The Mystery of the Copper Serpent - חוקת

Friday, 18 June, 2021 - 1:04 pm

The Mystery of the Copper Serpent 

When the Jewish people were bitten by snakes, as a consequence of their complaint against G-d and Moses, G-d told Moses how to heal those who were bitten:

The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Numbers, 21:8-9)

Why did Moses decide to make the serpent out of copper if G-d did not command him to do so? And why did G-d not instruct Mosses which material to use to create the snake?

Perhaps the answer can be found earlier in the Torah, when the Torah describes the copper basin which the Jewish people made for the tabernacle in the desert. The verse describes: 

And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors… (Exodus, 38:8)

If the copper washstand was made of copper mirrors, perhaps the copper serpent was also made of reflective copper, which served as a mirror. If that is correct, then perhaps the message of the copper serpent was as follows: when the Jewish people looked up at the serpent, when they looked heavenward hoping for G-d to inspire them toward repentance and healing, they looked at the reflective serpent and saw themselves. They understood that Moses was telling them that they had matured spiritually to the point where the inspiration for repentance and healing comes not from above but rather from within. After forty years in the desert, they could no longer count on Moses to inspire them to repent; they were able, and therefore required to, take responsibility based on their inner capabilities.  

Perhaps G-d did not tell Moses which material the serpent should be made of, in order to allow Moses to demonstrate to the people that, even in the absence of a direct command from above, one must employ one’s own logic and creativity to discover the correct path. 

It seems that the Jewish people did internalize the message. After the story of the copper serpent, we read how the Jewish people sang a song, praising G-d for the well of water. The opening words of the song "then sang" is the precise wording the Torah uses for the song of the crossing of the sea almost forty years earlier, yet with one important difference. At the sea, when the Jewish people were taking their first steps in their spiritual journey, they could not sing on their own. The verse reads: "then Moses sang and the children of Israel," implying that Moses led the song and the people followed his inspiration. Yet, forty years later, they reached spiritual maturity; this time, the verse says: "Then Israel sang this song:" 'Ascend, O well,' sing to it!". This time the Jewish people were able to generate inspiration independently, whereas Moses is not mentioned. 

Moses completed his task. He taught his people how to sing. 


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