In this week’s Torah portion, 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 were bitten by poisonous snakes (which by the way God had sent the night before to punish the people for rebelling) could heal themselves.
Frankly, snake idols that heal seem very out of place in our faith and are certainly not at the core of the Judaism we practice today. In fact, it is surprising to find such rituals in the Torah in the first place.
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 is not beyond us today to ritualize experiences fear and awe simultaneously through symbolic imagery. Next week our nation will use a very similar technique as celebrate our freedom and our independence with fireworks, a spectacular ritual that evokes far more awe that a copper serpent.