A short interpretation of the curious episode involving “fire snakes” in this week’s parshah:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became disheartened on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this cursed bread.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live (Num. 21:4-9).
This is one of many complaints issued by b’nei Yisrael in the desert. Yet the punishment it provokes—a release of “fiery serpents”—seems uniquely confounding. In what way is this a fitting or appropriate response for the particular protest that the nation lodges? How is it connected to the content of their grievance, symbolically or thematically?
Well: Notice that, unlike at other points in the Torah, there is not a specific material need (food, water, security) or religious ideal (decentralized authority, prophetic equality) which the people clamor for here. What irks them is simply the “journey” itself: ותקצר נפש העם בדרך. They are making their way to the land of Canaan, but instead of heading there directly, they are being taken on a detour. They are travelling circuitously—ויסעו… לסבב.[i] They grumble, in other words, because their path towards their destination is not simple or straightforward. Thus, Rashi elaborates:
“And the people became disheartened because of the way:” Because of the hardship of traveling, which was hard for them. They said, “Now we were so close to entering the Land, and we are turning back. So did our fathers turn back and remain for thirty-eight years, until today.” Therefore, they became disheartened by the hardship of traveling (Rashi Num. 21:4 s.v. “ותקצר נפש העם בדרך”).
Once we focus upon this detail, much of the picture grows clearer. The theme of “delayed destinations” is not, after all, new to us, by this point in the Torah. In fact, it appears as early as in the aftermath of humanity’s “original sin:”
[God] said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life…” And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:11-22).
Careful comparison of this passage with the one in our parshah suggests strongly that the latter is, in some respects, intended to evoke the former. Among the elements they hold in common are the “fire” (fiery snakes vs. a fiery sword); a sense of misery provoked by “bread” that is somehow “cursed;” and, perhaps, a subtle linguistic link between the “weariness” (קצה) of b’nei Yisrael as compared to the “thorns” (קץ) which, for Adam, trigger similar weariness. Yet the most important motif these stories share, thematically, is unquestionably that of the “דרך,” “pathway,” to paradise/the Promised Land—a pathway which, in both cases, has become obstructed. This, in turn, may afford insight into the meaning of their most salient common symbol: the snake. The snake, after all, can never travel towards its destination directly. From Eden onwards, Hashem declares, it shall find itself forever slivering—always taking another turn, always making another detour. In this way, it embodies the sinuous road which humanity must traverse on its way towards redemption.[ii]
Perhaps that is why Hashem re-introduces the snake in our parshah. B’nei Yisrael, it seems, have let the lessons of Eden escape them. They have forgotten that human life, post-Eden, offers no shortcuts. The path of life is never easy. It is never straightforward. It is filled with twists and turns at every juncture. It may be for precisely this reason, by the way, that the snake which Moshe fashions to help heal the nation is constructed out of copper—נחשת—i.e., a malleable metal. The message here is one of flexibility: of learning to adapt to the curveballs life throws our way, and recognizing that, even if they were not part of our plan, they are part of God’s, and so we are going to be OK.[iii]
Some, though, cannot accept this proposition; rather than ceding to God a measure of control over their affairs, they attempt to overcome Him through recourse to alternative mediums. Such is the story of next week’s parshah, Balak—and the name given to the forces which Bilaam appeals to in his persistent attempts to circumvent God’s plan is, most fittingly: “נחשים”—idiomatically: “divination,” but literally: “snakes!” (Num. 24:5). Yet these attempts ultimately fail, of course. And so, Bilaam is compelled to acknowledge, most ironically, that “לא נחש ביעקב”—“there is no divination in Jacob” (Num. 23:23).[iv]
There is indeed no “divination” in Jacob; but “snakes,” there are most certainly. Indeed, “snakes” had been a part of yetziat mitzrayim from its very inception. For when Moshe presses Hashem, at the site of the burning bush, for assurance that his mission will be successful, Hashem responds by ordering Moshe to cast his staff upon the ground, where it assumes the form of a snake (Exod. 4:3). Symbolically, perhaps, the message is exactly as we have interpreted it in our parshah: namely, that Moshe must recognize the fundamentally serpentine nature of the journey upon which he is about to embark. There can be no guarantees; there can be no certainty. On the road to redemption, even that which appears straightforward (=the staff) is liable to wind up windy.[v]
Back then, Moshe balked at this notion. By this week’s parshah, however, his perspective has evolved dramatically: instead of “recoiling” (וינס—Exod. 4:3) from the snake in horror, he mounts it calmly atop a “stand” (נס—Num. 21:8). He overlays the twisted atop the upright, as a way of communicating to his people that the one cannot exist without the other. We plot the course that seems to us the most direct—and then, we set off, in full knowledge that there will materialize along the way all sorts of diversions and distractions that lead us to the place which we did not even realize we were meant to be.
[i] This is actually the second time in the Torah that b’nei Yisrael are led “circuitously” around the Red Sea; the first occurs as they are leaving Egypt, forty years earlier: “God led the people by the roundabout way [ויסב] of the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Exod. 13:8). This is a key passage towards understanding the theme of “deferred destinations” in the Torah—a topic we have covered at length in the past. For more, see “Are We There Yet?” (Bo) and “Shakespeare and Sodom” (Vayera).
[ii] Also relevant in this regard is the fact that the snake’s movement, post-Eden, is confined to the ground. The snake does not enjoy the benefit of extended foresight; it is not susceptible, as humans are, to the illusion that it can predict what lies far ahead.
[iii] The notion that the copper snake encouraged b’nei Yisrael to place their trust in Hashem is also expressed, with slightly different emphasis, in Chazal’s treatment of this episode: “‘Make a fire snake and place it on a pole, and everyone bitten who sees it will live’ (Num. 2:18): And is it the snake that kills or [is it] the snake that [revives]? Rather, whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed; and if not, they would be harmed” (Rosh Hashanah 3:8).
[iv] Given that the Hebrew term for “snake,” “נחש,” also connotes “divination,” it is instructive to note that the first location to which b’nei Yisrael travel in the aftermath of the snakes incident is named “אבת.” The “אבת” are among the most familiar forces associated with divination to appear in the Torah (see Lev. 19:31, 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:11).
[v] Of course, another layer of meaning here is that the staff is the tool used to facilitate one’s journey—yet here, it is breaking down, signifying that the journey shall not be as easy as intended. Special thanks to my sister for this astute observation.