Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Salvation Serpent - Table Talk for Chukat 5768

In one of the most unusual sections in the Torah, God commands Moshe to form a molten copper snake and place it on a stand in order to save the Jewish people from the bites of the deadly serpents tormenting the people. Moshe of course follows God's instructions. The Torah tells us that whoever was bitten by a snake would look at the copper serpent and be healed.
This episode leaves us with the obvious question: why would God instruct the Jewish people to create a symbol so similar to the idolatry that the Torah expressly forbids? Could this not lead to confusion and sin?
Rashi quotes the famous Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah:
Does the serpent kill or give life? Rather, whenever the Jewish people focus their gaze towards the heavens and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be healed. And if not, they would perish. (Rosh Hashanah 29a)
Yet, the message of the rabbis in Mishnah begs the question: why create confusion? Why not simply instruct the people to look to God without the need for the serpent?
To my mind, the symbol of the serpent most accurately represents the challenge of faith in the physical world. Modern medicine uses that very symbol to represent the medical profession, and the healing power of medicine in the world. Isn't it ironic that the symbol God wants to represent faith in Him and His ability to heal us, now represents the power of modern man to heal, without need for God. We could ask the very same question as the Mishnah:
Does the doctor kill or give life? Rather, the sick must focus on God and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven.
The doctor must do his job. He must act as the agent of God. But in the real world, we sometimes confuse the agent with whom he represents, and put our faith not in God, but in the doctor.
This is the message of the serpent - the danger of confusion. It's up to us to see through that confusion, and maintain our faith in God throughout the trials and tribulations of life.