This week, we are confronted with another difficult Torah portion. Chukat opens with laws regarding a ritual no longer performed, Miriam the Prophetess dies, Moses strikes the rock, the Israelites complain, Moses and Aaron are told that they will not enter the Promised Land, Aaron the Priest dies, and if all of that wasn’t enough the Israelites encounter some unfriendly neighbors who are less than supportive of their journey through the wilderness. 4 chapters of Torah summarized in less than 100 words. Phew.
Indeed, Chukat is filled with difficulty and challenging parts of our communal narrative. Yet, each of those moments of difficulty is rich with potential meaning – there’s definitely no lack of material to drash (interpret/teach) on. And, as you all know, I really like to dig deep into the “weirder” parts of our Torah…
The Israelites are no strangers to the ancient art of kvetching. They complained as slaves in Egypt. They complained as freed people in the Wilderness. They complain as autonomous citizens in the Promised Land. Without Miriam and her miraculous well, the Israelites are complaining again. “We’ll die of thirst,” they kvetch to Moses, “we have no bread to eat.” God hears this and sends “nachashim serafim” (which many translate as fiery serpents) to afflict the people. “Oh no!” the people complain again, “these snakes are awful. When they bite us, we become sick. Moses, do something!” Through Moses, God instructs the Israelites to construct a serpent sculpture, which when viewed will cure any afflicted with a snake bite.
In our texts and commentaries, snakes are frequent characters. From the snake that convinces Eve to eat the Fruit in the Garden of Eden, to the rabbis of the Talmud worrying over their own snake bites, to the Midrash equating the snake with wickedness and curse – snakes aren’t simply characters in our story, they’re metaphors for many of the things that are so different that we can’t help but fear them.
Today, the same is true. Many people instinctively fear snakes and their reptilian cousins. We can’t really say why, but something about them makes us uneasy. If you’re anything like me, the reptile house at zoos is a place to enjoy a bit of air conditioning and a break from the sun, not necessarily a must-see attraction. I have no good reason for this. I’ve never been bit by a snake, have held a few, and have encountered my fair share at camp. Still, I just can’t quite bring myself to like snakes. Despite researching, I still can’t understand how they move, or manage to eat something larger than its head, or have no real recognizable differentiation in their body. Snakes, to me, are just weird. And so, I tend to avoid them.
Instinct like this is part of how we survive. “See that we’re wriggling thing over there? See its big teeth? Stay away from it.” It makes sense that we’re uneasy around animals like snakes, animals that are just so alien that we don’t know what to do with them. However, letting instinct be our first and only reaction to difference can be just as unhealthy as rushing in to unknown situations. Not pushing ourselves past our instinctual first reaction means we’re not giving ourselves opportunities to ask questions, learn, and grow from new experiences. Just as much as instinct is an essential part of our humanity, curiosity and evolution are as well – with snakes as with everything else.
Take, for example, a question that I’ve gotten quite a few times since pandemic began. With the built-in “name tags” on zoom many have seen that I set my name to display as “Rabbi Rachel Heaps (she/her).” Some of you may have seen my name and said, “We’ll obviously that’s her name.” Some might have seen it and thought, “I’ve never seen someone include pronouns in their name,” and moved on. Some might have even been a little uncomfortable seeing “she/her” every time you logged in. And some might have been encouraged and excited by seeing the pronouns.
I include my pronouns in my Zoom display name, email, and name tags because pronouns are one of the many ways that I can tell others about who I am, and one of the many ways they can honor my identity. When people refer to me using my chosen pronoun, I know that they are relating to me – not just to who they want me to be. Now, I fully acknowledge that I am a cis female, my biological sex matches the gender identity I’ve held for my whole life, and I present that way. When someone first meets me, they don’t start wondering what my gender is. This is not true for everyone. Not everyone expresses their gender as clearly, or even feels that they are part of a gender binary and express themselves as more gender fluid. When I include my own pronouns in my name, I hope that others see it as implicit permission and encouragement to include theirs – so that no matter the presentation, we can all acknowledge one another in a manner that we choose for ourselves and honors the variability of gender identities.
And, still, just knowing this, can make some confused and uncomfortable. This past weekend, a congregant-friend and I were talking about her attending her niece’s Bat Mitzvah on Zoom. This budding young adult, who usually presents as female, chose to wear a masculine-looking suit as she took another step into adulthood. It felt odd and unusual to my friend. It was confusing and inspired some questions for her. Not wanting to hurt or offend her family member, she remembered how I write my name in my Zoom account and knew that she could practice the questions and get some background information without fear of judgment or rejection.
Talking about gender identity, expression, and fluidity can often feel like a metaphorical snake in our Jewish and secular communities. We want to celebrate everyone as who they are but we’re unpracticed at asking questions, unused to the variety and personal nature of possibilities, and fear hurting or getting hurt in our exploration of gender. Talking openly and honestly about gender and allowing for someone to tell us who they are rather than us assuming – can be nerve-wracking. But just as much as it is the source of so much uncertainty and fear, it is also the source of healing and possibility.
The Israelites in the wilderness were both afflicted and healed by serpents. When the serpents came, they asked for help, and managed to create a monument to both their past pain and future healing. For us, too, topics like gender, queerness, sexuality, and the intersection of all of these with Judaism have caused incredible amounts of pain and discomfort. And the only way we heal from the past is to confront, converse, and cultivate a community where so-called snakes are celebrated rather than avoided. Questions for the sake of understanding are encouraged. Experimentation to promote positive change is celebrated. Bringing one’s truest and fullest self to community building is honored. We acknowledge discomfort and lean into it to grow as individuals and as a sacred community. It is an essential part of our journey through this wilderness. Embracing the snakes is how we continue towards the promised land.