By Hannah Reich Berman
Has anyone ever noticed that just when you are pretty sure that you have seen and heard just about everything, something new comes down the pike? This happens to me on a fairly regular basis, and the longer I live, the more I find myself witness to some astonishing behavior. I’m not necessarily a witness in the truest sense of the word. Most times, I just hear about some behavior that boggles my mind. And most of these things I just can’t figure out!
This happened again just last month, when I read an online news report about a “serpent-handling” West Virginia pastor who died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual. As it turned out, this guy had watched a snake kill his father many years before. Unfortunately (for him), his dad’s demise at the hands of, or at the fangs of, a serpent didn’t cut any ice with him. Who knows? Maybe he didn’t like his father. Or maybe he thought his father got what he deserved?
In any case, whether he was a loving and devoted son or not, he continued to live his life as he saw fit. And what he saw fit to do was what many snake-handlers do: he pointed to scripture as evidence that G‑d had called upon him to engage in such a practice to show his faith. If anyone ever calls on me to do that, you can be sure that I won’t answer! The thought of handling one of those slithering creatures is revolting to me. And it wouldn’t make any difference even if I knew that the snake was not of a poisonous variety. I would still never pick one up. Heck, I shriek when I see a rubber snake. And I don’t like to touch those, either.
Snake-handling is a fairly common practice in Appalachia, but many of the states of that region, such as Kentucky and Tennessee, have banned the practice of doing it in public spaces. West Virginia does not. Snake-handling is legal there. The term public places is a significant one, because it appears that people don’t usually handle snakes in private. It’s rarely a case of one guy handling one snake all by his lonesome. The idea is to have an audience, so snake-handling is done in front of a crowd. And that means in a public place. Since he couldn’t have done it anywhere else in Appalachia, it would seem that this pastor had the misfortune to live in the wrong state.
And these are poisonous snakes. Playing with non-poisonous snakes wouldn’t say much about anyone’s faith. This “test of faith” is confusing. I once thought that the “believers” hold the snakes because they had faith that they would not be bitten. But I was wrong—dead wrong, if you will pardon the pun. It goes deeper than that. These people believe that, even if they are bitten, their creator will protect them. To me that sounds like a bit of a stretch. But the pastor in the aforementioned story believed it. And, for that reason, after the snake sank its fangs into his hand, the man was confident that he would survive.
The news report claimed that someone in attendance at the event called an emergency number and asked that medics be immediately dispatched to the scene. They were! But they were too late. The pastor left the church before the emergency personnel arrived. He went home. Undaunted, and anxious to save a life, the medics raced to his house. But it was hopeless. They weren’t too late in getting there, and the man might well have been saved, but they reported that they spent 30 minutes trying to persuade him to accept treatment. Sadly, he refused their help. Now that is faith! Or is it something else?
It might be easier to understand a “test” such as that a little better if this fellow’s god had made sure that all poisonous snakes in that part of the country were born without fangs. Or, at the very least, maybe he could have provided veterinary dentists to see to it that all snakes had their fangs extracted immediately after birth. Unfortunately it didn’t go down like that and, as a result, there is now one less pastor in West Virginia.
Chances are that every religion teaches about tests of faith, but some tests are easier than others. One of the best-known tests of faith in Jewish history was when G‑d instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there on a mountain I will show you.” Apparently, Abraham was to slay his son as an offering to Hashem. As a young child, I remember being horrified when I learned about that in the classroom, but I cheered up when I learned that before anything bad happened to poor Isaac, an angel intervened and ordered Abraham to stop.
Personally, I thought it was a pretty close call. Then I realized that the whole thing was just a test. It was a setup. Hashem had no intention of letting Abraham kill his son. Whew! I was almost as relieved as Abraham. I like to think of myself as being a spiritual soul, but every time I remember that story, and what Abraham went through, I have my doubts about that spirituality. Hopefully, I will never be tested, because if these tests are graded, my paper would have a big fat “D” written on the top, in red. I’m not sure that many of us would be up to the challenge of putting a child on the altar even if we knew the outcome in advance. It’s wonderful to know that we have a compassionate G‑d, but I’m not big on taking chances.
Most of all, I’m really glad that I never heard that any of our ancestors were ever called on to handle a snake. But the pastor was. And it seems that his god isn’t quite so compassionate. That’s the way it is. v
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and is a licensed real-estate broker associated with Marjorie Hausman Realty. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-902-3733.