Torah from around the world #21

by Rabbi Celia Surget,

Mouvement Juif Liberal de France


The Israelites have returned to what appears to be one of their favorite activities and resume the complaints about the lack of food, lack of water, and a general repulsion of the provisions. After being punished by God who did not prevent the poisonous desert snakes from attacking them, they realize their mistake and turn to Moses for help.   Moses is instructed to build a snake statue, and those who have been bitten will be healed upon looking at it. The use of the snake statue is a surprise, considering that the third of the Ten Commandments clearly states that we are forbidden from making “sculptured images or pictures if what is in the heavens above, what is on the earth below, and what is in the water below the earth” (Exodus 20;4). How then can we explain the “healing snake”?

There remains uncertainty concerning the presence of the snakes. In her “Studies in Bamidbar”, Nehama Leibowitz demonstrates the subtle message of the verb “vayeshalach” used about the snakes. According to her interpretation, the verb used in that form means “set free”  or “let go”, thus meaning that the snakes were present in the desert (which is in keeping with the natural order of things), but up to that time, God had kept them at a distance from the Israelites. While in the desert, God also ensured that the Israelites were fed and had water. However, once they became incapable of acknowledging these miracles, God allowed nature to take over, and let the snakes roam about freely in the desert, biting whoever crossed their path.

Mishna Rosh Hashanah 3;5 asks the blunt question concerning the snake statue: “could the snake kill or could the snake heal”? What miracle powers did that snake have?

Numbers Rabba 19;22 explains that since the snake – through the use of words – was the cause of Adam and Eve’s transgressions, therefore the snake would be used to punish those who sinned through the use of words. There is something very visual about the image of a snake being used to define the fault of the word. A snake slithers, does not advance in a straight line, and can be harmful. In the same way, anyone using words without considering the content, or with the intention of hurting will act in the same manner, and try to avoid direct and honest responses.

The same Mishnah quote goes on to answer that the healing snake was a visual symbol, whose purpose was to remind the Israelites that the time had come to concentrate on more constructive and positive goals. It was meant to be directed upwards, reminiscent of the manner in which Moses has lifted his arms towards God, when the Israelites had been attacked by Amalek. This structure was meant as a way to help the Israelites reach out from the depths of anger, frustration, disappointment and bitterness in which they had fallen, to reclaim control over their lives and try and grow closer to holiness.

It is easy to let ourselves become indifferent to everyday “miracles”, to consider as a right what was once a privilege, to ignore kind gestures and become focused solely on what is negative in our environment. We all have snakes in our lives that play the same role as the one in the Garden of Eden did; however it is up to us to attempt to turn that snake into a blessing and rise above the hurt and the anger so that we to can enrich and enhance our lives.

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