It’s the "dog days of summer" and this week we have a double parsha that is full of important milestones in the journey of the Israelites to the Land of Israel as well as a veritable menagerie of the animal kingdom. From red heifers to magical snakes to Bilaam’s talking donkey, we encounter one animal story after another in these parshiot. While they may not all be directly related, some of them may provide us with insight into how Judaism encounters both the natural and the supernatural.
In Chukat we have yet another example of the impatience of the Israelites with their long journey between Egypt and Israel and they complain bitterly. This time they speak against both God and Moshe. The punishment is swift but somewhat unusual. God sends "fiery snakes" – nchashim s’rafim – among the people and many are bitten and die. While it may seem like random punishment, Rashi points out that it was only those who had engaged in evil talk who were in fact bitten by these snakes. Soon they realize their error and beg Moshe to do something. He promptly prays for the people and God instructs him to make a "saraf" and put it on a pole and anyone who is bitten can look at it and be healed. Here the Torah repeats the word saraf but in a slightly different context. In the first case it modified the object, the snake, to define it as fiery. In the second, Ibn Ezra explains that saraf means an image or representation of a snake. Subsequently, in yet another linguistic twist, Moshe makes a snake out of brass – a n’chash n’choshet – and places it upon a pole. Lo and behold, the cure works. Anyone bitten by a real snake had only to look at the brass snake to be healed.
Now this may sound like voodoo medicine, and I doubt such a remedy would pass muster with the FDA or here in Stony Brook’s School of Medicine. However, in at least one nod toward the legitimacy of Biblical medicine, the image of the snake upon the pole is the basis of the caduceus, which is the common symbol of the medical profession. Perhaps, though, it is the use of the word seraf that indicates that it is what the snake symbolizes more than the literal damage that it can inflict. Rashi asks if the snake causes death or heals, reminding us that often the very thing that causes pain can also be a source of healing. The snake slithers along the ground, or hides beneath rocks and brush, but requires that we direct our vision downward in order to detect it. The Israelites were bitten when they stopped looking ahead toward Eretz Yisrael, but looked downward, wallowing in the self-pity of their current situation. When they looked at Moshe’s brass snake upon its pole they directed their eyes to heaven, enabling them to see the possibilities in their future and healing them of their affliction.
In Balak, our second parsha, we read of the attempt to use divination to defeat Israel. Midianite king Balak employs a local prophet, of sorts, named Bilam to use his powers to destroy the Israelites, who had just defeated two powerful local tribes who had fought against them. God speaks to Bilam and warns him not to get involved. The king and his messengers are persistent, and Bilam is coaxed into cooperation. Yet each time he tries to do the Balak’s bidding God uses him as an instrument to bless Israel rather than curse them. Finally Bilam delivers a mashal, or parable, that God had "placed in his mouth." In it he says "ki lo nachash b’Yaakov," there is no enchantment in Jacob, "v’lo kesem b’Yisrael," and no divination in Israel.
Here nachash means enchantment, not snake as we read earlier, but they are certainly related. Snakes were thought to have the powers of enchantment, and Rashi even connects the snake in Chukat to the snake in the Garden of Eden, the original "enchanter" of Eve who led her into sin. Bilam’s statement that there is no enchantment among Israel seems to contradict the use of a brass snake on a pole to heal the victims of venomous snakebites. Yet if we understand the clever use of language, and the double-entendre that is employed, we can understand that it is not really the snake, but our own perception of the snake and its capabilities. The snake can only enchant us when we allow its imaginary powers to overtake our own self-confidence and our own faith. Bilam is right, there is no place for nachash in Israel, but perhaps it takes a Midianite soothsayer to teach us this most important lesson of faith in both ourselves and in God.
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Topek, Stony Brook University Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Chukkat-Balak at MyJewishLearning.com.