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Snakes on a Staff

Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion - Chukkat

How do people heal? I don't mean in general. If I am injured or sick, I believe in western medicine when it is properly practiced. Physicians, nurses, hospitals pharmaceuticals - the whole shebang. I also make use of Eastern, Northern and Southern medicine. Anything that works.

My question, 'how do people heal?' refers to that delicate moment in which you've already taken the full treatment from whichever geographic part of the globe you go to and something lies in the balance. A person is 50/50. Something else happens.

Prayers from others? Divine intervention? One's own will? Some mysterious mixture of them all? I say "yes." People ask me if I pray for healing. I say, yes, along with any other treatment that works. There are some moments, perhaps rare, in which the presence of healing energy, from others, from God, from within, is all you have left and it just barely tips the scale. Don't rely on miracles, but don't shun them, either.

Let's pick some not so random example. If a person is bitten by a poisonous snake, don't use a tourniquet, bite, cut or suck the wound, rely on snake stones, give the person alcohol, or do anything except keep the person calm and get them anti-venom treatment ASAP. Nothing else works, on any continent.

One of the last things that would come to mind for poisonous snake bite is looking at a copper snake on a staff, unless you were familiar with the bizarre little anecdote told in this week's Torah portion, specifically, Numbers 21:5-9. The new generation of Israelites rediscovered their old time religion and took to complaining, especially about the so-called rotten bread, otherwise referred to as manna from heaven. As is often pointed out, the God-Of-The-Hebrew-Bible (not the God I believe in, but the God they believed in) has a very low threshold for tolerating complaints. This time the biblical God sics fiery snakes on the people. Their complaining minds quickly went off the manna as people started dying of snake venom. The Israelites adroitly repented and asked Moses to pray for them. Moses does, and in response the biblical God tells Moses to make a "s'raf" (a fiery serpent) and when any bitten person looks at it, they will live. Moses takes to making a "n'chash nechoshet", a copper snake.

A few things here. First, I can imagine Moses whipping out his coppersmith manual and getting to work. I can see anxious snake-bite victims gathering around, maybe throwing some advice here and there on how to speed things up, and Moses saying, "Watching me work won't make it go any faster."

Second, something else is going on. "Nachash" means "snake", and "nechoshet" means "copper". This was a play on words lurking about in the mind of the biblical author, just waiting to be played.

Third, the "snake on a staff" theme is ancient, very ancient. Ancient Sumeria had a god depicted as a snake (representing healing) entwining around an axial rod, symbolizing a tree of life. Wow - a snake and tree of life in ancient Sumerian mythology! What's with the snake? Apparently, the capacity of a snake to shed its skin and appear young again mystified the ancients. It was as if the snake could heal itself of aging, and all other ailments, as well. The snake, as it were, knew the secret to eternal life.

One finds this tradition of the snake entwined on the staff representing healing in our biblical text, and also in more well known Greek mythology. The ancient Greek image of the Rod of Asklepius (the Greek god of healing) is used all over the world to represent the field of medicine. (The association of healing with the caduceus - two snakes on a rod with wings - is a mistake).

Our biblical text that tells of the healing snake, then, is rooted in an ancient tradition connecting snakes with healing, a tradition that arrives in Greece, and it reappears today. (It seems very odd to me that the field of medicine, perhaps the apex of practical science, has chosen to symbolize itself with an ancient god of healing, Asklepius, who is symbolized by the even more ancient snake and staff imagery.)

What happened to the snake on the staff? King Hezekiah had the snake and staff of Moses destroyed - see II Kings 18:4. How did the ancient rabbis understand this phenomenon? The rabbis of the Talmud were incredulous. They said, in tractate Rosh HaShanah 29a, that when people looked up at the snake on the staff, it reminded them to pray to their father in heaven, and that's why they were healed. Yeah, right. No, the people probably did really believe that looking at the staff might heal them. Believing in a placebo can have miraculous effects.

For me, the question, "how do people heal when the matter hangs on a thread?" is the physical version of the question of how people transform at all. How does a false person become a true person? How does an addict become sober? How does a depressed person return to life? Anger to forgiveness? Resentment to understanding? Willful ignorance to troubled wisdom? In what unconscious realm is the will activated, surging its way into consciousness and life?

Let's ask it this way. How does that inner, misfiring force arise, that would rather have us complain than solve, that would rather us blame than face ourselves? That snake within does not want us to know that there is a snake within. The snake that envenoms secretly. The venom can attack us and everyone around us but relies on our not knowing that we have been poisoned.

The beginning of the anti-venom to the bite of the snake within is to see the snake.

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