26 Jun 2015

Hukat 5775: Trappings

Hukat 5775: Trappings

 “The general root of superstition: namely, that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.

 — Sir Francis Bacon

When life gets difficult, or even threatens to do so, we not only look for ways to alleviate the difficulties, we also often look for ways in which to mitigate the mental anguish caused by the difficulties. There is a vast array of ways we might choose to do so. We might pour ourselves a drink, listen to music, keep close a ‘lucky’ item or even hug a teddy bear. We might avoid certain places or doing things on certain days of the week or we might perform a ritual that we believe will prevent things from going wrong. Yet, at times these otherwise innocent practices can develop into more than just a balm for the pain of difficult times. What was once a crutch can become an impediment.

We are introduced this week to a peculiar episode that occurred during our sojourns in the desert, but which had a lasting effect on the people for generations. After the people complain to G-d and Moshe that they should never have been taken out of Egypt and that life was better there, an epidemic of poisonous snakes ensues and a great many people die of snakebite. The people admit their error and Moshe prays to G-d. G-d, curiously, tells Moshe to make a copper snake and to place it high atop a pillar. Those who have been bitten should look up at the copper snake and thereby live. As the Talmud states[1], the copper snake itself had no healing properties, but it acted as a stimulus so that people would look up and focus their minds on G-d, and in doing so, they would be healed. Yet, while the copper snake might not itself have had any healing properties, it was the agent that triggered the people’s healing. Once the plague had passed, and the people healed, the copper snake travelled with them. Not surprisingly, it became an icon for good fortune, luck and blessings, but gradually the people turned to it rather than to G-d in order to find fortune and salvation. What was once a support had now become a hindrance.

We all encounter our own version of the copper snake. It could be anything from a behaviour or custom that was effective at a certain time which we now repeat because it once helped us. It could even be an idea or way of thinking that once served us well to which we still grasp, though the prior situation no longer exists. We all need supports through challenging times in life, but we can become fixated on the elements that helped us through and find it difficult to face future challenges without them. When this happens, the supports can weigh us down and inhibit us from continuing on our journey through life.

The story of the copper snake is presented in one paragraph of the Torah. Intriguingly though, the paragraph does not end when the story ends. It goes on to document the various places the people travelled in the desert. The first word after the end of the incident is ויסעו – ‘and they travelled’. The paragraph does not close until the movements of the Children of Israel from place to place are recorded. In a poetic sense, this suggests that objects or ideas may serve as supports for us at certain points in our lives, but if we latch onto them as a means of protecting ourselves from the myriad of challenges that life brings us, we risk paralysing ourselves from carrying on with life’s precious journey. We enter into a world of superstition rather than one of meaning and reason.

The copper snake was finally melted down by King Hizkiya[2] seven-hundred years after it was originally fashioned by Moshe. His people had fallen into profound idolatry and were incapable of responding to the pressing realities that were closing in on them. Hizkiya saved the people, for a  time, by eradicating the cult of the copper snake and thereby liberating the people from a prison of illusions.

The elements that we use to help us through hard times should be ones that help us into life rather than away from it. Moshe’s copper snake initially did just that, but when it had become a stumbling block against living a life of growth and vitality, it was time to let it go.

[1] Rosh haShana, 29a

[2] II Kings 18:4