Gleaned from the Sfas Emes

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Parshas Chukas

Was it, Then, the Serpent?

G-d told Moshe to place an image of a serpent on a pole, as an antidote for a poisonous serpent's bite...

"And Moshe made a copper snake and put it on top of the pole. And if a man was bitten by a snake and he would gaze at the copper snake, he would live." (21:9)

Rashi comments by quoting the Mishna: "Was it then the copper serpent which had the power of life and death? No! But when the Israelites looked upwards and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, then they were healed. If not, they perished." (Rosh haShana, 29a)

If it was "subjecting their hearts to G-d" that saved them, why was the copper serpent needed?

The Ramban (in his commentary on this verse) makes the following observation: Seeing the source of an illness tends to make the illness worse, yet here the patient recovered! He explains that it is G-d's way to cause a miracle-within-a-miracle. In this instance, the copper serpent which should have caused retrogression had a beneficial effect - a miracle-within-a-miracle.

The Ramban's words underline those of the Mishna: G-d assigned medicinal value to the copper serpent. Those who are ill are obligated to seek treatment - whether by medicine, therapy, or even - in this instance - gazing at the source of the illness. We are required to act, to make an effort and work through natural means (which were assigned by G-d to cure). But this is not enough. We must also look beyond the serpent and medicines, and subject our hearts to our Father in Heaven. We must realize that it is really G-d who cures; doctors and medicines are only His channels for healing. (Sfas Emes, Chukas 5636)


“Gleaned From the Sfas Emes” - excerpts adapted from a soon to published book, G-d Willing, by Simcha Leib Grossbard.Rabbi Grossbard is author of “The Sfas Emes Haggadah” (Targum Press) and “Kasheleg Yalbinu”, a two volume (Hebrew) work based on Sfas Emes.


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