B”H
 CHUKAT
 
Many medical organizations employ the symbol of a snake (or two) wrapped around a stick as their logo. This practice finds its source in this week’s Torah portion of Chukat, which records the unfortunate incident of the Jewish people infuriating G‑d by their contemptuous speech. The people were duly punished by a plague of snakes that entered the camp and attacked many. When the Jews finally realized their mistake, Moses pleaded to G‑d on their behalf.
 
G‑d’s prescription was for Moses to make a snake and place it high on a pole. Moses then proceeded to make a copper snake and place it on a pole, as he had been commanded. The Torah tells us that whoever would look up at the snake would live.

Our Talmudic Sages ask rhetorically: “Does a serpent kill or give life?” They then answer their own question: “As long as the Israelites looked heavenward and subjugated their heart to their heavenly Father, they would be cured. If not they would die.”

There is an obvious question here. If it was the fact that the Jews turned their hearts toward heaven that cured them – and not the copper serpent –then what purpose was served by Moses constructing it!? Why did the Jews have to look at the copper snake, if the real intent of G‑d was that they direct their hearts to Him?

To answer these questions it is necessary to first understand why Moses made the serpent out of copper. After all, G‑d had simply told him to make a snake, without specifying what material to use. Moses, of his own volition, decided to make it out of copper.
 
Rashi explains that the Hebrew word for serpent, Nachash, and the word for copper, Nechoshet, are similar. Moses, therefore, decided to make the serpent out a material with a similar sounding name, copper. However, this explanation itself demands further elucidation. It is hard to imagine that Moses would do something purely for the effect of a play-on-words. Obviously, the choice of copper had a direct and clear bearing on the objective Moses had in making this copper snake.

When the Tabernacle was built, there were three primary metals used in its construction: gold, silver and copper. Chassidic literature explains that these three materials were representative of three levels of spiritual health. Gold represented someone who was spiritually pure and sophisticated. Silver represented the average person, while copper represented the individual who was on a low spiritual level, an individual whose moral and spiritual status left much to be desired.

By commanding us to construct G‑d’s sanctuary out of all these three components, the Torah teaches us two lessons: a. that everyone is to be included in the effort to build the Sanctuary and that b. no one is beyond being helped by the spiritual energy the Sanctuary brings to the world.
 
Thus, Moses made his snake out of copper to relate to those Jews who had sinned, and who therefore seemed to be on the spiritual level of copper, that they too could do Teshuvah and return to G‑d. This also relates to the fact that G‑d told Moses to make a snake. The snake is, after all, compared very often in Jewish thought to the evil inclination.
 
Furthermore, by using a copper snake as part of the remedy for the Jews’ plague, Moses was teaching the Jews that not only was repentance a very viable option for them, notwithstanding their terrible sin, but that they could actually utilize their evil inclination, their “copper state” if you will, in the Teshuvah process.
 
This concept is known in Chassidic thought as “harnessing,” taking the very energy that seems to be leading us down the wrong path, be it laziness, passion, anger or the like, and utilizing that energy in a way to serve G‑d. In our Parshah, where the people were using their speech for all sorts of negative and hateful talk against G‑d, they could learn to harness that passion for fiery speech to speak on behalf of good causes and ideals.
 
It is noteworthy that the very word for snake, Nachash, is an allusion to Moshiach. Both Moshiach and Nachash have the numerical equivalent of 358. Moshiach (the ultimate Jewish leader and role model) is capable of reaching even the lowliest class of Jew, one who has been bitten by the Nachash, the serpent, and bring him, once again, close to G‑d.