The Cobra in the Torah
September 7, 2016

Rabbi Royi Shaffin

The head of a fish is eaten traditionally on Rosh Hashana with the plee from heaven
יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב
May it be your will our God and God of our ancestors that we should be as a head and not as a tail.
This idea is also expressed by this week’s parashah, Ekev, as taught by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadilkov in his book Degel Machane Efraim. The first two heavy words are direct opposites for the first word Ekev, means if but also means heel and the second word tishmeun, meaning listen or obey refers to the actions done by the ear and the head.
Thus we are asked to choose between facing toward the heavens or toward the ground, aiming to become part of the angelic host or part of the world which slithers on the ground.
The Degel Machane Ephraim points to prayer as of utmost importance in the religious life of the Jew. He places great emphasis on faith: belief that God exists, is the master of the universe, created all, and is in control of all things and that one is really standing before the king of kings when one prays.
In tractate Berachot of the Mishnah, we encounter the snake. It has always bothered me that the Mishnah says that if a snake coiled itself around our leg while we are praying we should not interrupt our prayers to deal with the snake.
I have always thought of the outcome of such an action as disastrous until I read the Degel Machane Ephraim’s interpretation. The snake is not a literal snake but rather a figurative snake, a foreign thought which enters our minds during intense prayer and blocks us from concentrating on our connection with our maker. Such a snake should not lead us to stop our prayers. R Moshe Chaim Ephraim also explains that we need not get rid of such a thought completely in order to regain our concentration. Rather it can be incorporated into our prayers by connecting it to our conversations with God and sanctifying the thought. Do not let the snake bite at your Ekev, at your heel.  Elevate it.
Even the snake which caused us to sin in the garden of Eden and gets thrown out of paradise, even the creature that winds itself around us again and again until it engulfs us in distracting thoughts and in sin can be transformed into a holy creature, a bronze serpent, as Rabbi Jeremy Sher pointed out to me, as it appears in the Book of Numbers, a bronze snake that heals the spiritually afflicted.  To this day this strange and fascinating animal is the symbol of medicine.
But there is another creature mentioned in the Gemara of Tractate Berachot, who snaps at our heal while we are praying, the scorpion. The scorpion is a different creature altogether. The scorpion represents a complete loss of faith, the crumbling of the structure which houses your system of belief. It is for this reason that if a scorpion approaches, you are supposed to stop your prayers.
The idea is that faith is a choice. It is not, as some think, the result of a methodological system of critical analysis, observation, experimentation, and scientific rationally acquired results. Rather one chooses either to take a leap of faith or not to. With out a leap of faith, one’s prayers become dry, lack meaning and intention, and loose much of their ability to affect our lives and indeed the entire nature of the universe. So…if you feel that scorpion of doubt snapping at your Ekev, your heel, stop, decide to re-engage in a leap of faith and then once you have regained your composure, return to your prayers.
“Ekev tishmeun” our Torah portion begins. “If you listen…”… but we have just learned that can also serve as a challenge to take those creatures that snap at our Ekev, our heels, and elevate them to our “tishmeun”, our ears and heads, to make ourselves, in the words of the high holidays, “Rosh velo lezanav”, heads and not tails.

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