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Water & death (revisited) and snakes of our making


Tomorrow we read of death — and lots of it: of Miriam’s last breath in the Tzin wilderness; of Aaron, his priestly vestments stripped from him; of a red cow used as part of a purifying ritual; of the Israelites themselves after another episode of complaint; and of the Amorites & Canaanites, the established people of the land who get in the way of Divine promise. It’s just one blow to immortality after another.

I’ve already written a rather poetic post about the interlocking themes of water & death: how we use the former to cleanse ourselves (if only figuratively) of the latter, a connection we still make today in the ritual preparation of Jewish bodies for burial. There’s a goody of a poem embedded in that post, so I encourage you to visit.

What I’d like to talk about today are snakes. They enter in like so: after the death of Aaron, while preparing for battle, the children of Israel, acting (alas) like whiny children, start up complaining again. There’s no bread and no water and the food (a.k.a. manna) is insubstantial. Cheaply made and boring. God gets mad. Enough so to send snakes down from heaven, deadly biting snakes. Repentant (as would we all be faced with hissing pythons), the people plead to Moses for mercy & he constructs a large copper serpent that, when gazed upon, serves as a cure.

Isn’t this totally curious? First, we’ve got the snake motif — that reminder of our banishment from Gan Eden as well as the go-to trick (staff to snake & back again) demonstrated early on in the negotiations with Pharaoh. But more than that, we’ve got the living embodiment of the expression: if it were a snake, it would have bit me! 

And it was. It did. This is no metaphor, but rather a kind of Divine homeopathy: if small amounts of the dangerous substance or obnoxious disease that’s making you sick are introduced, you will experience a “healing crisis” where you feel worse before you feel better. The body gears for battle and wins. I’ve been through this sort of treatment for liver malfunctioning and allergies (to my hair spray, it turned out), among other ailments of middle age and my particular biochemistry — and every time the practitioner gives me the bottles or pills, I pause. This will not be fun, I tell myself, though it’s rarely as bad as I imagine and almost always makes me feel much better.

Anyway, rather than look full on at the snake that is coming after their ankles, the people can now gaze upon a replica, though one that could turn into a real hissing creature before their eyes at any moment. They have an opportunity for self-reflection (maybe this is Divine psychotherapy), a practice session with something less deadly than the real thing. A kind of look in the mirror. And role play. And chance to look at their own foolishness head-on without being in the direct line of fire.

It was a snake and it did bite and now we have to do something about it. We have to get down on our bellies, writhe a bit, look our mistake right in the face and say ooopsie! Love it. And proud of God for being low-key about the whole anger thing. We’re making progress all the way around.

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