Chukat 5770

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Scott Greenberg

The placebo effect is one of the enigmas of modern medicine. Medical studies in the 1950s showed that sometimes a pill made of sugar can be just as effective as one made of complicated chemicals in order to treat a disease, condition, or illness. Even if a pill, surgery, or treatment doesn’t do anything physically to treat a patient’s condition, medical research shows that sometimes a person’s health is improved simply by believing that they have been treated. So, this raises the question – what cures a sick person’s illness? The treatment or the patient himself?

In chapter 21 of this week’s parashah, Chukat, the people of Israel complain yet again to Moses. This time, their complaint is particularly pessimistic. They complain, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in this wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loath this miserable food.”

In response to this insolent and hopeless complaint, God sends serpents to attack the children of Israel, and the nation begins to die from the snakebites. When the people come to Moses, confessing their impudence and begging for a cure from the bites. After Moses consults God, the text says that “Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bittern by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.”

How does looking at a serpent cure a serpent bite? Could I look at a statue of a bee to cure a bee sting or a statue of a rusty nail to cure tetanus? The whole situation is disturbing because it seems more like magic than religion, more like witchcraft then Judaism. What in the world were God and Moses thinking?

According to the Mishnah, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 3:8, “When Israel would look upwards and direct their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed.” Thus, according to this interpretation, the bronze serpent serves as a physical aid toward contemplation and prayer – like t’fillin, or an aron kodesh. In this vein, the bronze serpent is actually similar to a placebo, as both involve a more mental process for curing illness than a medical one.

So, another question is raised: when Moses makes a bronze serpent to cure Israel – or when a doctor gives a placebo to a patient – aren’t the people or the patient being deceived? After all, Moses is sort of lying when he tells people to look at the serpent and be cured, as the serpent isn’t really curing them, just as a doctor tells patients to take a pill when the pill isn’t really helping them. Both of these cures seem like trickery, like something that would be against Jewish or medical ethics.

However, one could also look at it the other way, that sometimes the best type of motivation is when a person responds to a different motivation. It’s just like how sometimes we get people to give tzedakah by playing on their motivations to play sports, gamble, or do arts and crafts. One Jewish story goes that Jewish schools used to get young children interested in torah study by putting a drop of honey on every page. As they tasted the sweet flavor of the honey, they would associate their learning with the sensual experience. Similarly, the people of Israel are motivated to pray to God through looking at a serpent, and patients are motivated to get better by taking a pill.

So, the next time that you are sick, ask yourself: what will cure me? Will doctors and pills, or my mind and God? Will others’ deception or my own motivation? You may be surprised with the answers you give yourself.