It was interesting this week to look at various pieces of artwork based on biblical narratives. I found three pieces based on the miracle of Aaron’s staff turning into a snake. The artists differ widely in how they imagine the snake and in the way they understand the miracle as a whole.
Image from the Sarajevo Passover Haggadah (Image #1 above)
This Haggadah is considered to be a national treasure. It has illuminated manuscript, and it’s artist is unknown, and is dated to 1350. It use to be housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Since the last war this treasured Haggadah is hidden away out of fear that it would be stolen. The Haggadah's illustration is the simplest of the compositions. It depicts just six static figures, Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron, and three Egyptians. The snake, depicted as a lizard-like creature, lies on the table, calmly swallowing the other snakes, whose heads peek out from his mouth.
This vibrantly colored tapestry is based on an oil painting by Nicolas Poussin ((Image #2 above). It places the scene of the miracle inside the palace. The various characters are arranged in a line across the image, with the staffs-turned-snakes wriggling on the floor before them. Pharaoh is distinguished only by the fact that he is the sole seated figure. Moshe and Aaron face him, fingers pointed heavenward, presumably saying that the miracle is the work of God.
LaHaye Engraved Bible (1728) - Moses and Sorcerers (Image #3 above)are turning their staff into snakes. This engraving, in contrast, sets the miracle outside the palace. It is filled with figures and movement, as many onlookers besides Pharaoh's courtiers approach to view the site. Moses and Aaron are placed in the left foreground, backs to the viewer, while Pharaoh towers over them, looking at the snakes below. The creatures are pictured here as winged dragons, fighting and biting each other.
The snake is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. They have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and to their dual expression of good and evil. In some ancient cultures snakes were symbols of fertility, or the spirit of the Underworld. In other cultures snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. In Eastern traditions Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. The snake is identified with wisdom when he appears for the first time in the Torah in the Garden of Eden when it lured Eve. Snakes are also connected with poison and medicine. The Nehushtan was a sacred object in the form of a brass snake on a tall pole when Moses used it to cure the Israelites from snakebites in the desert.
May you see the intertwined snakes on the Caduceus, the symbol of Medicine, as a source of healing to you. Amen.
By Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
The wisdom of peace and brotherly love are among the blessings to be found in this last parsha of the first book of the Torah. Since the very first parsha, this book of Torah chronicles our attempts and failures to act as our brother’s keeper.
As Jacob prepares to die, he offers the blessings of his wisdom to his children beginning with Joseph and Joseph’s children. “. . .God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day, may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths. . .in the midst of the land” Breishit 48:15-16.
Jacob, who began by viewing life as a zero-sum game and took his brothers birthright, stole his blessing and ran away…Jacob who wrestled with beings human and divine, prevailed by gaining wisdom through the successes, failures and struggles – his own , as well as those of his children. In the end, he learns that true abundance does not come from violence, but from brotherly love and that these blessings are available even in the midst of great material scarcity. And he teaches that the future depended on brothers being brothers, on sharing blessings, not stealing them, on coming closer, not running further away.
Jacob witnessed terrible violence and great loss during his life and was able to see that violence does not make up for loss. The slaughter of all the men of Shechem by Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, in response to the rape of Dinah, haunted Jacob. He made a connection that we often fail to see today. Acts of violence, no matter the motivation, leave profound scars on everyone, even the perpetrators. Whether in defense or vengeance, the act changes them forever. Many, especially children develop an unnatural cruelty and perform equally brutal acts on others. The innocent are struck down along with the guilty and new victims become new perpetrators.
In blessing each of his sons, Jacob admonishes Shimon and Levi and condemns their use of violence. “. . .when angry they slay men, when pleased they maim oxen.” ( Breishit 49:6) Jacob recognizes the problem, but it is not until the time of Moses that God reveals a solution. In Bamidbar, the tribe of Levi is given a new and higher purpose –a way to serve and make a positive contribution to the community. Helping people transition from violence involves reorienting from destroying to creating, from taking to giving, from cursing to blessing. The tradition of blessing our children on Shabbat has its origin in this parsha, with the blessing of Efraim and Manasseh – The blessings that they live like brothers who are their brother’s keepers.
From this we learn that for blessings of peace to be truly impactful and transformative, we must offer blessings that provide opportunities to serve each other and our communities – blessings that restore purpose, meaning and dignity. We must offer more than just a handout that leads to a cycle of poverty, violence and reliance on ongoing charity. We must present people with a way to be a blessing in their community and to elevate themselves and lift up others, creating new and positive cycles.
This Shabbat let us recommit to the Torah’s vision of unity and service to the greater community. Let us each take an action to bless all the children of the world with purpose, meaning and dignity. And may we be blessed to recognize our power to be God’s partner and to bring blessings and miracles to those we serve.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.