29 Jun Hukat: Serpents and Flags
“The Week One Flag Went Down and Another Went Up” is how ABC news put it, referring to the aftermath of two very different events here in the US over the last two weeks: A mass murder at an African-American church and the US Supreme Court decision with regard to same-sex marriage.On the one hand, much was heard about the need to pull down the Confederate flag – not only from public buildings but from private residences as well – as a reaction to the horrible attack on members of the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For those of you living outside of the US, perhaps take a look here for some of the history regarding this flag and what it symbolizes for different people around the US. While there are those who use this flag to send their own message of prejudice and even violence, the flag in itself is not the problem and I believe, as others have said, that dwelling upon it too much might lead to missing the point. The real issue is one of hatred and cruelty embedded in certain historical and traditional views still held by many in the US.
And on the other hand, with the US Supreme Court’s decision that the US constitution guarantees same-sex marriages as a civil right nationwide, many were inspired to raise the Pride flag alongside, or right below, the Stars and Stripes.
While I am proud of how our congregation, Temple Isaiah and JCC of Palms Springs, raised the flag early last Friday, I also understand that the real test of SCOTUS’s decision will be in how society rises to this change on all levels. I have been fortunate over the last decade to live in Tel Aviv, Stockholm, and now Palm Springs. All of these locations are quite LGBTQ friendly, and the Pride flag flies as a powerful symbol in these places. But we are all well aware that there are many people and places in each of these cities in which this is not the case, not to mention in other regions or in so many countries around the world.
The relationship between a symbol and the reality on the ground is something that came up in this last Shabbat’s Torah Portion, Hukkat. Once again, the Israelites complain and once again, God brings upon them a plague, in this case, of seraph fiery serpents:
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.” The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover. (Numbers 21:4-9)
Moses, acting according to God’s instructions fashions a copper serpent, placing it on a pole for all those afflicted to see and be healed. There are a many fascinating aspects of this narrative and you can read more here and here.
But in the context of my comments above about flags as symbols, let’s take a look at how the rabbis of the Talmudic period handled what seems at least on the surface to contradict much of what Judaism became in the post biblical period:
Similarly, you may say the following: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and set it on a standard, and it shall come to pass that every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Num. 21:8) Now does that serpent [on the standard] kill or give life? [Obviously not.] But: So long as the Israelites would set their eyes upward and submit to their Father in heaven, they would be healed. And if not, they would whither away…(Mishnah Rosh Hashannah 3:8, trans. Jacob Neusner)
In other words, the Mishnah wants you to make no mistake about it, the copper serpent had no power at all and in fact it was merely an instrument designed to lead the eyes, and hence thoughts and prayers, of those looking at it to a higher and loftier sight, one of the Heavens, perceived to be God’s abode. The Mishnah’s take on this story is quite different than that of the biblical narrative, but then, that is the point of rabbinic commentary, to build the bridge between the symbol, whether that be a copper image or the ancient text of the Torah, and contemporary thoughts and actions.
So if it’s not about the symbol itself, but about the idea or value behind the symbol, the real question is how we as a society might continue to undo the injustice and hate still prevalent in so many places. With regard to all LGBTQ folk, near us and in far away places, this is not only a question of raising a multi-colored flag, or even marriage, but in all aspects of life. Raising the flag will only go so far.
Much in the same way, the true indication of progress made in fighting for civil and human rights when it comes to race in the US is less about a historical relic that evokes emotion in different ways for different people, but in what’s happening on the ground that will lead this nation on the path to a “more perfect Union”.
Shavua tov, may it be a week of liberty and justice for all!