The last serpent we encountered in the Torah was the rather clever snake who befriended Eve back in Genesis . . . until this past week. The Israelites speak out (yet again!) against Moses and complain of God: “לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֨חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל — Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5). The Holy One punishes Israel’s stunning ingratitude with a plague of nehasim s’rafim, perhaps best rendered as “fiery serpents” whose bite, according to the commentator Rashi, inflamed the skin.
When the people acknowledge their transgression, God relents, but then prescribes a strange antidote to the infestation, telling Moses to fashion a a copper serpent and place it on a pole. Those bitten by a snake would look at the copper image and be healed.
Strange . . . Why would God, especially after the incident of the Golden Calf, instruct Moses to build a graven image? And why of all creatures would God choose to heal the Israelites with a replica of that which afflicted them?
The rabbis themselves grappled with these questions. As we read in the Mishnah of the tractate Rosh Hashanah: “Could the serpent really slay or the serpent keep alive? Rather it’s existence comes to teach that when the Israelites directed their thoughts toward God they were healed, and when they did not they perished” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8). In other words, when they looked upward toward the serpent, they were actually looking toward God — it was this that occasioned their healing. The Mishnah’s response, however, sidesteps the question. Indeed, we know from the Hebrew Bible that centuries later the people would come to venerate and adore the very serpent-entwined rod that God had ordered Moshe to make, so much so King Hezekiah of the late 8th century B.C.E. felt complelled to destroy it (II Kings 18:4).
This narrative reminds us how deeply we need symbols. Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed: “Symbols point beyond themselves to something else, for it is only through them that we give expression to our ultimate hopes . . .” and sometives, even our deepest fears. Yet therein lies the danger — like Moses’ snake rod, symbols can be transformed into idols; from stairways to heaven they become paths to idolatry.
Which makes me think of the extensive media coverage regarding the Confederate flag that flies on state property across from the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, especially in the wake of the racially motivated crime that left nine innocent African Americans dead.
There are some who will tell you that the Confederate flag symbolizes for them the bravery of their ancestors who fought for their country as they then conceived it. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity . . . only their sensitivity. The Civil War was a clash between states rights and federalism, between regional disparities of culture and demographics, but it was also unavoidably and inescapably a conflict about the acceptability of human bondage. The Confederate flag cannot escape its own history as a symbol of human bondage and degradation. Marred by the blood of the enslaved, this banner cannot be cleansed or redeemed without disfiguring and distorting history.
Imagine if Germany were to pass legislation allowing municipalities to fly the flag of the Third Reich, but only at war memorials. Imagine if we heard a government spokesperson tell us that the display of such flags was by no means intended to honor the values of Nazi Germany, or even the soldiers of the SS, but only to pay tribute to the “ordinary Joes” of the Wehrmacht, the simple foot soldiers who fought patriotically and honorably for their homeland. Can you imagine the outcry that would be heard! Parenthetically, according to section 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch, Germany’s Criminal Code, the public display of a Nazi flag is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years!
In 2015, however, there is simply no excuse for a Confederate flag to fly on any piece of public property in any state for any reason. This is not about being politically correct, but about human decency. The First Amendment of the Constitution certainly protects the right of individuals from government intrusion so that they may engage in free speech, from the unthinkingly insensitive to the maliciously hateful, but affords no such protection to government itself.
Still, let’s not be naive. When the Stars-and-Bars is removed from the grounds of the Palmetto State’s Capitol, it would be foolish to believe we have solved the problem of racism in America. Dylann Roof’s demented act of racial hate would have taken place whether or not a Confederate flag flew over a southern statehouse. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons weren’t killed because of a banner. Racism is a Hydra-headed monster, which won’t be stilled by a single blow. There may well be other haters who lie in wait; would to God that it were the last act of violence born of bigotry, but we know the likelihood of this is small.
Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrum have called for rabbis around the nation to declare this Shabbat one of solidarity with the African-American community. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis across the country, along with the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as the Republican Jewish Coalition and The National Jewish Democratic Council mourn the senseless murder of those who died at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.
To alter the mind of the haters is beyond our control, but the power to reshape the reality in which we live is well within our grasp. Let me share two brief stories. Just yesterday on NPR I heard a story about an African-American demonstrator, who also happens to be a college professor, talking to several other young Black men. A white police officer approached them and said, “You had better move along because I smell marijuana. And if you don’t make tracks immediately, you will be going to jail.” The police officer then repeated his threat, to which one of the men answered, “How can you smell it if we don’t have any?” At that moment, all of them smelled the pot . . . which wafted down the street from a group of white teenagers standing at the other end of the block.” The policeman looked relieved and said, “Well, I told you I smelled something.”
Indeed, he had. But when he looked across the street and saw a group of white teenagers and a group of African American men he automatically made a prejudiced assumption without looking. It is one thing to hold a Shabbat of Solidarity in the wake of a terrible tragedy like the Emanuel Church shooting, but the story I have shared with you is the reality that truly needs changing; the “ordinary” racism that marks the everyday rhythm of life in our country.
The second story is a personal one . . . On my way back from Camp Ramah this week I stopped in Atlanta, and had a wonderful kosher shwarma sandwich at Pita Palace in the Toco Hills neighborhood of the city. While sitting at a table eating my spicy fries and enjoying my shwarma, a customer and the server behind the counter — an amiable fellow with a kippah — discussed the craziness of drivers in Atlanta. During their exchange the fellow behind the counter observed, “What makes it worse is that those shvartzes don’t know how to drive.” The words were not said with malice or in anger; they were expressed in a matter-of-fact tone,” much in the same way that I once overheard a woman talking about a plumber who tried to jew her over the price of his services.
So what did I do? Not a blessed thing. I finished eating as quickly as I could and got out of there. But when I did, I realized that, in some small way, my silence was a missed opportunity to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. I should have spoken up courteously, but firmly, and challenged not the server’s silly assertions — if pressed, even he would have had to admit that his blanket statement was ridiculous — but rather the unthinking ease with which he infused bigotry into polite conversation. The word shvatze is coarse. Defenders of the term insist it means nothing more than “black” in Yiddish, but then again, the root of the “N word” means nothing more than “black” in Latin. Let’s not play word games here: it is always used in a derogatory context, which makes it a form of bigoted speech. Period.
If we hear something but say nothing, we perpetuate the notion that the expression of prejudice doesn’t matter: which is why I have decided that when I return to Atlanta to pick up my children from Camp Ramah, I will go back to the Pita Palace and give the man a copy of these reflections. Can I change the world? Yes, because I am part of this world, and as I work on myself, I am changing the world in which I live. All of us can change the world by beginning with ourselves.
We possess something more powerful than copper serpents to ward off the fiery bites of that snake-in-the-grass called prejudice: a God-given conscience; a tradition that teaches God created a single human being to remind us we are of one Parent; a Torah which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As witnesses to God’s Presence in history and as victims of prejudice ourselves, it is incumbent upon us as Jews to call for the removal of slavery’s symbols from the public arena; above all, it is our task to remove the shackles of insensitivity from our own souls.