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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).
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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