By Deborah Goldman
A lot happens in the weekly Torah portion Chukat. Moses is taught the purification laws of the red heifer, after 40 years the people arrive in the wilderness of Zin, Miriam dies, and Moses strikes the rock. Near the end of the portion, there is yet one more eruption of discontent and then a plague of venomous snakes attack the Israelites. In response, Adonai tells Moses to place a brass serpent upon a high pole, and all who will gaze heavenward will be healed. Pretty curious – how is a brass serpent different than a golden calf?
We have seen snakes and serpents before. There was the Garden of Eden. Later, we have the miracle of Moses’s staff turning into a snake (which demonstrates God’s approval of Moses as a leader) and then turning back into a staff when Moses grabs it by the tail at God’s instruction. There are also staffs turning into snakes and serpents during the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. While I can’t recall ever noticing a snake in Buffalo except at the zoo, we see that snakes were a frequent presence in these peoples’ lives. However, in common with our biblical forebears, we do not know when something scary will suddenly emerge, bite us, and make us really, really sick. Or when we will have to face losing a job, a partner or a child, having a terrible car accident, or something else.
Perhaps the key is in the language of “gazing upward” instead of worshiping an idol. By looking up at an enormous version of a scary snake, we are forced to confront the terrifying unknown. Most of us do not see snakes often enough to bother googling “how do I know if this snake is venomous”. Using COVID-19 as an example, is obsessive googling of symptoms or incidence data a version of gazing upward at an enormous snake? Isn’t it human nature to try to become more comfortable with the unknown and unknowable? For me, education and inquiry are ways of becoming less fearful and, if possible, minimizing risk.
Many of us can confront our COVID-19 fears by becoming vaccinated and using masks. Let us not forget that we still have a way to go – children under 12 still cannot be vaccinated and some people with immune disorders are not able to make enough antibodies to be protected.
Our forebears erupted into discontent then followed Moses’ direction to confront their fears together, fending off poisonous snakes as a community. We can follow their footsteps by confronting our fear of the unknown. This is not just about us as individuals but about doing what we can do as a community to support each other.
Deborah Goldman is a member of the Buffalo Jewish Federation Board and Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.