Parshat Chukat – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
This week’s parsha reminds us in several ways of earlier events in the Torah. Am Yisrael complains that they lack water leading to the in correct response of Moshe. He hits the rock as he has done before despite being told to speak to the rock on this occasion. A little later, Am Yisrael complains once again and is punished with a plague from Hashem.
Let us examine the second event. (Bamidbar 21:4-9)
“They set out from Mount Har by the road to the Red Sea to skirt the land of Edom, but the people grew restive on the journey. And the people spoke against Hashem and against Moshe, ‘ Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food’.”
Thus far, the complaints seem almost standard. Am Yisrael are fed up with the long journey, the constant search for water and the lack of variety in their daily ration of manna. The response from Hashem, however, seems exceedingly severe:
“God sent fiery serpents among the people, they bit the people, and many of the Israelites died.”
As a result of this plague, Am Yisrael approached Moshe and expressed regret, stating:
“We have sinned by speaking against Hashem and against you”. They implored Moshe to pray on their behalf to Hashem in order that the serpents would be removed. The remedy provided by God also appears to be somewhat strange:
“Then Hashem said to Moshe, Make a ‘seraph” figure and mount it on a standard, if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover. Moshe made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover” [We have translated “vachay” as recover; it could also be translated literally as “he would live”.]
Why did Hashem insist on such a system for removing the plague. Surely, if He was satisfied that Am Yisrael had expressed due remorse for their sin, or if He felt that the punishment had achieved its end, then the serpents could simply have been removed. This was the case in similar events earlier on. The plague struck and afterwards the plague stopped. (Examples can be found in Bamidbar 11.) Secondly, the actual remedy is unusual if not problematic. We are told in the book of Melachim that Chizkiyahu finally destroyed the copper serpent as it had become a focus for idolatry. (2 Kings 18:4) The mishna in Pesachim states that the sages commended Chizkiyahu for taking this action. (Pesachim 4:9)
In order to answer these questions, let us first examine the cause for Am Yisrael’s complaints. Historically, these events took place in the fortieth year of the wandering in the wilderness. We know this because Aharon’s death is dated in the fortieth year as we are told in Bamidbar 33:38. [Most commentaries agree that the events of the fortieth year begin at the opening of Chapter 40, with Miriam’s death. See Chizkuni on 20:1 as an example.]
The above episode begins with Am Yisrael taking a detour as a result of not being allowed to traverse the land of Edom. Rashi states that the people’s annoyance was due to the fact that their journey had once again been lengthened. They were on the brink of entering Eretz Yisrael and now they are taking a different route. This despair caused them to speak out against Hashem and Moshe. Rashi’s comments can be supported by referring back to the events following the sin of the spies. After Hashem decreed that Am Yisrael will remain in the wilderness for forty years, they are commanded:
“..Tommorow, march into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.” (Bamidbar 14:25)
The route of the Red Sea is therefore seen as the alternative to the route to Eretz Yisrael. When told, forty years earlier, that were not about to enter the land, Am Yisreal took the route known as the way of the Red Sea. Now, once again on the brink of going into Eretz Yisrael, they are told to take that route. But that route does not lead to the promised land! That is the route of those who are told they will NOT enter Eretz Yisrael. Are we surprised to hear of their despair?
As we have shown, the cause for Am Yisrael’s breakdown is clear. If so, why did this warrant such a harsh reaction from Hashem? The answer may lie in understanding the differences in the two circumstances. Back at the time of the spies the reason for choosing the road which did not lead to Eretz Yisrael was obvious – Am Yisrael had sinned, they were deemed not worthy of entering the land at this time and therefore were commanded to begin their long trek in the wilderness. Here, on the other hand, the reason for taking this route is pragmatic. Edom refused Am Yisrael entry into their country. It was thus necessary to take a detour. This was not a spiritually guided decision but rather one necessitated by local politics. Is it right to blame Hashem for such a detour. Had Am Yisrael’s outrage been directed at the government of Edom it would be tolerated but to attack Moshe and blame Hashem for this change in plan, that is not acceptable. The reaction of Am Yisrael demonstrates a lack of faith in Hashem and His emissary Moshe.
This allows us to understand why the response of Hashem is so severe. We still however, have to explain why the remedy of the serpent was chosen. As we showed, there was a definite possibility that the requirement to gaze at the copper serpent could turn into a form of idolatry. The mishna in Massechet Rosh Hashana (3:8) asks a related question:
“Does the serpent kill or keep alive? Rather to tell you that when Am Yisrael gazed up at the serpent and gave their hearts to their Father in Heaven, then they would be healed.” The mishna explains that the notion of the serpent was merely a means to achieve renewed belief in God. Am Yisrael were to look up and remember Hashem and all He has done for them.
Interestingly, the above quoted mishna poses a similar question about another episode in the Torah. During the battle with Amalek, we are told that when Moshe’s hands were raised high Am Yisrael prevailed over Amalek whereas when his hands were lowered, Amalek prevailed. The mishna says:
“Do the hands of Moshe make war or break war?” The answer given is identical to the explanation of the use of the copper serpent. When Am Yisrael look up and subsequently connect to the Almighty, they then prevail in battle.
We could suggest that the connection between these two episodes in chumash runs deeper than the theme discussed in the mishna. The battle with Amalek follows directly after the event at “Masa U’Meriva” where Am Yisrael stated “HaYesh hashem bekirbeinu im ayin, is the Lord present among us or not?” (Shemot 17:7). Many commentaries point out that the battle with Amalek came as a result of this lack of faith on the part of Am Yisrael. (See Rashi, Seforno on Shemot 17:8) There is thus a need for Am Yisrael to reaffirm their belief in God. This is achieved using Moshe’s hands as the means to the end, to emunah in Hashem.
A parallel notion is seen in our parsha. As discussed, the complaints leveled against Hashem and Moshe demonstrated a lack of faith. This had to then be reaffirmed through the copper serpent. As the mishna states the serpent was merely a method through which the people could again think about their relationship with Hashem.
We often find ourselves using a variety of mediums in order to get close to God. We must always remember to concentrate on the final aim, on the belief in Hashem, and not, God forbid, on the medium itself. If we use these mediums correctly then as the Torah states about the serpent: “vachay” he, and also we will merit life itself.
Shabbat shalom – Rav Yonatan
- B. We did not discuss why a serpent – nachash – was chosen as the medium. As some of the mefarshim point out it seems to relate back to the nachash from the story in Bereishit. It also may be connected to nachash meaning magic or sorcery which plays a big role in next week’s parsha.
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