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“Snakes” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

July 8, 2022 | 9 Tamuz 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

At the end of June, I sent you my 312th Shabbat Awakenings. For the last six years, each week I have shared with you lessons, interpretations, commentary, and personal reflections. In the upcoming year, the seventh year of my being Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel, I plan to bring back some of my favorites each week. This week I chose a piece about our weekly Torah portion that speaks about facing fear.

Complaining is a key leitmotif, a reoccurring theme, of the Book of Numbers. As our ancestors, the Israelites, march through the wilderness on a circuitous path, they engage in magical thinking, sure that slavery in Egypt could not outshine the suffering they were enduring wandering for years on end. Complaining, however, is the presenting problem of their dissatisfaction and impatience. There is something else going on.

At Sinai, overwhelmed by the visual and aural experience of thunder and lightening, they urge Moses to go up the mountain to encounter the Divine while they stay huddled together safe at the bottom. Later, at the border of Canaan, on the other side of the Jordan River, poised to enter into the land, scouts return with calumnies, of giants and overwhelming forces that cause the people to cower with anxiety.

Fear is at the heart of their concern, and it grips them and alters their perception of reality.

So they complain more.

In the past when the Israelite people have cried regarding their meal plan in the wilderness, they received sustenance as a response: meat, manna, and even water from a rock.

This time, in our portion for this week, Hukkat, they railed not only against Moses but against God as well.

God responds to their fearful complaining with snakes!

Snakes may be a curious response, but we have seen them before. In the Garden of Eden, the snake entreated Eve to disobey the command not to eat of the fruit of the specified tree.  Later in the Torah, when Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh, Aaron cast down his staff and it turned into a serpent not only to demonstrate God’s ability to marvel but to raise the Egyptians’ anxiety regarding such a powerful Deity.

We know snakes have that ability to frighten. You don’t call a movie, “Snakes On a Plane” to create comfort.

Here in our portion, snakes were sent as a punishment.

God unleashed the snakes. They bite and bring death to some. The commentator, Nehama Liebowitz, cites the Hebrew for “sent,” reminding her students that the verb form really is actually not “sent” va-yishlach but “bring forth” va-yeshalach even though translators say “sent.” The difference is that unleashing the snakes means that they were with the Israelites the whole time but God protected the people from them. When the people pleaded to Moses to act yet again as their defense attorney, the Israelites knew that God had the power to call off the snakes.

But that is not how the punishment was resolved. Instead, God commanded Moses to make a copper representation of the snake wrapped around a standard and to place it in the middle of the community so that anyone who had been bitten could cast their eyes upon it to be healed.

The problem became the solution, like a vaccine or a homeopathic remedy.

The snakes actually represented their fear. They’d grown restive, impatient, and doubtful. Their complaints about returning to Egypt reflected fright. It wasn’t until they confronted what terrified them that they could tackle what limited them from moving forward. It is an unusual course of action because they could have misconstrued the copper serpent sculpture as a graven image and engaged in idol worship.

The Talmud (RH 29a) responded that the sculpture [because of its height] actually caused the people to raise their eyes heavenward toward the Divine and thus humbled their hearts.

Hatanu,” they tell Moses. We were wrong. We went astray. They faced their fear and lifted themselves up.

On this Shabbat when we reel from the ramifications of fear, we place the standard of moral courage at the center of our community. May we find strength with one another to lift our eyes heavenward to give voice to righteousness and to do what is right and just.

(Initially shared on June 22, 2018)

Shabbat Shalom!

I remain grateful for your comments and reflections and look forward to corresponding regarding your responses. Connect with me here.

If you are interested in participating in the Psalm prayer project for Hayim Oren please connect with Amy Sherr. Read the invitation to participate here,

  • We join together at 6:00 p.m., onsite and online for Qabbalat Shabbat outdoors in our garden with Artist in Residence Linda Hirschhorn. Join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website.
  • Riverway Shabbat gathers at 7:00 for a pre-service schmooze followed by a 7:00 p.m. service and dinner and drinks for those joining onsite. To participate online, register here. To participate onsite, register here.
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • Torah Study begins at 9:00 a.m. To join the conversation interactively, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website or Facebook page.
  • Song Circle and Havdalah Concert with Artist-in-Residence Linda Hirschhorn, onsite, followed by Havdalah at 8:00 p.m. Join online via Zoom.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher