The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A 4th of July Sermon

Delivered at Aspen Jewish Congregation at Shabbat services 
on Friday, July 1 -- with pictures!

This Shabbat, in Parashat Chukkat, we find the Israelites still wandering in the desert. It's not -- to say the least -- their finest hour. Right before the text we'll explore tonight, they say to Moses:
"Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and our very souls hate this God-forsaken food!" (Numbers 21:5).

The pattern of complaining, even after their miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery, continues. It reminds me of an old joke about two elderly women at dinner at a Catskills mountain resort. Mrs. Feinberg said to Mrs. Moskowitz, "The food at this place is really terrible." To which Mrs. Moskowitz replied, "Yes, and such small portions!"

Woody Allen made this joke famous in Annie Hall, where he also gave it his own existential spin:
"That's essentially how I feel about life," he said. It's "full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness. And it's all over much too quickly."
Snakes on a Plain.
In response to the Israelites' ungrateful whining, God immediately sends a deadly plague of "seraph" serpents. (The Hebrew "seraph" might mean fiery or poisonous.) Many are bitten, and thousands die. The Israelites, realizing they've done wrong, beg Moses to intercede and end the plague.

A Curious Antidote.
Here's where it gets strange. In response to Moses' request to stop the plague, God says:
"Make a serpent and place it on a banner. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live." And Moses made a n'chash n'choshet and placed it on a banner. Whenever a snake bit someone, he looked at the n'chash n'choshet and lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)
I left n'chash n'choshet untranslated to clue you in to the Hebrew wordplay. Nachash means snake, and n'choshet means copper or bronze. So God was telling Moses to make a copper snake and display it prominently before the assembled Israelites. Some artists think it might have looked like this, this, or even the inspiration for this familiar symbol of healing.

Snakes on a Flag.
Since it is the 4th of July, perhaps this whole idea of a snake banner or snake flag rings some patriotic bells.  Coincidentally, the snake flag has a long history related to the founding of our nation.  There's this early version, which Ben Franklin designed in 1754 as a call for unity among the colonies in the French & Indian  War.

More famous still is this snake flag, known eventually as the Gadsden Flag.  It was first used in 1775-76 by the US Navy and Continental Army as a symbol of American resistance to British authority.

Benjamin Franklin, writing pseudonymously as "American Guesser" in the Pennsylvania Journal Dec. 1775 issue, defended the choice of the snake as representative of America.  He said:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids— She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage... she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.— Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?" 
...'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.
Symbol or Idol?
For Franklin, the snake was the ultimate symbol for America and her unique character.  Enough of his fellow countrymen shared this sentiment that the snake symbol was placed on a banner and flown as a flag with national pride.  This snake flag, the American flag, the Israelite copper snake -- they all raise a question about the line between symbols and idols.  When does honoring a symbol cross that line into worshiping an idol?

Blurring this line became such an issue for the Israelites and their descendants that we hear about the n'chash n'choshet -- the copper snake -- centuries later during the reign of King Hezekiah.  In the Book of II Kings (18:4), it's reported that King Hezekiah, a faithful king unlike his predecessors,
abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the n'chash n'choshet that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nechushtan.
The object God intended as a healing mechanism for the plague became so revered that it became an idol -- a false god. Is it any wonder that the Israelites held it in such high esteem, given its apparently miraculous healing powers?  The same challenge faces us when we consider our national flag.  What does it mean to salute the flag, to pledge allegiance to a flag?  How do we avoid blurring that line between symbol and idol?

The Rabbis' Fix.
As they often do, the Rabbis of the Talmud offer a solution to this problem, based on a creative reinterpretation of the copper serpent episode.  Where God said, "Make a serpent...When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live" (Num 21:8), the Rabbis comment:
But was it the serpent that killed, or was it the serpent that kept alive?
Not so: what the text indicates is that so long as Israel turned their thoughts upward and submitted their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed. Otherwise, they rotted away. (Talmud Bavli RH 29a) 
In other words, don't think that the act of looking at the copper snake banner is what healed the bitten Israelites.  Rather, understand that as they directed their eyes up toward the snake, they actually looked above it or through it, toward God's ultimate healing power.

So it should be when we look at our nation's flag.  When we pledge allegiance to it, we are not casting our lot with a piece of fabric. Rather, we are committing ourselves to a set of values -- freedom, justice, equality of opportunity -- upon which this project we call the USA rests.  When we sing and cheer and salute our flag on July 4th, let us together reaffirm those values and ideals that make our flag worth saluting.

Happy Independence Day, and Shabbat Shalom.

I am indebted to Rabbi Stephanie Kolin who first made the connection between this parashah and the American history of snake flags.  Thanks, Stef!

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