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In response to an attack by poisonous snakes, G-d instructs Moses to fashion a pole topped with the form of a copper snake. Those bitten would gaze on the serpentine image and be cured. Arguably, this is the forerunner of the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod, emblem of the medical profession. The question is obvious: How can looking at a copper-snake help? The Talmud’s answer (Rosh Hashanah 29): “When Israel would gaze upward and bind their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be healed, if not they would perish.” In layman’s terms: Fixing their eyes on the snake alone would not yield any cure; it was looking up to G-d.
If so, why bother with a copper snake in the first place? Some might mistake the copper-snake for G-d? In fact, this actually occurred! The copper snake was preserved for centuries as a testament. In the passage of time, however, its meaning became distorted. Eventually, it was revered as an idol. So King Hezekiah (6th century BCE) destroyed it, and some TINY part of the ancient world changed.
Of course, this does not compare to the advent of computes which revolutionized EVERY aspect of modern society, including how this paragraph was written. In fact, in 1953 the Rebbe spoke about computer technology in conjunction with the ultimate question. “If everything comes from G-d, where does evil come from?” (Note: The Rebbe was not asking why there is evil, but how?) The Rebbe’s answer came from the world of literature.
What is the difference between a good piece of writing and a poorly-written one? Both are comprised of the very same letters? Their configuration. Good writing is more than technically correct. The words are carefully chosen, the sentences concise and emphatic. Hemingway and ‘Schreiber’ both use the same 26 letters of the English alphabet, but how can you compare? One produced art, the other a scribble. Ditto with music. Both Beethoven and ‘Singer’ employ the same musical notes. Only their configuration is different.
With this analogy, the Chassidic masters explain the mystery of evil. G-d created the world through letters and words and He saw that, “It was good.” Evil is merely a corruption of good, the same letters differently configured. This is crucial. According to legend Alexander the Great once commissioned his portrait with two conditions. It was to be (A) accurate and (B) handsome. The quandary was Alexander’s prominent battle scar over his right eye. Omitting the scar would violate the first condition; to include it would disobey the second.
The artist addressed Alexander. “You are history’s greatest military strategist. I want to capture that. So please sit down and think of a strategy for a great battle.” Alexander became absorbed in thought. Soon his whole demeanor changed and he raised his right hand to support his head, covering the scar.
The artist had two options. Display or cover the wound. Many are in the same predicament. Should we hide or flaunt our problems? Pretend that nothing bad happened or tell the world that you are a victim. Judaism offers third way. Our wounds are Divine letters manipulated. Our job is to re-arrange the letters, redefining our pain into blessings.
Judaism calls on us to fully acknowledge suffering, and then to have the courage to transform it into a catalyst for blessing. Example: You worked hard, accomplished a great task. You hoped that people would praise your work but no one did. You felt hurt. Learn from that experience: when someone else puts in effort, offer praise. Turn the flaw itself into a piece of art. Redefine your suffering into a force for impassioned activism to ensure others don’t endure what you did. This is the meaning of the Chassidic concept, “transform darkness into light and bitterness into sweetness.”
Which brings us back to computers: For thousands of years, the writer who did not “get it right” the first time had to start all over again. Whether engraving in stone, inscribing on parchment, or banging away at a typewriter, the writer’s first efforts usually ended up being discarded. He could erase, apply white-out fluid, cross out words and insert others between the lines. In the end, a fresh, new sheet would be rolled into the typewriter for a clean and final copy. Then the computer arrived. Now the writer could juggle words, move sentences, salvage lines from failed paragraphs and use them in another context.
History is a process by which creation advances toward Moshiach, a time when the forces that formerly spelled evil will be perfectly reconfigured as a force for good. Computers reflect our world’s progression toward this ideal. In earlier generations, the task of “editing” the forces that define your life were difficult. One born a slave, died a slave. One was born and usually buried in the same village. But today we live in the age of electronic writing; where aligning the letters of our lives is more “user friendly” than ever. Editing can be as simple as hopping on a plane.
So G-d tells Moses: Don’t run from the snake, look up. Discern the reality of the snake on top of the elevated pole, rather the serpent crawling below. Re-arrange the letters of “נחש-nachash”, meaning serpent into “חשנ-choshen” (the breastplate of the High Priest, which revealed the Divine in the world), and into Moshiach (the gematria of 358, the same value as נחש-snake). Healing comes when we fix the problem, not when we run away from it.
As one philosopher put it: The fly keeps banging its head against the glass in its attempt to escape the bottle. The more it tries, the more it fails. The one thing it forgets to do is look up. Every experience can be viewed from an earthly perspective, or from a more sublime vantage point. There is the “snake” down here, and there is the very same “snake” up there. The circumstances may not change, but their meaning and significance will. One sees curve balls, the other a chance for a homerun.
Experiences that at one time were the most painful, in retrospect, caused the most growth. But for this to happen, we must look up. When faced with a “snake,” many look to their right or left. They fight or cave in. But there is another path: look up. And in that gaze you will find healing: the questions become answers, the problems become solutions, and the venom becomes the cure. Indeed, snakebites today are cured with anti-venom manufactured from snake venom! Where did that idea come from? Moses: The affliction itself becomes the remedy.
This is how Judaism dealt with the greatest dilemma of all, the reality of pain in our world. Some religions practice denial: they ignore reality; suffering is not real, pain is an illusion, this whole world is fake, etc. Others philosophies see only the physical reality and deny any meaning to it. Life, for them, is guided by hedonism. One group denies darkness, the other denies light. Judaism invites us on the road less traveled. Both light and darkness are to be acknowledged. But true reality is that the snake below is waiting to become the snake above.



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