For those who may be familiar with the image of the snake and rod symbol found in the medical profession, it is based on something found in this week’s Torah portion. In our parasha this week, we are presented with one of the strangest rituals in the entire Torah. God instructs Moses to make a copper serpent and mount it on a pole. All who may have been bitten by poisonous snakes (which by the way God had placed in the camp to punish the people for rebelling) could heal themselves by looking at this copper snake.
Frankly, snake idols that heal seem very out of place in our faith, but since it is written in the Torah, it invites us to consider lessons for today.
The great Torah scholar, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, suggests that over time our ancestors had grown complacent regarding their freedom and security. By introducing them to attacks from poisonous snakes (which reminded them of danger) and then allowing them to find healing and safety by simply looking at a copper serpent, Rabbi Hirsch suggests that God is trying to generate fear and reverence at the same time.
This story and its commentary may seem strange, but it seems oddly familiar. The use of symbols to invoke fear and awe at the same time are at the heart of much of the splendorous pageantry we shared two days ago. By using harmless rockets which explode with glorious light, our fireworks on the Fourth of July employ shock and awe to help celebrate our freedom and our independence.
Like the copper serpent was for our people in the wilderness, fireworks have become a way to use dangerous imagery for the purpose of a lesson in a spectacular way. Happy belated Fourth of July!