was related in chapter 20, the people were forced to go around Edom, something that of course, lengthened their way. The people, who had been traversing through the desert for many years and couldn’t see an end to their journey, were weary. We are not only speaking of physical weariness, but of psychological weariness: despair, loss of hope, and lack of faith.

Regarding the expression “and the people became disheartened because of the way” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, Medieval commentator on the Torah) says:

 [literally, shortness of spirit] is mentioned in Scripture, Anything difficult for a person to bear is called קִצּוּר נֶפֶשׁ, like a person who is beset with trouble, and his mind is not composed enough to accept it. There is no place in his heart for the distress to settle…. In summary, the expression shortness of spirit (קִצּוּר נֶפֶשׁ) for a thing, means that it is intolerable, and the mind cannot bear it.

And what caused this “shortness of spirit” of the people? From the way itself– the physical journey – which was exceedingly long, and also from never-ending effort required of them.

They lost patience: they complained about the lack of water, lack of bread, about the manna that they could not stomach any longer, about their ever present sense of mortality. And God punishes them; God sends the venomous snakes (“nahashim sorfim”) that bite them.

Our commentators gave a number of interpretations in answer to this question. The most interesting of all is the midrashic reading (“Or HeHaim” literally: “Light of Life”) that says: “the venomous (“sorfim”) snakes– since they poison (literally “burn”) the soul”.

This story can teach us that at a time of great despair, lack of faith, and loss of hope a destructive cycle is created. When we are impatient, and have a “shortness of soul” as Rashi tells us we have no room in our hearts to bear the distress and to suffer it, and then it might lead to a cycle in which we “burn” our souls – destroying our inner resources and strength through self-pity investing our energy in our suffering and distress. This kills our souls and our last remaining energy.

It is at such a time that we need to find tremendous inner spiritual/psychological power to do the most simple of things – to ask for help. Just like the people of Israel who come to Moses.

And what did Moses do? The copper serpent-snake – an external object that the people can look at and live.

If we succeed in examining that which tortures us from without, defining and understanding it, then we will have taken the first step to recovery and emergence from the crisis.

The people stare at the copper serpent, at the snake that poisons their souls, from without. In this way the suffering is made manageable, defined and it is possible to struggle with it and overcome it. And the people will live.

And what is the next step?

The next step is described immediately in the continuance, in the same verse, without any graphic separation in the Torah. The next step is:

10. The children of Israel journeyed on and camped in Oboth.

11. They journeyed from Oboth and camped in the wasteland passes in the wilderness, which faced Moab, toward the rising sun.

12. From there they journeyed, and they encamped along the stream of Zered.

And so on…The journey forward progresses. That is the next step. The ability to pull ourselves out of the feeling of hopelessness that holds us firmly, cements us, into the one place. The ability to look ahead and move forward.

It seems to me that the message is clear. Just as in the desert, so too in life. It isn’t always easy or simple – the trick is to find our own “copper serpent” that which will help us emerge, overcome the difficulty, and continue our journey with love and solidarity, peace, and friendship.

Rabbi Galia Sadan is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and currently affiliated with Beit Daniel inTel Aviv.

Special thank you to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

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