THE FIRST JEWISH DOCTOR—MOSHE
By the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank
I love animals but I can't say that I'm a big reptile fan, particularly when it comes to snakes. I hate to sound like an "anti-snake-ite" but they just don't strike me as cuddly, fun, or my first choice in playing "go fetch." My aversion to snakes is mitigated by the role they play in the Torah. In this week's portion, the B'nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, once again complain about the lack of food or water in the wilderness. And when they began to wax nostalgic about the good ole' slavery days, this was too much for God, who sent nehashim seraphim or "burning snakes" to bite the people. The snakes bit and many people were killed.
It didn't take long for the people to realize their sin, repent, and appeal to Moshe for salvation. Moshe, following God's instruction, mounted a copper snake on a staff and whomever would look upon the figure would be cured of his or her venomous snake bite. This is an instance of sympathetic magic, common in the ancient world, which is essentially the belief that the fate of an object or person can be controlled via the manipulation of its exact image. Suffice to say that though we can accept the story as one of the sacred tales of the Torah, none of us would stare at a copper snake as a cure for snake bite. Hezekiah, king of Judah, saw the snake as an object of idolatry rather than healing. In the reform that took place during his tenure, he "broke into pieces the copper snake that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it." (2 Kings 18:4).
That there is in the ancient world some idea that snakes have healing power cannot be denied. In Greek mythology, Asclepius, son of Apollo, was the god of medicine. His symbol is a snake wrapped around a staff, the staff representing authority and the snake symbolic of rebirth as it is a creature that sheds its skin and, as it were, becomes new again. The rod of Asclepius is used often today as a symbol for the medical profession. We should note that the medical department of the United States Army uses a similar logo, or two snakes wrapped around a winged staff. Oddly enough, this is a caduceus or a symbol closely associated with the greek god Hermes, protector of merchants and thieves. When adopted in 1902, it was thought erroneously to be a symbol of healing. The mistake was realized several years later, but the logo never changed. Oh well, so much for military intelligence.
In any event, the rabbis also questioned the healing powers of a copper snake, but lucky for us, came up with an explanation as to why it worked for Israel and why, perhaps, even moderns can understand the story. They explained that by posting the snake atop a staff, Moshe compelled the people to look on high, and whenever the people directed their hearts heavenward, that is toward God, they were healed of all their ailments (see Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8). So, too, must we keep our thoughts focused on God, and secure the calm needed to navigate the rough waters of life.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
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