California and other states across the south-west are suffering a historic drought which is bringing with it all of the obvious hardships expected when “the skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron” (Deuteronomy 28:23).
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the current dry spell is already outpacing the state’s devastating 2012-16 drought. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded a drought emergency to 41 California counties, covering 30% of the state’s population. To compound the problem, a heat wave swept across Southern California this month, breaking several records and heating Palm Springs to 123 degrees.
Dry spells turn the scenery from vibrant green to dead brown while increasing the chance and impact of wildfires. But the current drought has gone one further, exacerbating relations between normally easy-going Californians and the wildlife that lives in close proximity. In a disturbing development, snakes are increasingly finding their way into urban environments in search of refuge from the rising temperatures and relief from the drying landscape while also being hard-pressed to range further to find food. In particular, Californians are encountering rattlesnakes with increasing frequency.
Rattlesnakes are, of course, venomous. They prefer to avoid people and are not naturally aggressive. The distinctive rattle is intended to warn off rather than intimidate. Nonetheless, urban sprawl is spreading in California, placing humans in turf that was, until recently, the exclusive domain of non-humans.
Snake removal services are being overwhelmed and emergency room doctors are reporting that the state is on pace for a record year of snakebites. As of June 12, 128 people were admitted to a hospital for snakebites, and of those, 93 received doses of anti-venin. In comparison, in 2013, 269 Californians went to a hospital for snakebites and of those, 166 received anti-venin. Snake bites are on the rise in San Diego and Southern California due to the rash of wildfires in January, February, March, and April that disturbed their habitat, driving rattlesnakes farther into areas where there are more people.
Rattlesnakes are considered the most dangerous snakes in the world as they actually inject venom into the victim’s via hollow teeth with venom glands that act as a plunger in a hypodermic needle.
The appearance of snakes is significant for the Biblically minded. First appearing with legs in Genesis, the snake was described as the slyest of animals, able to lead man into sin. The snake was used by prophets to symbolize evil.
It was, therefore, counterintuitive that the serpent should play a central role in the Exodus from Egypt as Moses’ staff transformed. Snakes reappeared in the desert after the Children of Israel complained about the manna, stinging and killing many of the Israelites. The cure, a visual anti-venin, was presented as a copper serpent held aloft for those bitten to gaze upon.
Rabbi Yosef Berger, the rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, explained the meaning of the snakes in the desert.
“The people were eating manna that they collected from the ground every morning,” Rabbi Berger said. “This was precisely the curse of the snake when God threw him out of Eden; that he should eat from the dust. It sounds like a blessing, to be able to find food everywhere, and man’s curse, to eat from the sweat of his brow, sounds like a real curse. But the opposite is true. It is a great pleasure to sweat for your food. This also leads to many ways to serve God; to give charity, to leave the corner of your field, tithes, and so on. Being given free food every day, like the snake, was repugnant to the people, even after hundreds of years of slavery. They wanted to eat from their own fields as free men.”
“California is becoming a welfare state, giving out free food, free money, free healthcare, free university,” Rabbi Berger said. “There is no charity because it is all state-enforced charity. There is no worthwhile work. There is no sweat of the brow. California is the home of Hollywood which sells pretty pictures of any sin you want, with no consequence. Hollywood creates luxuries that do not feed the stomach or the soul.”
The snakes are reminder of all that, a reminder that the human soul longs for meaningful work and that this can be better than paradise,” Rabbi Berger said.