Look upon it, and be healed: vaccinations, Juneteenth, and the copper snake

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, the children of Israel grouse to Moses, “Why did you take us out of Egypt to die here in the desert?” And God gets angry and sends a plague of snakes, and the snakes bite the people, and people start dying.

The people return to Moses and say, “We sinned by speaking out against God; help!” Moses relays this, and God instructs him to make a copper snake and mount it on a pole. When the people see the copper snake, those who were bitten by the snakes are healed.

Rashi notes that the word snake, nachash, is related to copper, nachoshet. The Hebrew wordplay hints at the miracle here: when someone sees the figure of the snake cast in copper, they are healed from the venom. The reminder of what bit them helps them heal from the bite.

This year, as I read this story, all I can think of is a copper coronavirus. Clearly what we need is a copper sphere covered with a corona of spiky proteins, to hang on a flagpole for the whole nation to see! Okay, gazing at a copper coronavirus wouldn’t actually heal anyone.

But that’s kind of a metaphor for what vaccination does, isn’t it? Our immune systems learn to recognize the shape of the virus. The vaccines teach our bodies to recognize that spiky little mace. And then when they encounter it, they can fight it off. Like our ancient spiritual ancestors looking at those copper snakes.

On my refrigerator, I have the front page from a December 2020 Berkshire Eagle. It shows my kid lighting the North Adams city menorah. And alongside that image, above the next column of print, there’s a headline: “Vaccine Endorsed By Panel.” Subheader: “Country now one step away from starting immunization.”

Six months ago the first vaccine was approved for future use. Remember what a big deal that was? 

This week I read about a fourth vaccine now becoming available. Local numbers are the lowest they’ve been in a year. In some places, masks are optional for those who are vaccinated. About 44% of the nation is fully vaccinated, as is more than half of MA. And President Biden recently announced plans to give 500 million doses of Pfizer to other nations in need.

The pandemic isn’t over. But we’ve come an incredibly long way since Chanukah. Modern medicine is miraculous. And because of the tireless work of immunologists and virologists and doctors and nurses and so many others, we’re starting to be able to gather safely again without risking each other or ourselves.

Because vaccines teach our bodies to recognize and respond to the virus, we’re safer than we were. And that too feels to me like a deeper teaching this year. What are the things we need to recognize as a community and as a society, so that together we can respond? What are the injustices and inequities we need to be willing to see, in order to repair them?

Tomorrow is Juneteenth — the date in 1865 when enslaved African-Americans in Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them two and a half years prior. One step toward healing racial inequity is for those of us who are white to recognize the harms experienced by Black people and people of color, both then and now.

The copper snake in this week’s parsha reminds us: we need to see the sickness in order to begin repair. If we don’t recognize it, we can’t fight off a literal virus. If we don’t recognize it, we can’t fight off the spiritual sickness of racism and prejudice, either. We have to see the problem in order to begin to build something new.

And COVID-19 has had a deadlier impact on communities of color than on mostly-white communities. Even as we celebrate the high rates of vaccination where we live, there’s still work to do before we’re all safe. 

So pause with me in this Shabbat moment. Take a deep breath. Recognize how lucky we are to be vaccinated, to be in a place that’s getting safer. Join me in trying to open our eyes to everything we need to see within us and around us.  May we be gentle with ourselves and each other as we work toward healing: for ourselves, for our communities, for everyone.

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at CBI (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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