The Israelites are reaching the end of their journey through the wilderness. Despite their destination being within reach, they still find cause to complain. As they are making their way up the Eastern side of the Jordan River, they become impatient, speaking out against God and Moses:
Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.Numbers 21:5
It is kind of hard to blame them. They have been eating manna for forty years now. But God does not appreciate complainers. God sends snakes which bite the people. Many die.
The story follows the typical pattern. The Israelites come to Moses, admit that they sinned when they spoke out against God and Moses. “Please intercede for us,” they plead.
Moses immediately steps in to the breach, and God offers an unusual remedy: Aseh lekha saraf – “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.” (Numbers 21:8) A seraph is a fiery serpent angel-type figure.
Moses complies, and he makes what is essentially a ‘snake on a stick.’ When someone is bitten by a serpent, they look at it and recover.
The Mishnah asks the obvious question. Can this inanimate object kill or give life? Doesn’t this fly in the face of the Torah’s many prohibitions against making graven images? The answer is that there is nothing magical about it. It’s power is symbolic. When Israel would look up at this snake on a stick, their hearts would turn towards their Father in heaven. Their faith restored, God would heal them.
It is not the most convincing argument. After all, the same could be said of any graven image.
A midrash (Genesis Rabbah 31:8, Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 15:4) points out that there are four occasions in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible in which the expression Aseh lekha, literally, “Make for yourself” appears. On three of those occasions, God gives clear instructions about how to make the item in question. The first is when God tells Noah to build an ark out of acacia wood. The second is when Moses is told to make two trumpets out of silver. The third is when Joshua has to make knives out of flint so that the Israelites can circumcise themselves. The fourth “make for yourself” appears in this morning’s Torah portion, when God tells Moses Aseh lekha saraf – “Make for yourself a seraph.”
No instructions are given regarding what raw materials to use. Moses is left to his own devices to figure it out. First, he thinks about using gold, zahav. Then he considers using silver, kesef. Rejecting those two precious metals, he settles instead on the much less valuable copper, nechoshet. Why?
According to the midrash, Moses does not like the sound of the words zahav and kesef. But nechoshet sounds like nachash, the Hebrew word for snake and nashach, the Hebrew word for bite. And so the Torah says
Then Moses made a copper serpent (nechash nechoshet) and mounted it on a standard, and when bitten by a serpent (im-nashach hanachash), anyone who looked at the the copper serpent (nechash hanechoshet) would recover.Numbers 21:9
In other words, Moses chose copper because he liked how the word sounded. (Notice that the Torah changes God’s word, seraf, to nachash. Both words refer to serpents, but only one of them sounds good.) The midrash concludes that this proves that the Torah was given in Hebrew, the holy tongue. The alliteration would not work in any other language.
There is a deeper meaning at work here.
When we think about snakes, we are reminded of the infamous snake, the nachash of the Garden of Eden, the one who approached the woman with words of deception to trick her into eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She observes the tree, sees that it is good for eating, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to contemplate. So she eats the fruit and shares it with the man who is with her.
Rabbinic texts personify the nachash as the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination. It is by observing the tree, really looking at it, that the yetzer hara speaks to her heart and leads her to violate God’s instructions.
Similarly, if we see the plague of snakes in today’s parashah as symbolizing the Israelites’ lack of faith in God’s providence, their succumbing to the physical discomforts of the moment, the power of the nachash nechoshet becomes more clear. It is the inverse of the Garden of Eden story, the image of the serpent has the power not just to dispel faith, but also to reinvigorate it.
In this moment, Moses does not yell at the Israelites, call them ungrateful, or try to convince them that they are wrong to complain. He takes a different approach. He uses art. Art inspires the imagination, which leads us to see the world differently. As the greatest of our Prophets, the one who reaches the highest level of spirituality and achieves the greatest mastery over the yetzer hara, Moses understands how to use art to get through to the Israelites. He makes a metal sculpture, upon which the Israelites can gaze; and, he composes a linguistic work of art, employing language in a way that penetrates the walls around the heart.
Both forms of creative expression spark an emotional reaction that grabs the Israelites’ attention, surprise them, if only for a moment. Shaken from their complacency, they take a step back and realize all that God has done for them. The Yetzer hara loosens its hold. Self-centerdness departs. They step up one spiritual level. At last, the Israelites realize: ‘We are almost at our destination. Surely God can lead us across the finish line. We can tolerate this manna for a little while longer.’