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.”
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
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.