Sometimes the very thing that kills also cures; that which hurts also heals; that which causes impurity purifies. Parshat Chukkat opens with the law of the red heifer, whose ashes are crucially necessary to removing the ritual impurity imparted by death. Yet the one who slaughters the red heifer and reduces it to ashes is by that service, rendered impure—this seems like the inverse. It is surprising how often that which hurts also heals.
Following the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the Israelites complain yet again. This is the their last major rebellion but this time the Israelites rebel directly against God.
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר, דֶּרֶךְ יַם-סוּף, לִסְבֹב, אֶת-אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם; וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ-הָעָם, בַּדָּרֶךְ. וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם, בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה, בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל.
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:4-5)
God’s response is a combination of what we would expect and also something surprising:
וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם, אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ, אֶת-הָעָם; וַיָּמָת עַם-רָב, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ, כִּי-דִבַּרְנוּ בַיהוָה וָבָךְ--הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל-יְהוָה, וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת-הַנָּחָשׁ; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה, בְּעַד הָעָם.
The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)
We find here a familiar pattern: God sends harsh punishment and the people relent—though not before many have died—this time asking Moses to plead their case before God. But then something unusual happens. God instructs Moses to fashion a seraph (a snake or serpent) and mount it on a pole. One who looks at it is healed from the bite of the seraph serpents or snakes. Why is it a snake?
Indiana Jones, heroic rough-riding adventurer and mild-mannered archaeology professor of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark is afraid of only one thing: snakes. When he and Marcus toss torches into the Well of Souls, into which they must descend, Indiana realizes it is filled with thousands of . He mutters, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is the most common phobia, afflicting one-third of all adults. Evolutionary biologists theorize that the fear of snakes, some of which are poisonous, was advantageous for human survival.
In parshat Chukkat, the Israelites encounter a scene not altogether unlike that in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, but with a bizarre twist. The copper seraph indeed works as promised. What hurt them now heals them. What killed them now cures them.
We might understand the seraph snakes as representing the Israelites’ deepest fears, and the Copper Snake as affording them the opportunity to face their fears. The Israelites have much to fear, including the harshness of the Wilderness and their vulnerability among other desert-dwelling peoples (Amalek immediately jumps to mind). But perhaps most of all, they are threatened by their own fears, as we often are. We saw this clearly two weeks ago when we read the account of the spies who reconnoiter the Land of Israel. The report they bring back is in many ways highly accurate: a land flowing with milk and honey, whose produce is magnificent and whose cities are fortified. All true. It is their fear that colors the spies’ intelligence black and foreboding: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” (Numbers 13:31)
Can courage abide alongside fear? What does it take for people to convert their fear into courage? Mark Twain wrote: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Israeli neuroscientists Uri Nili, Hagar Goldberg, and Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, along with psychiatrist Abraham Weizman of Tel Aviv University, sought to understand how people react to fear, and move from avoiding it to confronting it. They scanned the brains of people acting out of courage, despite great fear. How better to do it than with…you guessed it: snakes. Since the Well of Souls was not readily available, these scientists put people in an MRI—head secured by a cage, body encased in a narrow tube— and secured a 5-foot long snake to a trolley on a conveyer belt just above them. The goal, the subjects were told, was to bring the snake toward their heads. The subjects were given two buttons to push. One button brought the snake closer to them and the other moved it further away: “Advance” and “Retreat.” Sounds a bit masochistic, doesn’t it?
The article reporting their findings in the journal Neuron is entitled, “Fear Thou Not: Activity of Frontal and Temporal Circuits in Moments of Real-Life Courage.” The scientists measured their subjects’ behavioral responses, brain activity, and physiological responses. It turns out that there are two separate drivers of fear: one is a physiological response we cannot control (sweating is the most obvious sign) and the other is our conscious level of fear. If both drivers are engaged, fear wins out and we succumb. But if only one driver of fear is engaged, we are able to overcome our fear and act with courage. What is more, the more the subjects did not succumb to fear, the more the brain region known as the subgenus anterior cingulate cortex lit up, and the more courageously the subjects behaved.
In other words, even if subjects had an innate physiological fear response, if they made the mental effort to face their fear, the subgenus anterior cingulate cortex ( the part of the brain that suppresses fear responses) quieted down the amygdala (the part of the brain that engenders fear in the first place). Clearly, it’s all happening in the brain, but the finding that the Courage Center (the subgenus anterior cingulate cortex) can overcome the Fear Center (the amygdala) is remarkable.
There’s no pill to pop here. But by facing our fears (as the subject in the Weizmann Institute experiment did quite literally) and employing our considerable mental powers, we can reshape our brains and conquer our fears. We watched Indiana Jones do it when he lowered himself into the Well of Souls, and Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane. We, too, can do it. Here’s one more picture to get us started.
What are you afraid of? Can you envision yourself staring into the eyes of Copper Snake without blinking and overcoming that fear?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman