Chukat – Balak


The first of this week’s parashot describes how the Israelites are punished by G-d with an attack of fiery snakes. They had complained about their bread and water. In the plague that followed, the serpents “bit the people and many of the Israelites died” (Numbers 21:6).

The cure G-d prescribes is an unexpected one. He tells Moses to make a copper serpent and place it on a pole, and instruct the people to stare at the snake and become cured.

“Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will gaze at it and live” (Numbers 21:8).

The Talmud wonders at the paradox here. The serpent is the cause of death and yet also is the cure?

“Does a serpent cause death or life? Rather, when they looked upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven they were healed, if not they died” (Rashi, Rosh Hashanah 29a).

Professor Erica Brown suggests that there may be a deeper meaning implied here. Healing sometimes comes from where we least expect it. Good things are often concealed in places normally associated with evil or pain. The Israelites needed to confront the cause of their pain directly and thereby learn the lessons that would help them achieve salvation. Solutions to some of our most pressing problems may be right in front of us, but if our eyes are closed, we just do not see them.

When tragedy strikes it is vital that we stare with open eyes at what has happened so that we learn the lessons and derive some positive outcome from what has occurred. 

The coronavirus pandemic that we have been experiencing is a powerful illustration of this theme. Being in lockdown has forced us to confront what has been essential in our lives and what has been peripheral. We quickly became familiar with the term, “essential workers,” without whom much of the country would grind to a halt.

A nurse at a hospital has had a more status than a Premier League football player. A refuse collector has been more important for our lives than a lead actor in a West End theatre production. Delivery drivers have been a crucial part of keeping the country as safe as possible. And that is apart from police and fire services, supermarket staff, teachers, midwives, utility workers, social workers, burial services, local and national government workers etc. etc. I even discovered that a rabbi is considered a key worker!

We have come to recognise that genuine friendships are vital for our support and wellbeing. We have learned, too, that we can make an immeasurable difference to other people’s lives in reaching out and showing that we care.

It is humbling to reassess what has most important to us. We have become human beings that are more genuine as a result. As we cautiously emerge from lockdown, let us hold on to these lessons and continue to heal ourselves and our society.