They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom, and the people became disheartened because of the way. The people spoke against G-d and against Moshe, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.” HASHEM sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died. The people came to Moshe and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against HASHEM and against you. Pray to HASHEM that He remove the snakes from us.” So Moshe prayed on behalf of the people. HASHEM said to Moshe, “Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live. Moshe made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Bamidbar 21:4-8)
In the medical field the universal symbol of healing is this ubiquitous image of a snake wrapped around a pole. I wonder how many people realize that the source of that image is based upon this obscure episode in the Torah. I also wonder how many people understand how the snake on the pole was able to affect a cure. It seems that the physical object alone served to arrest the rages of the plague. A second deeper look reveals the true dynamic.
What happened first was that the people became disheartened, and that discouragement released a contagion of discontent and complaining against HASHEM and Moshe. Only then were the snakes manifest. Immediately they recognized the error of their ways, and Moshe prayed for them. Then the Divinely prescribed serpent on the stick worked, but how? Was it the snake that did the healing? The verse reveals the final key ingredient, “…Moshe made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.” How does that help?
What happened here? Why were snakes unleashed? Why were snakes part of the healing process? Since the beginning of time, the snake has been the paradigm of the negative inclination. It whispered to Chava, the first woman of history, about how limited life was because of the one tree that was forbidden. That complaint, once ingested, allowed HASHEM to be cast as the antagonist, and that lead to a deadly error that lingers till today.
Those threatening serpents provided an immediate wake-up call. Initially they realized that they had made some kind of mistake and they begged Moshe to pray that the threat be removed. That was not sufficient. The image of the snake needed to be lifted up on a pole for two reasons.
Rashi explains, “Our Rabbis said, “Does a snake cause death or life? However, when Israel looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed, but if not, they would waste away.” — [Rosh HaShana 29a]
It reminds of the reason, the original cause of the problem and at the same time it serves as an invitation for the cure. The afflicted population was directed to gaze upon the copper snake, to study it and contemplate exactly what went wrong here. They complained against and became unplugged from HASHEM, the source of all goodness and life itself. At the same time it was held high to as a reminder to plug back in to that source of life.
The Baal Shem Tov writes, “All the fears that a person experiences even of wild animals are directed by HASHEM to frighten the person so that he should remember to fear HASHEM and if the person is wise he will meditate on this and nothing he fears will harm him…” The snakes appeared to be and were dangerous because of a forgetting about HASHEM. Ultimately it was educational. The snake on the stick was not some “magic” that worked on its own. It was the ultimate cure for the ultra-curious.