top of page
  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Perek Shira: The Snake




The Snake says:

“The Lord supports all the fallen, and He straightens all the bent.” (Psalms 145:14)


What qualities and behaviors strike us most powerfully when we observe the snake? It is an unusual creature in many ways:


Unlike almost all other land animals, the snake is limbless. Despite this, it navigates its environment with surprising grace and speed. Its body is itself a sort of limb. This is seen most clearly in the constrictors, which actually use their bodies to trap and kill prey.


The snake is also infamous for its powerful venom. Many species are deadly to humans, and even those that are not deadly can deliver a painful bite. Venom transforms a small, harmless reptile into a menace. It is a power that is entirely concealed, unlike the bear’s massive claws or the wolf’s sharp teeth.


Snakes are stealthy and elusive. Slithering on the ground or coiled in their burrows, they are easily concealed by their environment and camouflage. This makes them an unusual threat – a deadly creature that can attack even before it is seen, with a bite that can kill even when it is barely felt.


There are many other striking qualities of the snake: its ability to unhinge its jaw and swallow large prey whole; the way it sheds its skin; its characteristic hiss. Overall, the snake feels very unhuman. In many ways, it is our polar opposite.


While we stand upright, the snake is not even elevated above the ground by small limbs; it is entirely horizontal. While we build and create with our versatile hands, the snake must generally invade burrows dug by other creatures. While we possess no natural weaponry and must create tools for hunting, the snake possesses an intrinsic, internal poison that can kill even much larger animals. While we have the powerful of speech and language, the snake’s voice is just a hiss of air.


It’s little wonder that the snake has come to symbolize not only danger but a primal force of evil. In the Torah, it is the snake that brings about the fall of mankind. Chazal and later commentators equate this original snake with the evil inclination, the force within us that seduces us to abandon our human ideal. Once again, we are led to experience the snake as something anti-human.


But the author of the Perek Shira sees the snake embodying God’s kindness and mercy: “The Lord supports all the fallen, and He straightens all the bent.” Seemingly, the opposite notion would have been more appropriate. It is the snake that causes us to fall, both literally and spiritually. It is the snake – that perpetually bent and twisted creature – which brings an end to our straightness.


But perhaps that’s exactly the point. When we see a snake (and all the more so if we happen to be attacked by one) we experience our own vulnerability. We sense how easily we can be brought down. This small, quiet, limbless reptile can destroy us in an instant – and with that realization comes a powerful humility. Unable to save ourselves, we turn outward, searching for a force that can lift us as quickly as the snake drops us; that can straighten us as completely as the snake cripples us.


Chazal teach that if one feels he is being attacked by his evil inclination, he should incite his good inclination against it. Just as we possess a force that seduces us to evil, we possess a corresponding force that inspires us to good. It is intrinsic to us, always present, but Chazal teach that it must be “incited.” We need a way to recognize the extent of our vulnerability and the severity of the threat. Experiencing the snake provides exactly that.




27 views

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page