Sin, Disease and Healing
Out of the many symbols modernity has inherited from the ancient world, one of the creepiest must be that of the medical profession. The serpent entwined around a rod always seemed to be an odd choice for healers.
The Rod of Asclepius, as it is formally known, gets its name and attribution from Greek mythology (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_of_Asclepius), however while reading this week’s Torah portion, one can’t help but conclude that as in many other things, the Jews were involved in the creation of this symbol first.
In Numbers Chapter 21, the Children of Israel complain against God and Moses (yet again!), and as punishment God sends “fiery serpents” that start biting and killing the complainers. The people admit that they sinned and Moses prays to God. Verse 8 and 9 are the response:
“God said to Moses: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a serpent of copper and placed it on the pole; so it was that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live.”
The physician, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, combines both a physical and metaphysical explanation of how the healing occurred. A few hundred years before fellow Europeans discovered the concept of vaccination (though there is undocumented evidence that Chinese and Indian healers knew this centuries before), Sforno discusses how substances taken from or related to a particular disease (in our case ‘fiery serpents’) could heal an ailing patient.
Sforno’s other point is that a medical ailment can actually be a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. Therefore the cure can only be attained by a spiritual correction.
In our case, Sforno explains that the Children of Israel sinned by evil speech towards God and Moses. Hence they were punished by the mouth of the snake. Combining the concept of inoculation with repentance, it becomes immanently logical that the cure would likewise involve a snake.
By Moses placing a snake high up on a pole, he both reminded the Jews of their sin and compelled them to look heavenward. If they repented, placed their trust once again in God, and accepted the bitter medicine of the truth, then they would be healed.
May we always be healed of whatever ails us, whether spiritual or physical, and may we find quick healing in our gaze Heavenward.
To Dr. Moshe Wiesel. A man that has successfully recreated what I thought was an outdated profession – the village doctor. May he continue being an effective agent of healing for all of us and we wish him and us much luck and success in his founding of Alon Shvut’s Youth Minyan.