They say that time flies, and believe it or not, since last week we have jumped 38 years. You remember that we read about Korach’s revolt to Moshe’s leadership and the attendant depression that overcame the people. Today, we find ourselves in the last year, perhaps even the last months before the Israelites camp down on the Jordan preparing to foray into Jericho and Canaan.
This means that almost all the people who were supposed to die – had died. In today’s reading, two of the nation’s leaders, Miriam and Aharon, go their final resting places, but not before Moshe and Aharon incur God’s wrath by striking a rock to elicit water, instead of talking to it, and thus are doomed to die in the desert. You may remember that early on after the exodus, Moshe was instructed to strike a rock to draw out water. Here he was commanded to speak to the rock.
It is simply amazing how some things never change. The Israelites who were taken out of Egypt complained that they wanted to go back there, and here, their children, most of whom had never been in Egypt, are STILL complaining and saying they wished they had stayed there.
We then come to a rather strange incident. In response to the people’s complaints, God sends fiery serpents into their midst that bite and kill them. The people cry to Moshe to save them, he implores God’s forgiveness, and is told to place a copper or brass or bronze serpent on a pole in front of the people. All those who are bitten and look at the bronze serpent will be healed.
Isn’t this a form of idol worship? A bronze symbol of a serpent? Isn’t that like…forbidden in the Torah? Ma nishtana – how is this image different from other images?
But wait, there’s more. In the Book of Kings (II), chapter 18, we read that King Hezekiah reformed Judea and wiped out much of the idol worship and destroyed the the bronze serpent, from Moshe’s time in the desert. It was destroyed as an idol that was being served as a god.
Dr. Richard Lederman, suggests that the serpent may have served as sympathetic magic. Like a voodoo doll. You make an image of whatever is bothering, harassing or concerning you and through it you can either remove the source of the problem or heal yourself. He mentions that in the book of Samuel, the Philistines made golden tumors or hemorrhoids (from which they were suffering because they had taken the Holy Ark) as a conciliatory gift to the Israelites and their God.
Let’s assume that if God told Moshe to make such an object, it was kosher – for the time. Perhaps the closest equivalent in the Torah would be the first skirmish between the newly freed Israelites and the Amalekites (in Exodus). Moshe went up a hill and held his arms high. As long as they were up, and the people looked at them, the Israelites fared well. When his arms dropped, they began to lose. Looking at the serpent on the pole, like looking at Moshe’s arms, was intended to direct the people’s loyalty to the proper source – on high.
But a funny thing happens to symbols after their original use has ended. They do not disappear. They are repurposed.
In the book of Judges, Gideon wins a mighty battle and takes the gold earrings and other jewelry from the defeated Philistines. He uses some of it to make an ephod, a copy of the breastplate that the High Priest wore as part of his official garments. His intention was to remind the people to believe in God.
Wouldn’t you know it – people began to worship the ephod, forgetting that it was supposed to remind them of God. The same thing probably happened to the serpent. It served its ad hoc purpose as an antidote to serpent bites and then was saved with other religious paraphernalia from the time. People remembered that it had healed them, and in time when someone was sick they would pray to the serpent for a remedy instead of to God. Like an intermediary.
Here’s another thing that hasn’t changed. Symbols can become detached from their original meaning and purpose. It happens in the street and it happens in the establishment. The danger is that we won’t know when a symbol has ended its original task and we simply become used to it, forgetting its original purpose.
As Yarin Raban notes, this same process occurs in public offices that have outlived their original purpose and continue through inertia. Some say the Keren Kayemet is an example of this. Others cite two chief rabbis (or the rabbinate as a whole) as an anachronism. Or laws forbidding the publishing of court material when it is available online for anyone who wants it.
At some point, we have to look beneath whatever symbols are popular and see what they really are, and what their current purpose is. Sometimes we need a person like Hezekiah to make order and trash the superfluous and the anachronistic. Who would be given the power to make such decisions – is another loaded question.