" In the beginning, God created . . . B'reishit bara Elohim et . . ." (Genesis 1:1). Et is the fourth word of Torah and it has no meaning. It's a grammatical Hebrew term marking the direct objecthashamayim, "the heavens."The purpose of et appears to be to draw attention to exactly what God is creating.
Yet, how could the fourth word of Torah have as little significance as to serve only as a marker . . . to mean nothing? As humans, when we imagine we form a picture-and that isn't "nothing." It's impossible to see nothing.
Alternatively, consider the composition of et, with the two letters alef and tav: alef is the beginning and tav the end of the "alphabet," the alef-bet. Perhaps et, which is nothing, suggests the full alef-bet, which is everything. It is as if to teach: from nothing God will create everything.
That is the first paradox in the Torah.
Our double parashah Chukat/Balak begins with another paradox; the strange ritual of burning the red heifer, whose ashes were to be mixed with water and then used to purify the unclean Israelite. The ashes were a paradox: they made an unclean person clean, but the clean priest preparing those ashes became unclean.
What sin did the ashes cleanse? "The Holy Blessed One said, 'Let the heifer come and atone for the incident of the calf,'" (B'midbar Rabbah 19:8). Thirty-eight years had passed since the Israelites had left Sinai; a new generation had arisen. Perhaps the ashes, stored within the Ark, were to remind these younger Israelites of the catastrophe of the Golden Calf. They knew only what had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents. Would the heifer remind them of God's potential wrath? Or would it signal forgiveness, washing away the stains of the past so the new generation could begin anew?
Yet these Israelites did not seem very different from their parents, complaining bitterly and antagonistically toward Moses and God. "The people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food,' " (Numbers 21:4-5). What was the basis for their comparison? They'd had no experience of anything else. What was bread to them? Perhaps the memories that were passed to them were toxic. Since the punishment to wander was for utter faithlessness, we have to wonder: as the new generation of Israelites drew close to the Promised Land, were they ready?
"The Eternal sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, 'We sinned by speaking against the Eternal and against you. Intercede with the Eternal to take away the serpents from us!' And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Eternal One said to Moses, 'Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.' Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on the standard; and when bitten by a serpent, anyone who looked at the copper serpent would recover," (Numbers 21:6-9).
This is another paradox. The serpent's bite would kill; but gazing upon the copper serpent would heal. The midrash observes that the Israelites had to look upward to see the standard, that is, to look to God, (B'midbar Rabbah 19:23). Thus the Israelites would learn: the very things that would harm them if they only looked at one another would bring healing if they looked up to God. Just as God had promised success when they entered the Promised Land, they needed to realize that they would fail utterly without faith.
The people's physical landscape was unchanged: desert wilderness. But what was their spiritual landscape? Were they able to see beyond the desert of their fears? Soon enough they would arrive at the Promised Land-would they have the spiritual courage to make the land Promised? Had the people acquired faith?
For Moses and Aaron, faith came easily. For the people, it was entirely less so. Over and again, God needed to perform wonders, from the initial plagues to this latest: a healing copper serpent to garner the people's attention and belief.
In Hebrew, the word for "copper" is n'choshet (nun-chet-shin-tav); the word for "serpent" isnachash (nun-chet-shin). The difference between them is the tav in the word for copper. Consider the shape of a tav-it is like a sukkah, a shelter of God's protection. Gazing up at the copper serpent staff would draw the wounded into God's shelter of healing.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that the letter tav symbolizes God's seal or imprint-almost like a fingerprint, (The Alef-Beit, [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Press, 1991, pp. 324ff). Perhaps the addition of the tav to nachash, turning theserpent into copper, teaches that when God's imprint is visible, anything, anyone, can be transformed. Just as at the Burning Bush, Moses-finding God-shifted from shepherd to redeemer.
Yet the Israelites were shallow; despite redemption and revelation, punishment and wandering, they could not mature into a people of faith. They were literalists, seeing only serpent and copper standard, punishment and forgiveness. They couldn't appreciate the privilege God had offered them: to become "a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6).
Moses and Aaron were deeply faithful, understanding their roles as God's agents. They didn't merely guide the people from one location to another; they struggled to help them evolve and mature into a people ready to own the Promised Land.
Do you remember paint-by-numbers-a kit containing a pre-drawn cardboard canvas, fully outlined with numbers designating which color paint to apply? Included was a brush and paint set, each color identified by number. The task was to apply the right number paint to its spot on the canvas, and take care to keep within the lines. The Israelites were paint-by-number Jews. They were incapable of doing more than following specific instructions, and often they did much less than that. Following the mitzvot didn't change their character because they lackedkavanah, "spiritual intention."
But Judaism is an art, transforming the ordinary into the holy. We learn to paint from paradox rather than from certainty, to reveal the beauty, the meaningful, the good and holy that emerge from our challenges. An artist takes responsibility for interpreting and creating anew. When God's imprint is truly impressed on our souls, anything can be transformed. Thus, what wounds can also heal. The profane can become holy. We can become a kingdom of priests.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the spiritual leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. She is the editor of Mishkan T'filah, A Reform Siddur.