Sneaky Snakes

Evil exists. It is a fatal mistake to think that it does not. Yet, it is very hard to find anyone who is doing an evil act who will admit to doing so, even to themselves. Most often, sophisticated people doing great evil will justify their actions, convinced to the depths of their souls that they are doing what is absolutely good, right, and noble. Indeed, the right course of action is rarely obvious. Truth and falsehood; right and wrong; these  are not simple distinctions.

Not surprisingly, the word of the Lord and the language in which it was written offer us a tool to help cut through the moral fog.

The nation spoke against the Lord and Moses,
“Why did you take us from Egypt to die in the desert,
there is no bread or water and our souls are disgusted
with this lightweight bread.”
Numbers 21:9

This complaint is about the miraculous Manna from Heaven, one of God’s great blessings! In response, the Lord sends venomous snakes to attack the nation, killing a great number of people. Realizing the gravity of their ingratitude, the nation approaches Moses and acknowledges that they erred in grumbling. Moses prays to God on their behalf. God instructs Moses to make a serpent and place it on a stick. Moses makes a copper snake and miraculously, any stricken person who looked at this snake survived.

Isn’t this more work than is necessary? Why offer a cure for the snakes rather than simply removing them?

Ancient Jewish wisdom points out that the words for copper and snake are made up of the same root letters.

נ ח ש       נ ח ש ת

copper        snake

In other words, the word snake blends right in to the word copper. A person looking at the word copper does not even notice that there is a snake in there!

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the serpent represents the inclination to do evil that is present in man. Yet, very few of us openly choose to do wrong. Instead, we rationalize our choices and convince ourselves of our righteousness. Humans struggle to make the right choices due to the lure of the wrong choices.

Just as the snake’s camouflage allows him to blend perfectly into the underbrush so that he simply can’t be seen, so does evil often blend in with good. The serpent lures us into believing that his voice inside of us is in fact our better instincts speaking.

The solution is to isolate the serpent and place him up on a pole. Take him out from the copper hues of the underbrush where he hides and identify him for the fraud that he is. When wrong faces the light of day, it can no longer be as easily misrepresented as good. That part of man that lures him into make mistakes and urges him to choose the fleeting over the eternal is not really a part of him at all!

There is no getting rid of the snake; perplexing challenges are here to stay. This world is confusing. Frequently, we need a mentor to help us remove the snakes from the ground and raise them in the air. It takes years of training and guidance to make sure that a Godly, moral lens is the one through which we are looking. Too often, we create our own moral system and then self-righteously do wrong, convinced that we are, in fact, doing right.

This morning, on Memorial Day, when Americans recognize the sacrifices made by so many in a nation that was formed on the concept of trying to live up to high ideals, Susan and I joined our children in welcoming our eight-day-old grandson into the Covenant of Abraham. Our gratitude to those who fought for America, and continue to do so, is immense. Their sacrifices allow us to live as Jews in safety, prosperity and freedom in this great land.

Parenthood is a sacred trust; for sophisticated people it is an understandably frightening choice to join with the Almighty in creating a human being. The snake can whisper dozens of excuses as to why it is the wrong thing to do. No wonder the more secular a society the lower its fertility rate. Yet, those excuses pale when exposed to light and seen through God’s directions for our lives.

27 thoughts on “Sneaky Snakes”

  1. This is such a great T.T., the comments carry as as wonderful as the teaching. I love snakes, always have. Since I was old enough to walk I was always trying to catch them. If I saw one, I was chasing it. Even through my army days I drove my friends and superiors crazy with my snakes and other critters. I would simply use extra care with poisonous ones. Just like any enemy they are much more dangerous when you don’t see them. Even the non-poisonous ones bite hard. I feel really smart today because I once told a friend to be careful of the snakes, referring to some activities he was choosing.

    I love you guys, you are always on time. Mazel Tov on the grandson, we have only one so far…makes having kids worth it.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks so much Louis-
      Your lovely letter made us feel very uplifted. I was so amused at the sight of you terrifying friends and colleagues by your casual attitude to snakes. Once on a vacation hike in British Columbia, our youngest daughter dawdled and when I sought her, I realized that she had found and was playing with a beautiful orange coloured snake. She obviously shared your outlook. Fortunately I didn’t startle because I recalled being told that there were no venomous snakes in that particular Canadian province. All ended well.

  2. I was just reading a post before this one were a woman was indignant because a teacher jumped on the hood of her car. She was cutting through an elementary school to take her daughter to high school because she was late and did not want to wait in the high school line. I was amazed that she did not see how wrong she was. But blamed the grade school teacher who was protecting his students. Then I read your article, and it’s so clearly described her and her actions. And how she did not see how very wrong she was. Her post, in search of condemnation of this teacher, was like the snake on the pole. It became obvious to most of us that she was wrong and was unwilling to open her eyes and see it.
    Thank you so much for your commentaries. They have a way of shining a light in the dark corners.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Cheri–
      What an interesting application of the Sneaky Snakes principle. Susan and I appreciate your kind words on our work.

  3. What an excellent parable of human aspiration! That metal which glitters seductively like gold, is deceptive. It is not rare, is much more common, and tarnishes, even corrodes rapidly unlike gold: is it a telling metaphor for the nature of evil? In other folksy words, with evil as with copper, what you think you see ain’t what you gonna get! Perhaps another lesson might be: go for the durable gold, not for the transient copper. Postpone the scenario of instant gratification in favor of genuine gain and genuine rewards.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      You put your finger on it, James,
      As I wrote to Michael elsewhere on this page, copper is one of only two yellow metals. All others are “white” or silvery but gold and copper are yellow. Copper is seen as basically trying to be something it isn’t. “Hey, look at me, I’m just like gold!”
      No, you’re not!
      So it has a slight snake like tendency, slippery slithery in both name and color.
      Your note really captured it-thanks

  4. Very interesting as usual. I just wondered why most translations say it’s a bronze snake ? Is it a mis translation ?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Paul–
      Yes, a total mistranslation. The Hebrew word NeCHoSHeT is copper. Just copper plain and simple. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.

  5. Thank you so much for pointing this intriguing fact out that three parts of a four part word for copper identify the snake. It seems that other objects were also made of copper or bronze that were used to deal with sin/evil. I’m thinking of the brazen altar of sacrifice, where the sacrifices were burned. Is it true in Jewish tradition that these instruments made from copper signify judgment against sin/evil? If so, then could it be, that the copper image of the snake lifted up on a pole, indicated that the thing killing the people was under judgment instead of them? And by believing God’s instruction to them, “To look and live,” the venom was neutralized? Thank you again for this good information.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that God instructed the people to look on the copper snake and they would be healed. Only those who lifted their eyes from the mess around them and took a good look at the uplifted snake – what had been concealed and now was revealed – would live. Those who did not believe, who did not choose to take their eyes off what was troubling them and raise their eyes to the cure, were the ones who perished. Only those of us who believe God’s word and in believing, follow through with it, will gain eternal life.

  6. Teacher you have been raising the snake of secular humanism for years and yet it grows and flourishes not only as the “jewish left” but staggeringly now with the “christian left”…. as the world becomes glaringly “post-Christian”…. raise the snake as we will he still does his work with ease and never seems to rest….like rust he never sleeps….

    1. Thank you for this message…how timely, where in most places snakes are about the surface of the land and most of us are too, warning ourselves and looking about as we go places. I should be more mindful so as not to encounter a snake or be treacherous like one!

  7. Thank you so much. It has been hard to understand why evil is present in what looks like sincere people. I was just thinking about how s friend justified His romantic relationship during a period in His life was such a beautiful thing for both when there was no intention to marry. It just felt unholy when he was calling it so good.

    Now I better understand God’s word and how he helps us. Even my own heart that is inclined to be deceived and afraid. Thank you so much.


    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Deirdra–
      Yes, we are all so easily capable of rationalizing what our hearts want.

  8. God save me from the SNAKE.

    I joyfully particulate in the sorrows
    of life and rationalize my behavior.

    I’m going to have to answer to
    the Big Man someday 🤪

  9. Thank you for updating your website, the changes in fonts and spacing has made it much more easier and enjoyable on the eyes to view.
    Be Blessed
    Joseph & Joanna

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Joseph-
      We do try to make it as easy as possible for our readers and listeners.

  10. You must QUESTION everything. Question what you see on TV. What’s not lining up? Question doctors (they think injecting poison into the body is a miracle cure). Question what your ‘religion’ has told you is the truth. Question what they claim is ‘science’ which is often nothing more than science fiction drama. Sadly to say but the mental issues caused by the poisoning along with the lies repeated over and over make it very difficult to see the truth or accept the truth.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Nette–
      Life is far too complex to respond to pithy slogans; it is too easy to find opposite slogans equally applicable. (Look before you leap/He who hesitates is lost). You must question everything? No, I don’t think so. Not to be frivolous, but I no longer question gravity or the spherical nature of our planet. I also do not want my young child questioning everything I tell him. (Some questions are okay)
      But we get your point and certainly politicians, scientists, and news media with an agenda should all be questioned.

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          Dear Maria–
          We’re not sure that we understand what you are asking. What are communication lines?

          1. Rabbi,
            Are you being coy? Maria is asking if there is any connection to communication lines from the copper wires used to connect things like Local Area Networks, landline telephones (they still exist!), the metaphorical “last mile” of Internet communications to your home, etc.
            Copper is a pretty good metal for conducting any electrical signal, including the utility power to your home and place of business. You may know what happened when homes were built with aluminum wiring some years back – the poorer conductor of electricity resulted in house fires.
            For that, copper is held in pretty high esteem in my view.

          2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

            Oh! Thank you so much Armando-
            I don’t have nearly enough of a poetic soul to be coy. No not at all. We thought Maria meant metaphorical lines of communication as someone might say to a departing friend, “Well let’s keep lines of communication open.”
            Yes, now that you’ve clarified what Maria meant (..and I do think you’re a genius of interpretation) yes, gold represents the “gold standard” of communication and interaction. Hence with God, the Tabernacle has much gold in it and in marriage, the ring is usually gold. For more mundane “2nd rate communication”, i.e. electronic, we have a 2nd rate analogy to gold, namely copper which we use. Of course gold conducts even better than copper but it’s expensive. However for high tolerance work as in special purpose electronic connectors gold coated pins and sockets are used.
            Hope this helps as much as your explanation of Maria’s point did.

  11. Dear Rabbi, I very much enjoyed this thought tool and how you showed that the word for snake in Hebrew is embedded and hidden inside the word for copper. But I can’t help thinking there must be more connections between copper and snakes. Could it be copper’s monetary usage for low denomination coins or usage for tools – both of which are components of general commerce (an area particularly ripe for evil to develop)? Or some other additional connection you are aware of? Thank you.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Michael:-
      Yes, indeed. Copper is one of only two yellow metals. All others are “white” or silvery but gold and copper are yellow. Copper is seen as basically trying to be something it isn’t. “Hey, look at me, I’m just like gold!”
      No, you’re not!
      So it has a slight snake like tendency, slippery slithery in both name and color.

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