God starts off with a deeply inspirational message: “Tell the Israelite elders that the God of your ancestors appeared to you. Tell them I said that I’m taking you all out of Egypt into a land with better neighbor nations, a land flowing with milk and honey. The elders will listen to you!”
Apparently Moshe is not inspired, because his reply is a completely pragmatic request for a PLAN B: “But what if they don’t believe me? What if they don’t listen to me? What if they say ‘God did not really appear to you’?”
God then changes tactics, as if God has made a decision to bypass Moshe’s intellect altogether. God says, “What’s that in your hand?”
It’s a staff. Moshe throws down the staff that is in his hand and it becomes a snake, a nachash. Moshe recoils, but God asks him to pick up the snake by the tail. Moshe does this, and the snake becomes a staff again.
Our sages who speak to us through Midrash recognize that Moshe is having a spiritual vision. He is experiencing some kind of dream-like state of altered consciousness. When the vision ends, Moshe will have to reflect on it. He’ll have to sort out the symbols, and decide what has been communicated to him.
The midrash collection Shemot Rabbah (3:13) tries to reconstruct Moshe’s reflection. God presented the snake after Moshe spoke doubtfully. The snake reminded Moshe of the snake in the Garden of Eden, and he thought, “Wow! I spoke in a way that will doom others, just like the snake did!” The staff reminded him of the taskmasters in Egypt beating the slaves and he thought, “I was offered the opportunity to save people from this, and instead I was apathetic, self-centered, and scornful. I deserve a beating with this staff!” He saw himself in a negative light, didn’t like what he saw, and was motivated to accept the mission.
According to this interpretation, Moshe understands that God has chastised him for acting like a villain of Torah, the snake. He engages in a little self-flagellation (pun intended) and then rises to the occasion. But even in Torah, the snake is not necessarily a villain. One could argue that the snake represents heightened awareness, and that, upon reflection, Moshe becomes grateful for the gift of awareness.
In North Carolina, we lived near a creek and a small local nature museum. There I had the opportunity to look at the skeleton of a snake side by side with the skeleton of a frog. Suddenly I felt pity for the frog: here is a poor animal bound to only one type of movement by its fancy, articulate joint structure. But towards the snake, I felt awe. The snake skeleton is one long spine with short fine ribs all along it – offering maximum flexibility in every direction.
Nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore writes about snakes:
“Scientists surmise that a snake has more than 500 genes in its vomeronasal system, the system [including tongue, mouth organs, and nerves] that somehow reads the air. The human mind has that many vomeronasal genes, too, five hundred. But all but six of them are broken and degenerate. Four hundred and ninety-four ways to drink in the world are lost to us, crumpled in our exalted minds. If I were to sit in damp grass in the dark, I could only listen, mourn this terrible loss, and breathe deeply of what is left to me and of the world.”
This is the snake, the nachash, that the Torah knows.
In the Garden of Eden, the snake is the most arum of all the creatures. In Hebrew, arum means both “naked” and “clever.” The snake is most naked and most clever — as if the snake’s bare skin effortlessly collects information about things we find unknowable. The snake tells the woman that if she eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she, too, will know these unknowable things. So she eats, she is initially pleased, and she shares the fruit with her man.
At first the woman and the man do feel their naked skin as a wondrous organ, but when the evening wind comes up, it’s too much for them and they hide. Snake awareness isn’t right for their bodies. The end result of their attempt at something like genetic re-engineering is a terribly heightened sensitivity to pain. As Torah says, “by the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread…in sorrow shall you bear children.” Yet, as Torah also says, God compassionately heals their wound with a coating of skin.
We human beings cannot literally have snake awareness, but we can learn something from snakes about expanding human awareness. So the Torah teaches with a mythological story in the book of Bamidbar-Numbers. Two Israelite leaders die, water is nowhere to be found, no cities will grant the Israelites safe passage, they experience all-out war for the first time, and after their battle they would like some nourishing meat, but there is none. They begin to riot against their leader Moshe.
A swarm of poisonous snakes enters the camp. After people get bitten, they apologize for their nervous behavior. Moshe sets up a pole with a snake sculpted in copper. The Hebrew word for copper is nechoshet, so this piece of art is a nachash nechoshet. Everyone who has been bitten by a snake is healed. The healing is a national turning point. For the first time since the Exodus, the people offer their leaders a song of praise, instead of a litany of complaints.
Psychologically, when the people find themselves lost in the narrowness of fear and despair, they cannot see a future or grasp a plan. Snakes swarm in and bite them into awareness. The nachash nechoshet, or the Archetypal Snake, becomes an icon that reminds them to move out of the narrow place of fear into expanded awareness.
The Israelite tribal leader Nachshon ben Aminadav is a living icon bearing the same message. Nachshon is charged with leading the army into battle.Midrash says that he also led the Israelites across the Red Sea. As the Israelites stood paralyzed on the shore, trapped between the advancing Egyptian army and a deep sea, Nachshon jumped into the water. When he was in up to his neck, almost over his head, the waters parted. The name Nachshon means “snake.” Nachshon is a consciousness-raiser. He raises others out of fear and into action.
At the burning bush, Moshe’s staff becomes a snake, and then becomes a staff again. But for Moshe, it will never again be just a staff. His awareness has changed. Perhaps, upon reflection, Moshe remembers that years ago he had challenged a slave driver. In his desire for a pastoral life and a family life he tried to forget his activism. But he could not forget; even the desert bushes reminded him. He could not ever be an ordinary shepherd with an ordinary staff. Instead, he would be a consciousness-raiser: a political, spiritual, and ethical nachshon. Perhaps this realization comforted him, and he reasoned, “Once I raise the elders’ consciousness, they will have to join the rebellion!”
We have all had our moments of heightened consciousness: moments of political passion, spiritual grace, or ethical understanding. And we have all let those moments fade. Not out of weakness, but out of responsibility. We honor the pressing immediate needs of everyday life, our commitments to our closest circle, the healthy practice of stability, and the wisdom of avoiding physical and emotional exhaustion. But sometimes life is so well-lived that these commitments are all fulfilled; and at other times life is so torn that it is impossible to fulfill them. These are windows of opportunity. When a window opens, can we recapture our highest awareness?
Picture, again, the dialogue between Moshe and God at the burning bush: Moshe asks, “What if they don’t believe me?” And God answers, “What if they don’t? Could you still find the flexible spine that lets you move in unexpected directions? Could your own heightened awareness subtly inspire others? Could you trust that any wounds you might suffer in the process will heal?”
Apparently Moshe could. And so, sometimes, can we.
— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2010