Serpents are fascinating supporting actors in the Bible. A talking snake corrupts Eve and Adam. Moses has a walking staff that can morph into a slithering creature. And in the wilderness phase of Israelite history, widespread complaints about God and Moses cause an infuriated God to punish the people with a plague of seraph snakes.
But perhaps the most bizarre biblical reptile is an inanimate one. After Moshe intercedes on behalf of the ever-ungrateful people, God gives these instructions: “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” (Numbers 21:8). Moshe then fashions said seraph out of copper, and mounts it on a standard (Hebrew: nes). Sure enough, anyone bitten by a serpent could look at the copper version of his assailant and be healed.
This passage is sufficiently problematic to occupy us for hours, but we’ll limit our curiosity to the classic question the rabbis asked (and recorded, curiously, in the Mishnah, where you rarely find midrash): “And is it the snake that kills or the snake that revives?” (M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8)
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at the way the Mishnah answers its own question, but what do you think the Torah had in mind when it instructed stricken people to look at a banner on a flagpole and be healed? There just might be a lesson here about flagpoles in general, which we can apply to the events of recent days in our country. And this is a most relevant conversation in which to engage. A broad coalition of Jewish organizations across the movements has declared this “A Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American Community,” in light of the horrific shootings in Charleston last week. I hope you will join us for this important Shabbat of reflection.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise