Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in the loving memory of Alta Shula bas Reb Yosef Yitzchak and Hindel Swerdlov

Essay Chukas
Is Your Anxiety Killing You?
Looking Up: The Meaning behind the Snake on the Pole

No Complaining

After seventy years of communist oppression and seven hours of flying, Boris, a burly immigrant from Moscow steps off the plane in a free land to begin his new life in his new home, Israel. Standing at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, a young and enthusiastic Israeli reporter plunges a microphone in front of him with a level of excitement that is only seen when an inside scoop is about to be caught. The reporter asks with focus: “Tell me, what was life back in Russia like?”

To which the Russian immigrant replies: “I couldn’t complain.”

An obviously unexpected answer, the young reporter continues to probe: “Well how were your living quarters there?” To which the Russian responds “I couldn’t complain.”

Not expecting this answer either, the reporter decides to hit him with a question that is bound to get the answer he is looking for: “What about your standard of living?” To which the Russian replies again: “I couldn’t complain.”

At this point, the reporter’s frustration with the new immigrant’s answers reaches a crescendo, and so in a derogatory tone the reporter yells out, “Well, if everything was so wonderful back in Russia, then why did you even bother to come here?” To which the new immigrant replies with gusto: “Oh, here I can complain!”

The Serpents

It is a strange biblical episode -- in this week’s portion of Chukas.

When poisonous snakes attack the Jews in the desert, G-d instructs Moses to fashion a special healing instrument: a pole topped with the form of a snake. Moses sculptures a snake of copper and duly places it on top of a pole. Those who had been afflicted by the snake bite would gaze on the serpentine image on the pole and be cured [1].

According to some historians, this was the forerunner of the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod which is today the emblem of the medical profession.

Yet the question is obvious: What was the point of placing a snake on top of the pole to cure the Jews who were bitten? If it was G-d who was healing them miraculously, why the need to look up at a copper snake atop a pole? The question is raised in the Talmud [2]:

"But is the snake capable of determining life and death?!” the Talmud asks. And the answer is this: “Rather, when Israel would gaze upward and bind their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be healed; and if not, they would perish." Fixing their eyes on the snake alone would not yield any cure; it was looking upward toward G-d, it was the relationship with G-d, which brought the cure. But if so, why bother to carve out a copper snake in the first place, which can only make people believe that it is the copper snake that is the cause of healing?

In fact, this is exactly what occurred. The copper snake that Moses made was preserved for centuries. In the passage of time, however, its meaning became distorted, and people began to say that the snake possessed powers of its own. When it reached the point of becoming an image of idolatry, the Jewish King Hezekiah (in the 6th century BCE) destroyed the copper snake fashioned by Moses, and that was the end of that special copper snake [3].

Which only reinforces the question: Why ask people to look up at a man-made snake which can lead down the path to a theological error of deifying the snake?

There is another question. The snake was the reptile that caused the harm in the first place. Healing, it would seem, would come from staying far away from serpents. Why in this case was the remedy born from gazing at the very venomous creature which caused the damage to begin with [4]?

A Tale of Two Snakes

The snake in the biblical story -- as all biblical stories capturing the timeless journeys of the human psyche -- is also a metaphor for all of the “snakes” in our lives. Have you ever been bitten by a "venomous snake"? Poisoned by harmful people, burnt by life, or by abusive situations? Have you ever been crushed by a clueless principal, a manipulative boss, a deceiving partner, a toxic relationship? Were you ever back-stabbed by people you trusted? Is your anxiety killing you? Are you weary and demoralized by your life experience?

What is the deeper meaning of suffering? And how do some people know how to accept affliction with love and grace?

These are good questions that cannot be answered easily, if at all. But one perspective is presented in the story of the serpents. G-d tells Moses: “Make a serpent and place it on a pole. Whoever gets bitten should look at it and he will live.” The key to healing, the Torah suggests, is not by fleeing the cause of the suffering, but by gazing at it. Don’t run from the snake; look at it. Because deep inside the challenge, you will find the cure. Deep inside the pain, you will find the healing light. 

But there is one qualification: you must look up to the snake; you must peer into the reality of the snake above, on top of the elevated pole, not on the serpent crawling here below.

The Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who had three Jewish grandparents and was considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, once said that his aim as a philosopher was, "to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." The fly keeps banging its head against the glass in a vain attempt to get out. The more it tries, the more it fails, until it drops from exhaustion. The one thing it forgets to do is look to the sky.

Every experience in life can be seen from two dimensions – from a concrete, earthly perspective, or from a higher, more sublime vantage point, appreciating its true nature and meaning from the Divine perspective. There is the “snake” down here, and there is the very same “snake” up there. I can experience my challenges, struggles, and difficulties in the way they are manifested down here. But I can also look at these very same struggles from a more elevated point of view. The circumstances may not change, but their meaning and significance will. From the “downer” perspective, these challenges, curveballs, painful confrontations, and realizations can throw me into despair or drain me of my sap. From the “higher” perspective, the way G-d sees these very same realities, every challenge contains the seeds for rebirth. Within every crisis lies the possibility of a new and deeper discovery.

Many of us know this from our personal stories: Events that at the time were so painful to endure, in retrospect were those that inspired the most growth. Those painful events moved us from the surface to the depths, challenging us to become larger than we ever thought we can be, and stimulating conviction and clarity unknown to us before.

This is not about suppressing the pain. On the contrary, it is about taking the pain back to its deepest origin; going with it back to its primal source, seeing it for what it really is in its pristine state.  

To perceive clarity from the midst of agonizing turmoil we must train ourselves to constantly look upward. When faced with a “snake,” with a challenge, many people look to their right or to their left. Either they fight, or they cave in. But there is another path: look upwards. See the “snake” from the perspective above.

And in that upward gaze, you might find a new sense of healing: the questions might become the very answers, the problems may become the solutions, and the venom may become the cure. Remarkably, snakebites today are cured with anti-venom manufactured from small quantities of snake venom that stimulate the production of antibodies in the blood.

It's the same idea taught by Moses: The source of the affliction itself becomes the remedy [5]. This is true in all areas of life. As viewed by the Creator, from the perspective above, transgression is the potential for a new self-discovery; failure is the potential for deeper success, holes in a marriage are the seeds of “renovation” to recreate a far deeper relationship, the end of an era is always the beginning of a new one, pain is a springboard for deeper love and frustration is the mother of a new awareness [6].

Bless Me

This is surely the meaning in that famous, enigmatic passage in Genesis 32 in which Jacob, far from home, wrestles with an unknown, unnamed adversary from night until the break of day. The mysterious man maims Jacob, causing him to limp. And yet at the end of a struggling night, a night to remember, Jacob says to the stranger/angel/God: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” “Bless me?!” Is this how you bid farewell to a man who attempts to destroy you? Jacob was teaching us the secret of Jewish resilience. To be a Jew is to possess that unique ability to say to every crisis: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” I know that deep down your entire objective is to elevate me, to bring me to a higher place, to climb the mountain leading to the truth, allowing me to emerge stronger, wiser, more blessed.[7] 

_____________

[1] Numbers 21:6-10.
[2] Rosh Hashana 29.
[3] II Kings 18:4.
[4] See Ramban: “This was a miracle within a miracle.” The literal answer is that it was indeed insufficient to just ask G-d to save them, without the snake-on-a-pole therapy. The people had to gaze upon the snake and focus on the fact that only G-d, who created the snake in the first place, could transform that same venomous creature into a medium of healing. The people had to acknowledge that albeit they were bitten by a snake it was not the snake itself, but the creator of the snake, which was responsible for their life and death. They were looking at a snake but they were seeing G-d. The deeper perspective is presented below.
[5] This same method of healing is used elsewhere. Moses used a bitter stick to sweeten bitter waters (Exodus 15:25). And it was salt that Elisha used to purify the harmful water (II Kings chapter 2).
[6] The verse in Deuteronomy (13:4) “For G-d is testing you,” is interpreted also as “For G-d is elevating you.” In Hebrew, the same word – Nesayon -- is used for a” test” and for “elevation.” Every test, each challenge, is essentially also an invitation, an opportunity, for an elevation, for growth. In the story of the serpents too, the word used is “place it on a pole,” “sim oso al nes,” on an elevated object.
[7] This essay is based on Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, Likkutei Torah Chukas pp. 61d-62b. For an elaborate explanation of this discourse in Likkutei Torah, see Sichas 12 Tamuz, 5729 (1969).

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Class Summary:
There is a strange biblical episode in this week’s portion of Chukas. When poisonous snakes attack the Jews in the desert, G-d instructs Moses to fashion a special healing instrument: a pole topped with the form of a snake. Moses sculptures a snake of copper, and duly places it on top of a pole. Those who had been afflicted by the snake-bite would gaze on the serpentine image on the pole and be cured . 

It is interesting to note that according to some historians, this was the forerunner of the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod which is today the emblem of the medical profession.

The question is obvious: What was the point of placing a snake on top of the pole to cure the Jews who were bitten? If it was G-d who was healing them miraculously, why the need to look up at a copper-snake atop a pole?