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Jewish learning The Power of Symbols

By Rabbi Brian Besser
Rabbi Brian Besser

This d’var is dedicated to Brian’s father, Avraham Gutman ben Hayyim ve-Tzipporah, z”l. May his memory be a blessing.

Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) 

One of the flash points in the national conversation on racism concerns the power of symbols to foment violence. Monuments to the Confederacy, which may have once fostered facile pride and solidarity, and still do for some, are now generally regarded as invidious. When the South Carolina governor removed the Confederate flag from state grounds, she said: “we are no longer going to allow this banner to divide us.” In tragic confirmation of the divisiveness of such symbols, dispute over a Confederate statue instigated the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where one counter-protester was murdered and others injured.

How do symbols incite bloodshed? Conversely, can symbols be a force for good?

This week’s Torah portion features a strikingly powerful emblem:

The people complained against Moses and God: why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness, with no food and water, and nothing but this rotten food to eat! So Adonai sent poisonous snakes (nechashim seraphim) to bite the people1and many died. The people came to Moses and said: we have sinned. Intercede with Adonai to get rid of the snakes! Then Adonai said to Moses: make a seraph2 figure and mount it upon a standard4. Anyone bitten3 who gazes at it shall live. So Moses made a bronze snake3 (nachash nechoshet) and mounted it upon a standard4; all who looked at it recovered.” (Numbers 21:4-9)

What miraculous healing power inhered in the effigy? The Torah seems to verge on magic, and, in fact, the Hebrew word “divination,” nachash, is the same as “snake.” Interestingly, in next week’s Torah portion, Balaam proclaims: “Lo, there is no divining in Jacob, no magic in Israel.” (Numbers 23:23) Balaam, one of the greatest sorcerers of all time, would be in a position to make such a pronouncement. But is it true “there is no magic in Israel?” The copper serpent might suggest otherwise.

I once conducted a mezuzah hanging ceremony for a congregant whose house had suffered one calamity after another. First, the pipes burst during a hard winter freeze; then the kitchen appliances failed; then the roof sprang a leak. Finally, she said, a bit facetiously: “well, I’d better have the mezuzah installed correctly—with a proper blessing!”

Is the mezuzah an amulet? The Talmud records Judah the Prince sending one to the Parthian King as a gift, promising it would protect him. But Maimonides rejects the talismanic use of ritual objects as idolatry, declaring, to the contrary, the mezuzah’s real function as a constant testament to God’s underlying presence. Accordingly, my congregant dedicated her mezuzah with the following prayer. “Only we, not this object, can consecrate this house through our words and deeds. May this mezuzah ever remind us to make our table the altar of love, our door open to the needy, and our home alive with the traditions of our heritage.”

A material emblem, by itself, is morally neutral. It derives its power from words and deeds accrued by association with it. The image of the “seraph snake” is morally ambiguous, because it brings together two polar opposites. The snake is the lowliest of creatures in Jewish lore. The snake was responsible for the first human transgression (inciting Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit), after which God declaimed: “more cursed shall you be than all cattle and beasts; on your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:14) The snake represents our earthly selves, our physical cravings, what the Hasidic sages call nefesh b’heimit, our “animal souls.”

But we human beings are also part divine, and that’s the seraph piece of the composite emblem. The seraph5 is an angelic creature, made famous in Isaiah’s prophetic vision:  “the seraphim stood in attendance and called out to one another: holy, holy, holy is Adonai of Hosts! The whole world is full of the Divine Presence.” (Isaiah 6:2) The seraph represents our transcendent selves, our moral conscience, what the Hasidim term nefesh Elohit, our “godly souls.”6

In the Torah, the “seraph snake” is both an agent of destruction and an instrument of healing. First, it slays the sinful Israelites with its venemous bite. However, after they perform teshuvah (repentance), it cures them. The dual function of the emblem, for death or life, exactly mirrors the duality of the human heart, for evil or good. 

If, every time you kiss the mezuzah it reminds you to conduct yourself according to Jewish values “as you dwell in your house and as you walk upon the way,” then the mezuzah itself begins to influence you through force of repetition. If, every time I don my kippah I remember that I am a Rabbi about to fulfill a sacred task with which I have been entrusted, then the kippah itself elevates my behavior. Conversely, if incidents of racism, bigotry, and murder are linked to a certain banner, then the banner itself foments evil and must be abolished.

The subsequent history of the copper serpent drives home the lesson. Many pages later in the Bible, and many centuries later in history, we encounter King Hezekiah, acclaimed for his religious reform: “The king did what was pleasing to Adonai. He abolished the pagan shrines, cut down the altars to the goddess Asherah, and also smashed into pieces the bronze snake that Moses had made, for the Israelites were offering sacrifices to it as the snake-god Nechushtan.” (II Kings 18:4) Apparently, the sacred icon, originally fashioned by Moses himself at God’s command, had devolved after many generations into an idol.

Times change. Consciousness evolves. A symbol may come to represent its opposite. Such was the case with the bronze snake. As for the Confederate flag, even if it ever promoted unity (a specious claim to begin with), it certainly does so no longer.7

Because we are fallible creatures trying to lead principled lives, we need tangible symbols to embody our loftiest aspirations. But when the banner itself is enmeshed with words and deeds that contradict our fundamental ethical principles, or the emblem itself becomes an object of worship, we must dethrone it.

Would that uprooting racism from American society were as easy as taking down a flag!  Ultimately, we will bring about justice and repair the world not by venerating our sacred symbols but only by living the ideals they represent.

1 The root meaning of seraph is “to burn,” employed here for “poisonous” in reference to “the burning effect of the venom” (according to Robert Alter).

2 I leave “seraph” untranslated here, in order to preserve the word’s association with angels (see below).

3 Rashi notes the pun between: nachash (“snake”) and nechoshet (“bronze”); I would expand it into a triple pun including:nashach (“bitten”).

4 The word for standard, neis, also means “miracle.”

5 The root meaning of seraph is “to burn,” perhaps referring to the angel’s fiery aspect as the personification of lightning (according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon).

6 In a detail noticed by Rashi, God instructs Moses to create a seraph, but Moses instead fashions a nachash (“snake”). To my mind, Moses’s alteration of God’s instruction (intensified by the pun—see footnote 2 above) reflects the human’s inevitably imperfect grasp of the Divine Will. We distort the “godly” directives of conscience through the lens of the “animal” drives of ego.

7 Confederate symbols were always primarily about hate, not heritage. Isabel Wilkerson writes: “[Former slaves] were forced to live amid monuments that were a naked reminder to the lowest caste of its subjugation and powerlessness. This was psychic trolling of the first magnitude.”

Rabbi Brian Besser`10 is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, IN.

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