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   by Jacob Solomon

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G-d said to Moses, "Make yourself a fiery snake and place it on a pole… anyone who was bitten shall look at it, and will live" (21:8).

The text relates how the rigors of the roundabout route taken by the second generation of Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land took its toll. This phase of troubles began when they had to make a long detour to avoid Edom, thorough which they could not pass (20:21; Deut. 2:5). As Rashi himself explains, they realized they were moving away from the Land, and they feared they would die in the wilderness like their ancestors.

The nature of these particular Israelite grumbles seems different when compared to the previous ones. True, the journey seemed to be going on and on. Yet their grousing did not focus on that. Instead, they complained about lack of food and water. And this time their grumbles were self-contradictory. They moaned that they had no food, and at the same time they said that they were sick of the 'light bread' (the Manna - to whose qualities the Torah positively attests - Ex. 17:31). They also griped that they had no water - yet there is no mention of any water shortage in this passage. Indeed, the Ralbag brings the tradition that they were punished for grumbling needlessly, since water from the miraculous well followed them everywhere, and they indeed did have manna to eat.

So whereas the complaints and rebellious behavior did at least have some basis within the immediate reality of the situation, the grievances contained in this passage seem to be mere fantasies. Why, therefore, did the Israelites confront G-d, and Moses, about the food and water, rather than their real problem - namely, their understandable impatience at their interminable tramp through the desert? And why did the Almighty both punish and heal the Israelites through the means and image of the snake?

A tradition connecting G-d with the animal kingdom gives an insight into these issues:

He teaches us from the animals of the land, and from the birds of the Heavens He makes us wise (Job 35:11).

The Talmud amplifies this sentence:

Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given to us, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition of] theft from the ant, and [the prohibition of] forbidden relationships from the dove (Eruvin 100b).

Following this approach, the snake is described as the animal that, in some mystical sense, enticed Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It perpetrated the first wrong recorded by the Torah - namely the sin of falsehood (Gen. 3:1). Its punishment matched its crime. It used to possess legs upon which it could walk upright. Indeed, snakes of the boa family still possess two very small spurs that many scientists believe to be vestigial remnants of their back legs. But since then, like the lies it spoke, the snake does not 'have a leg to stand on'. Thus the Almighty's hatred of dishonesty may be learnt from the snake's physical position being literally amongst the lowest of the low.

The Midrashic tradition (Gen. Rabba 18:6; 20:5) states the reason for the snake's interest in Adam and Eve. Based on the juxtaposition of verses, the snake saw them in the act of marital relations, and he wanted to get involved as well - by invoking G-d's displeasure to kill Adam, leaving Eve over for himself.

The falsehoods underlying the Israelites' complaints had similar functions to those of the snake.

The snake had an agenda of his own. He wanted to enjoy 'real life' and realize his true potential by having the most intimate relationship possible with the very highest unit in the Creation - the human being, fashioned in the 'image of G-d' (Gen. 1:27). He attempted to achieve it with means quoted above.

The Israelites also had an agenda of their own. At the very heart of their psyche is the fact that, like all human beings, they need to do proper work (c.f. Job 5:7; Talmud - Ethics of the Fathers 2:2). Living in the desert on the constant largesse of the Almighty was not normal life in harmony with the mental setup of Man. Like the snake, they were in a very trying situation, though less obviously so. Their agenda was to live like human beings - in this case, enter the Promised Land, settle it, work the land, and enjoy its fruits in the spirit of "when you eat from the work of your hands you shall be happy, and it will be good for you" (Psalms 128:2).

This situation may be compared to a young man who marries into a wealthy family and he sets up home and lives entirely on the father-in-law's account - in other words, the 'professional son-in-law'. Unless he is involved in great, productive (even if unpaid) work, mutually respected by all concerned parties, the relationship between father and son-in-law will very likely break down. The son's mental well-being can only be healthy if he realizes himself through his own work. In a similar vein - in over twenty years of teaching, I have asked many students of diverse backgrounds and age groups what they would like to do when they 'grow up'. Not one - not even one - replied that he or she would like to marry into a wealthy family and live like a prince or princess, with every imaginable need instantly catered for…

The Israelites are described as being 'sons to G-d' (Deut. 14:1). But that does not mean making that relationship into a profession - by directly living off it. Their underlying motive was to become psychologically self-supporting - even if their welfare would be less secure.

They sinned by using blatant slander to cover up genuine feelings of discontent, whose very causes they did not understand - as, unlike their fathers, they had no direct previous experience of work. Like the professional son-in-law, they had no real material needs, but they were mentally frustrated for reasons they did not see for what they were. Yes - they had bread - but it was not 'their' bread: they neither farmed the wheat, nor ground the corn. Yes - they had water - but it was not 'their' water - they did not bend their backs to dig the wells (c.f. Deut. 8:16).

Thus, what the Israelites had in common with the snake was this. They both had strong, pressing, instinctive needs - whether they realized their true natures or not. They both attempted to satisfy those needs by lying - the snake by quoting words G-d did not say, the Israelites by unjustly denigrating the physical nature of G-d's food because it left their psychological needs unsatisfied.

So G-d punished the Israelites by means of the snake. The Israelites had not learnt the lesson that the snake's very existence was meant to teach humanity - namely that dishonesty undermines the very foundations of the Creation. (The Israelites did see snakes en-route: see Deut. 8:16.) Therefore He used them to punish some of the people, and remind the others of that idea at the same time. When the Israelites looked at Moses' copper snake they were not merely looking at a piece of handicraft. They were internalizing a lesson relevant for all time - when under stress, do not take refuge in lies, but face the cause of that stress head on. And through the merit of such repentance, they were saved from the snakes' ill effects.

This gives a deeper insight into a Mishna in Rosh Hashanah (3:9).

Did the snake (of Moses) kill and give new life? But this story is to tell you that whenever… they subdued their hearts to their Father in Heaven they were healed, and if not they perished (Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 29a).

Subduing their hearts to their Father in Heaven thus included the resolve to ask Him to satisfy their real needs and not to hide behind a screen made of lies. A lesson no doubt relevant to many situations today….

This week I referred to ideas contained in Slifkin N: 'In Noah's Footsteps' (2001).


1. What do the various aspects of purification by means of the ashes of the red cow symbolize, according to the Midrash quoted by Rashi?

2. What is the connection between the death of Miriam and the sudden lack of water according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Alshich?

3. What was the actual nature sin connected with the incident of Moses' striking the rock according to (a) Rashi (b) the Rambam (in the Shemoneh Perakim) and (c) Abarbanel?

4. What lesson in good manners may be learnt from the way in which Moses phrased his request to the king of Edom to grant passage through his country

5. Why was Aaron so deeply mourned by all Israel - following the tradition quoted by Rashi?

6. Why, according to Abarbanel, did the Israelites dismiss the Manna as 'insubstantial food' (21:5)?

7. The miraculous event that caused the Israelites to burst out in song is described in the text as 'the outpourings of the rivers… leaned against the border of Moab, and from there to the well' (21:15-16). What actual miracle does the above source describe according to the Midrashic source quoted by Rashi?

8. Why, according to the Ramban, did Moses extend peace to Sihon, King of the Amorites, and ask him for permission to pass through his land (21:21-22) - instead of directly going to war with him, as his lands were the Trans-Jordan part of the Holy Land?


1. The various aspects of purification by means of the ashes of the red cow symbolize the following. The 'red' characteristic of the cow symbolizes sin (c.f. Isaiah 1:18). The cow was never to have worn a yoke, which represents the sinner who cast off G-d's yoke. It was burnt - just as Aaron had used fire in the making of the Golden Calf. (Ex. 30:22). The bringing together of cedar wood, hyssop, and thread dyed with the worm's blood combines the sinner who had been as haughty as a cedar tree, with his need to humble himself like the hyssop and the worm. And just as the sin of the Golden Calf had never been entirely forgiven (Ex. 32:34, see Rashi ad loc.), similarly the ashes of the red cow were to be preserved (19:9).

2. The connection between the death of Miriam and the sudden lack of water according to (a) Rashi is because the water that followed the Israelites came specifically in the merits of Miriam. (b) The Alshich points out that the Israelites are not recorded to have actually wept at Miriam's death, as they did at the deaths of Moses and Aaron. Because they did not shed tears at the death of Miriam, the source of their water dried up, for it was as if her merit did not matter to them.

3. Rashi holds that the sin was in striking the rock rather than speaking to it, as they were commanded. Had he spoken to the rock, it would have taught the Israelites a salutary lesson: if the insensitive rock obeys G-d, how much more should they do. The Rambam focuses on the misplaced anger implied in Moses' rebuke to the Israelites - Listen you rebels! (20:10). He points out the text does not state that G-d was angry about the Israelites' quite understandable vociferous demand for water. Abarbanel agrees with Rashi that the immediate cause of the punishment was because of striking, rather than speaking to the rock - but he holds there were underlying causes, namely previous events. Aaron had been involved in the Golden Calf and Moses (see Rashi on 13:2) had chosen to send the Spies despite G-d's strong hints that no good would come out of it. Both events had caused national suffering. It was wrong, explains Abarbanel, that the very leaders, who could have prevented those events, should have been allowed to enter when the Israelites were excluded. Therefore when they committed a sin which was worthy of some punishment, G-d chose to keep them out of the Promised Land, like the rest of their generation.

4. The words 'we shall not drink from the water of the well' (20:17) is understood by Rashi to mean that they will not even drink water from their own traveling supplies. Implied is a lesson - when one travels, one should do business with the country. In other words, support the host by eating at the local restaurant rather than bring sandwiches.

5. According to the tradition quoted by Rashi, Aaron was deeply and universally mourned because he pursued peace, going out of his way to bring harmony between adversaries, and between man and wife. See Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12.

6. Following Abarbanel, the Israelites dismissed the Manna as 'insubstantial food' because they realized that they were soon to enter the Land. Though the manna sustained them in the spiritual life in the wilderness, they did not think it would be sufficient for the heavy agricultural work they would have to do in the future.

7. Following Midrashic sources, the miraculous event that caused the Israelites to burst out in song is alluded to, rather than actually described, in the Torah. 'The outpourings of the rivers… leaned against the border of Moab, and from there to the well' (21:15-16) refers to the following. The rivers of blood going 'towards the well' signaled to the Israelites that G-d had performed a miracle on their behalf. For the Amorites had planned to ambush the Israelites as they passed through a deep gorge near the Moabite border. [My question - could that gorge be today's Wadi Petra?] They hid in caves over a narrow pass, ready to push huge boulders down upon the Israelites as they came though. By miracle, the cliffs forming the walls of the gorge moved together and the stone outcrops on each side crushed the hidden Amorites. The Israelites only realized how they had been saved when they saw their blood flowing down the gorge towards the well.

8. According to the Ramban, the east bank of the Jordan was not originally planned to be conquered and settled until the main part of the Holy Land was in Israelite hands. Therefore Moses at this stage only wanted permission to pass through. His making peaceful overtures for peace follows his own understanding of Deut. 20:10, whereby the Israelites were required to attempt to make peace with even the Canaanites in the Holy Land, and only go to war if they resisted.


The Torah records that Sichon did not allow the Israelites to pass through his land (21:23). Elsewhere, however, the Torah gives the reason for Sichon's barring passage to the Israelites: "for G-d had hardened his spirit… in order to give him in your hand…" (Deut. 2:30). If G-d deprived Sichon of free choice, why were he and his people destroyed to the last human being (21:35; Deut. 2:34)?

My attempts to answer the above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Chukat 5761

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.


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