Parshat Hukkat: When a symbol becomes an idol

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Again in this week’s Torah portion, we read about the nation complaining on its long journey in the desert toward Eretz Yisrael. This time it is a general complaint. They are sick of the long road and the lack of food and water. They feel like this journey is never going to end and they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. They complain bitterly: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.” (Numbers 21:5) G-d’s answer to this complaint was quick and short: A great number of snakes suddenly appeared and they began to bite the complainers. The nation understood the message immediately.
The snake, which symbolizes negativity and led to sin already back in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when it tempted Eve to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, is now back for a visit with Am Yisrael in the desert because of their complaint.
So, the nation comes to Moshe and requests of him: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He remove the snakes from us.” (Numbers 21:7) After Moshe prays on behalf of the nation, G-d presents a surprising directive: “Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.” (Numbers 21:8) And so it went. Moshe Rabbeinu made a copper snake and placed it on a high pole, and everyone who looked at it was cured of the snake bite. Thus the snake on the pole became something that heals rather than harms.
Is this the way the story ends? Centuries later, we find the second and last chapter of the copper snake.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Psachim daf 56) we read about King Hezekiah who did six things on his own, three of which the sages thanked him for, and three of which they did not. One of the things that Hezekiah did was to crush the copper snake. For this the sages thanked him.
That same wondrous copper snake, the symbol of healing, was preserved for centuries until Hezekiah came along and saw that people began to believe in the snake’s amazing healing powers and saw it as the source of the cure. From being a symbol of medicinal power it turned into an idol that inherently contains the power to heal. Hezekiah’s reaction was unambiguous – he crushed the snake and thus obliterated the snake idol worship that had begun to develop. For this, our sages were grateful.
This story conveys a phenomenon that exists in every society. Every society creates its own symbols that represent its values, ideas, memories and hopes.
Humanity needs symbols and therefore it creates them. But alongside the benefit of these symbols there is a risk that they become a focus of adoration.
If this occurs, the concept that the symbol represented is forgotten, while the symbol itself takes on its own value.
That is exactly what happens with idolatry. G-d provides us with light via the sun, but people turned the sun into an idol. Thus all the natural forces became idols in the ancient world, and this is how today, human powers such as talent, success, knowledge...
become a focus of adoration in and of themselves.
Just as King Hezekiah was courageous enough to smash the copper snake, so must we sometimes crush the focus of our adoration and prove to ourselves they are none other than tools in the hands of the Creator of the Universe who leads the entire world.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.