Parshat Chukat revolves around the subject of death. It begins with the enigmatic ritual of the Para Aduma, the Red Heifer, whose ashes render Tahor-pure one who became Tamei-impure through contact with a dead body.
Later, we read of the death of Miriam, in whose merit the nation received Mayim Chayim, pure water, throughout the many years in the desert. Then Moshe & Ahron are punished at Mei M’riva. When Moshe strikes the rock, he angers Hashem (who had ordered him to speak to the rock), resulting in the demise of Moshe’s dream to enter Eretz Yisrael along with the nation. Finally, Ahron dies on Rosh Chodesh Av. A cloud of gloom, it seems, envelops this Sedra.
But another incident, later in the parsha, starts to bring life back to Am Yisrael. The people again complain; lamenting that there is a shortage of food & water, even expressing dissatisfaction with the Mahn, which they call, "Lechem Ha’k’lo’kayl," the bread that spoils (after 1 day). In response, G-d sends "fiery serpents" which bite & kill many people. They then ask Moshe to pray for them & save them, & he erects a pole with a copper snake atop it; all who look upon the snake are miraculously cured.
What exactly is going on here? How can one snake cure the bite of another? What was the nature of the people’s problem, & how could a snake – of all creatures – solve it?
I suggest the following: The snake is, literally, the lowest of all creatures. It represents the low self-esteem from which the nation suffered, perhaps as a lingering effect of their many years in slavery. The cure for low self-esteem is forming a connection to Hashem, who created us & whose faith in us gives our lives meaning, purpose & pride.
When the people looked up towards the copper snake, towards the Heavens, they again sensed their bond with G-d, thus restoring their sense of self-value as a Chosen People.
Furthermore, the nachash convinced Chava to sin in Gan Eden by pushing her into the tree of knowledge, by "pushing" her away from Hashem. Once she & Adam sinned, they became ashamed, their self-esteem was shattered and their "glow" diminished. Sin causes us to lower our heads in shame; but obeying G-d lifts up our gaze in confidence & heightens our stature.
The people asked Moshe: "V’yasar may’aleynu et hanachash," remove "the snake" from inside us. Just as one is injected with the flu virus in order to overcome it; just as the ashes of a dead cow serve to restore life back to a tainted person, so focusing on the disease - the serpent of low self-esteem - can help to overcome it & provide spiritual healing.