This week’s Torah reading contains a miraculous narrative: For the tenth time, the Jewish people complained to Moses about their conditions in the desert. G‑d heard their grumblings and sent fiery serpents that wounded the people and caused many to die. When they saw G‑d’s retribution, the people cried out in contrite repentance. Moses prayed on their behalf. G‑d told Moses to make a snake of copper and place it on a high pole. Anyone who was bitten would look at it and live. (This is the source for the image of a snake on a pole that serves as an emblem for healing.)

Our Sages comment: Did the snake causing healing? Instead, when the Jews would look upward, they would turn their hearts to G‑d and then they would be healed.

The snake is obviously a symbolic figure, going back to the Garden of Eden when the snake was the source for man’s sin. On the other hand, the snake also has powerful positive connotations. Indeed, the Hebrew term for snake, נחש, shares the same numerical equivalent as Mashiach, משיח. And it is well known that in Hebrew, numerical equivalence is not coincidental, but rather a function of a shared inner motif.

A third point: נחש, snake, shares the same root letters as נחשת, copper. While valuable, copper is considered as a functional and not a precious metal. True, it is used for coinage, but only for pennies.

One can build with copper. The articles made from it are not precious, but they are useful. Unlike gold and silver, it is not an end in and of itself, but it serves as a functional intermediary.

These three ideas are interrelated. The snake symbolizes man’s desire for material things, as evident from Eve’s response to the serpent’s temptation: “She saw the tree was tasty as food and desirous to the eye.” Now desire is not a negative quality. Quite the contrary, desire can be positive because it rouses man out of inertia and motivates activity.

On the other hand, there is no question that desire can also be detrimental. When a person’s desires are only materially oriented, they are — like the snake’s venom — poisonous, drawing him away from his true humanity, making him subservient to his natural drives and passions.

The snake — desire — has to be placed on a high pole, one that will make man look upward and understand G‑d’s intent. Then the “copper” entities are useful, enabling him to use the material entities he desires for a spiritual purpose. This is our lifework: not to seek transcendent spirituality that raises us above our material realities, but a grounded awareness of G‑d that involves us in physical activities, using them as means to further His intent.

The consummation of this process will come in the era of Mashiach who will bring the world to a higher state of awareness than possessed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve did not know how to reconcile the physical and the spiritual: that was the core of their sin. In Mashiach’s era, by contrast, G‑dliness will be apparent in every element of existence, even what we now consider as base matters.

Looking to the Horizon

In one of the prophecies concerning the era of Mashiach, Maimonides states that at that time there will be no sickness. On one hand, the lack of sickness will be a natural consequence of the advances in knowledge and the outpouring of goodness that will characterize that future era. It is, however, also a response to the spiritual atmosphere that will prevail then.

In Jewish mysticism, it is explained that חולה, Hebrew for “sickness,” is numerically equivalent to 49. There are 50 Gates of Understanding in the world, 50 levels of knowledge of G‑d and of connection to Him. On his own initiative, man can attain only 49 levels. The 50th gate, however, is beyond his grasp.

What is the source for all sickness in the world? Our inability to proceed beyond the 49th level. Consciously or unconsciously, our souls are lovesick for G‑d. That inner, unsatisfied yearning — being “sick with love” — creates an imbalance that is the root of physical sickness.

In the era of Mashiach, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.” There will no longer be such yearning, for the awareness of G‑d will be within everyone’s reach.