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Medical symbol – from the Greeks or G-d?



Rabbi Dr David Nossel, Waverley Shul

I did a search on it and discovered that the snake and stick emblem has been given a name: the Rod of Asclepius.

According to one site, the Rod of Asclepius is an ancient Greek symbol that has become an internationally recognised symbol of medicine. The symbol is associated with the Greek demigod, Asclepius who was renowned for his unsurpassed medical prowess and healing powers.

According to myths, he got his medical knowledge through the whispering of snakes that have the ability of periodically shedding their skin and emerging bigger, healthier and shinier than before. The symbol was displayed at the Temples of Asclepius that became popular healing centres of the Greco-Roman world. Later on, it came to be adopted by doctors all over the world.

Greek? It certainly sounds like Greek to me. I prefer to go with an alternative explanation that is no less plausible, far more Jewish, and much more meaningful. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we read of the outbreak of a plague of snakes sent against the Jewish people.

In order to protect them from harm, G-d instructed Moses: “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it upon a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8).

So, the snake on the stick has Jewish origins! Very Jewish origins: G-d Himself was the graphic designer and Moses was the artist. But what does the symbol mean? In order to understand this, we need to go back to an earlier episode with snakes and sticks: G-d instructs Moses to tell Aaron to take his stick and throw it down before Pharaoh’s sorcerers.

He does so, and it turns into a snake. Shockingly, the sorcerers are able to do the same. This was not some sort of power-play variation of snakes and ladders. This was about the way we are supposed to approach life.

All challenges in life, and illness is one of life’s greatest challenges. It offers us two options: the snake or the stick. The snake represents the mindset that life is out to get us. It bites. The stick represents the opposite – that life is here to empower us. It’s a tool.

When Aaron and the sorcerers let go of their sticks, they saw a snake – they became vulnerable and victims; when they were “hands-on” they had a stick – they were equipped with a tool for life.

Illness is the same. When we see illness as a cause for our downfall, we become vulnerable and victims; when we look at illness as an opportunity to grow, we have an impetus for growth.

When G-d told Moses to put a snake on the pole and to tell the people to look up at the snake in order to be healed, He was teaching us an additional lesson: when we look at life via the stick, we are able to look up and see that even the snake, even the greatest challenges in life, are sent to us by our Father in Heaven.

He sends them not to knock us down, Heaven forbid, but quite the contrary, to bring out the positivity and greatness that we have within us.

What a relief it is to know that Hatzolah – and indeed the entire medical world – instead of having a symbol which is nothing more than an inexactitude of Greek, is nothing less than the inspiration of G-d.

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