This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were recently taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
|[21:4-9] “And they traveled form Hor HaHar, the way of the Sea of Reeds to circle the land of Edom and the [state of] being [mood] of the nation shortened [became disheartened, impatient] on [because of] the road. And the nation spoke at Hashem and at Moshe, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the desert [wilderness]? For there is no bread [food], and there is no water, and our souls are disgusted because of the insubstantial bread [food]!’And Hashem sent against the nation the fiery serpents, and they bit the nation, and the people died—many from Yisrael. And the nation came to Moshe and they said, ‘We have sinned for we have spoken at Hashem and at you! Pray to Hashem and remove from us the serpent[s],’ and Moshe prayed on behalf of the nation. And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Make for you a Seraph and place it on a banner and it will be that whoever was bit, then he shall see it and live.’ And Moshe made a serpent of copper and he placed it on the banner, and it would be that if the serpent[s] bit a man and he gazed towards the serpent of copper, then he would live.”
|וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף לִסְבֹב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ הָעָם בַּדָּרֶךְ
וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם בֵּאלֹקים וּבְמשֶׁה לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל
וַיְשַׁלַּח ה׳ בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיָּמָת עַם רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל
וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל משֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ כִּי דִבַּרְנוּ בַה׳ וָבָךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל ה׳ וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת הַנָּחָשׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל משֶׁה בְּעַד הָעָם
וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל משֶׁה עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שָׂרָף וְשִׂים אֹתוֹ עַל נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי
וַיַּעַשׂ משֶׁה נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵהוּ עַל הַנֵּס וְהָיָה אִם נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת אִישׁ וְהִבִּיט אֶל נְחַשׁ הַנְּחשֶׁת וָחָי
Towards the end of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the B’nei Yisrael let the stress of their travels get the best of them, and they seem to regress to the sins of the previous generation by returning to old, unproductive complaints. They mention concerns about lack of food and water, leaving the “cozy” Egypt, dying in the desert, and their apparent frustrations with the Manna [B’Midbar 21:4-5]. Indeed, this complaint is a really a montage of complaints, all of which are vexingly familiar.
However it was that Hashem had addressed each of these individual complaints in the past, this time, Hashem was not willing to simply give them what they asked for. On the contrary, as intolerant and short-tempered as the people were, G-d responded accordingly and returned a seemingly intolerant and short-tempered consequence. Hashem dispatches these “Nachashim HaSeraphim,” or fierily venomous serpents against the nation which killed out many of the people [21:6]. The significance of the serpents as Rashi explains [based on Yoma 75B, Tanchuma Chukas 19, B’Midbar Rabbah 19:22], is that the Primordial Serpent from Bereishis, as is known, slandered G-d and was punished with the inability to enjoy his sustenance [Bereishis 3]. So now, the nation who ungratefully slanders G-d out of their gross lack of appreciation for the things they do have, it is appropriate that these ingrates be bitten by that very advocate, the serpent. It almost sounds like the Primordial Serpent is coming back to argue, “You think you have it bad?” It’s an interesting connection, certainly.
From a simpler standpoint, one might also suggest that now, as G-d was certainly not willing to tend to the needs of the inappropriately bitter people, and as G-d was in fact prepared to make matters worse for the people, the serpent attack might’ve been a relatively natural way of doing so in a dangerous desert. Contextually, it makes sense since Moshe’s brother Aharon HaKohein had just previously passed away and it was in his merit that the people had the Clouds of Glory protecting them from all dangers in the desert [Ta’anis 9A]—serpents, scorpions and the like. Now, once Aharon was gone and the people snapped at G-d and Moshe, G-d, in His appropriate intolerance allowed the already exposed nation to be stricken by the serpents that they have constantly been protected from until now, again, in response to their ungratefulness. And like the fair argument of the Primordial Serpent, if they thought that they had it bad now, indeed, they could make it way worse. That’s some background for the serpent story.
What’s strange though is what happens next. The people do something in response to these serpents which is uncharacteristic of the generation of complainers. They actually confess to their sin—both to Hashem and Moshe—admitting that they had spoken out against them, and they proceed to pray that the serpents to be removed from them [21:7]. That sounds like a very fair request from a genuinely remorseful nation. They realized that they had lost their tempers and that they messed up, and they demonstrated that they had learned their lesson.
So, what does G-d do? He devises a plan to save those who were bitten by the serpents. Hashem commands Moshe to make his own serpent to place on a banner, whereupon whoever would look up at it would survive even after having been bitten by one of the serpents [21:8]. Okay, so it sounds a little strange, but it’s nice that Hashem is saving them. So, Moshe follows the orders, makes his own serpent out of copper (or brass), and places it on the pole, and lo and behold, it works [21:9].
Now, what was the point of this plan? Rashi, quoting the Mishnah in Rosh HaShannah [3:8, See also Gemara in Rosh HaShannah 29A] explains that the point of the serpent on the pole was so that the people should look upwards and remember to pray to G-d. Moreover, by using a serpent specifically, fighting fiery serpent with fiery serpent, the people would see and hopefully understand that really, it is not the serpent that kills nor the serpent that causes life, but that they’re punished as a result of their actions, and they are saved as a result of their repentance and improving their relationship with G-d. The damage of the swarm of serpents would be logically offset by the repairs of the new serpent, and the two would cancel out, leaving just their relationship with G-d. Indeed, their standing with G-d would be the undeniable basis for everything that happens to them. If they’re intolerant with G-d, He will be with them, but if they patiently yearn for Him, He will be patient with them. And there you have it, the story of the serpent on a pole.
Now, at first glance, it sounds nice, but there are two major problems with this serpent on a pole idea. First of all, if the purpose of this serpent on a pole was to provide the inspirational message that it is all about repentance, why now, of all times, did G-d need to teach them that? Yes, they sinned, but they themselves openly admitted “Chatanu”-“We have sinned” and prayed to G-d! Why then did G-d have Moshe make this serpent banner and only those who would look up at it be cured? Why doesn’t G-d just heal the people who had learned the error of their ways and remove the serpents as they’ve requested? All the lessons that this apparent serpent on a pole was meant to teach them, they clearly already knew and were already practicing! I get it, it’s a wonderful and inspiring lesson, but didn’t the B’nei Yisrael beat Hashem to the punch in this case? They’ve demonstrated that they understand what was wrong and how to fix it. Who is G-d’s serpent-banner lecturing to then? The people got it already! So, G-d should kindly do as they asked and heal them without the serpent on a pole trick and get rid of the serpent swarm. Why doesn’t that happen?
The other problem with this serpent on a pole is more internal to the idea itself. Again, the logic of the serpent on the pole was really to lead the people to an arithmetical equation. One serpent kills, the other heals, so it must be that intrinsically, the serpents have nothing to do with their actual fate. If “A” is correlated with, both, result “B” and opposite result “C,” then it is most likely that “A” is not truly causing either result. It must be that it’s they’re relationship with G-d that causes it all.
That all looks neat on paper. It makes sense mathematically. But, let’s be realistic for a second. Was it really an intelligent idea? In the real world, how realistic is it that the normal individual would draw that conclusion with all of the available information? Are they expected to sit there in their math lab with a pencil and paper, do some cross cancelling, and then deduce that G-d, undeniably, must be the power behind it all? Do you know what is a more likely conclusion? Most normal people, if they would see serpents killing everyone, and then all of a sudden, see a new shiny serpent high up on a pole that restores life to all those who look at it, they would probably marvel at this miracle serpent and ascribe power to it! Most would not start to make calculations and conclude that the serpent is intrinsically irrelevant and that G-d is the All-Powerful Mastermind behind it. They would conclude that this serpent-idol is the real deal and that, in fact, the serpent is very relevant!
If one looks further down the line in Tanach, apparently, this is exactly what happens! Generations later, in the times of Chizkiyahu HaMelech [Melachim Beis 18:2], the Navi actually tells us that the Jews actually offered incenses to the very same copper serpent that Moshe made in our Sidrah! Somehow, they still had this copper serpent around in their possession and they were worshipping it! And why wouldn’t they? The serpent brought life to the people in the wilderness! It’s powerful! Fortunately, Chizkiyahu got rid of all the idolatry and pounded out this serpent as well, reminding them that this serpent had no intrinsic powers, referring to it as “Nechushtan,” a mere copper thing.
Yes, it all worked out in the end, but what does this occurrence show? How misleading the serpent on the pole really was! How ironic was it that the very lesson which G-d intended to teach with this serpent on the pole backfired and taught them the exact opposite conclusion! Not only did they not think of G-d when they saw the serpent, but they ascribed power to the serpent! Indeed, as far as they were concerned, it was the serpent that healed!
What’s fascinating and perhaps equally ironic is that even today, many healthcare associations have adopted various images of the serpent on the pole as their logo. Indeed, an unmistakable association has been made between the image of the serpent on the pole and healing powers.
With all of the above in mind, it seems that using the serpent on the pole was a terrible idea, a recipe for failure!
What is also mind-boggling is that apparently, the serpent on the pole was kept intact and left available to the people all those years. After all, it made its way to Chizkiyahu’s time. It was waiting to be worshipped. In truth, this all makes sense because the Torah gives no indication that anyone ever got rid of the serpent on the pole. On the contrary, we have more reason to believe that this serpent remained in plain sight for everyone to see, as the Torah never says that Hashem removed the other serpents from them as the people requested. Hashem merely provided them this miracle antidote and the narrative ends there, almost making it seem like, indeed, Hashem actually left the serpents somewhere in their midst. Yes, they did have the serpent on the pole in the event that people would be bitten again, so, apparently, this serpent was still in use.
But again, if this is all true, then does it not stand to reason that the B’nei Yisrael were bound to draw the wrong conclusions about the apparent miracle serpent in their midst? Why then did G-d come up with this idea in the first place? Why didn’t He just remove the serpents? Why did He leave a serpent-idol around to later be worshipped?
In his comments, the Ba’al HaTurim interestingly goes in a different direction completely and simply suggests that the role of the serpent on the pole was a way of warning the people, reminding them what would happen if they would act up again. They would be reminded of the serpent swarm. As one would chastise his child, the Ba’al HaTurim explains, one will leave the memory of the punishment in the child’s sight so that the child would learn the lesson.
This solution seems to be safer option in general, but it does not account for Chazzal’s review of the story as cited by Rashi. It doesn’t explain how it makes sense that the serpent on the pole would somehow teach the people that G-d was in charge and that there’s no such thing as a miracle serpent. How was the serpent on a pole not the worst possible idea?
So, what we’re forgetting here is that apparently, for some time at least, the serpent on the pole idea worked. We have no indication that the people were always worshipping the copper serpent. If it’s true that it wasn’t really the sight of the copper serpent that cured the people, but rather, the fact that they turned their hearts to heaven that cured them, then the idea of having the copper serpent was not automatic failure waiting to happen. On the contrary, as long as this serpent is still among them, and they’re being protected from serpent bites as they continually used it to looked up to G-d and repented, that might inspire them to remember G-d all the time, shouldn’t it?
We asked earlier why G-d even resorted to the serpent on the pole idea in the first place if the lesson He was trying to teach the B’nei Yisrael was an already known one. They themselves began to do Teshuvah (repentance) for their erroneous ways and they were already praying to Hashem. However, this point itself may actually be the answer to the second question. G-d was not trying to teach them a new lesson that they didn’t already know. On the contrary, He was reaffirming what they already knew, that they are ultimately punished for sinning to Hashem and they are saved for returning to Hashem. The serpent on a pole was not a doomed failure because this generation had demonstrated that it knew that G-d was in charge. As long as they were already loyal to Hashem, they wouldn’t make the elementary mistake of associating the inanimate serpent statue with healing powers. They wouldn’t regress to idolatry. They would be reminded to look up and yearn for Hashem, realizing that, indeed, it is not about the serpent, but it is about their standing in their relationship with Hashem. For that generation, the serpent on a pole would be a reminder of the work of Hashem, reinforcing what they already knew, and it would enhance their relationship with Hashem.
And as we’ve suggested, the positive services of this copper serpent might not have only been for that generation while they were in the wilderness. It seems that they had this serpent on the pole with them all the time, and perhaps whenever it was necessary, they could look up, remember G-d, and be protected. And every single time, their faith in the powers of the One and Only G-d would be strengthened.
What emerges then is that it was specifically because the B’nei Yisrael had their hearts in the right place and prayed to G-d that the serpent on the pole worked here, and it would work for as long as they needed it. And perhaps, the reason why G-d didn’t just remove the serpents, but might’ve actually kept them there along with the copper one, was so that they can continue to benefit from it and use it to return themselves to G-d.
But later, in the times of the Melachim (kings), in an era that had abandoned G-d, of course the image of a copper serpent would not inspire faith in G-d. Of course, the people would look up at the serpent, skip the “remembering G-d” step, and would resort to a misguided faith in the serpent statue. Of course, a sinful generation that was already performing idolatry would only mess up further by having the serpent statue in their midst.
Chizkiyahu knew this well and in his movement to rid the Jews of their idolatrous practices, he removed this serpent in the process. The Gemara adds that Chizkiyah didn’t only remove the copper serpent, but he took a famed book of medicines and hid it away [Brachos 10B] because he realized that people were relying too much on the book and were forgetting that G-d was the only true Doctor. Indeed, when Chizkiyahu was ill, he immediately turned to Hashem and prayed to the Doctor of Doctors.
What emerges now is that the eventual sin that was seemingly caused by the copper serpent in the times of the Melachim was actually not the fault of the serpent, but the fault of the people of that generation. Had they been steadfastly following G-d, the serpent, as we’ve seen, could actually have been a successful source of religious, G-d oriented inspiration. It was because the nation regressed to their idolatrous tendencies that the serpent became an instrument of sin.
What also emerges from the sin in Melachim is that the original lesson of the copper serpent comes full circle and is actually proven undeniably, that in truth, it was never the fault of the serpent. As was indicated by the Mishnah in Rosh HaShannah, it is not the serpent that causes death or life, but the peoples’ relationship with Hashem. That was the difference between the generation in the desert and the people in the era of Melachim!
Hashem provides us with many tools which can be of great use to us. We’re supposed to use these tools to provide ourselves with food, water, shelter, health, and whatever is necessary to help us live our lives. We’re supposed to go to doctors. We’re supposed to employ whatever measures are necessary and available, indeed, whatever we can do with our own personal and natural efforts to get what we need. But we cannot lose sight of what’s most important and forget the impact of our spiritual standing on our lives. We cannot forget Who really is our source of life. We cannot make idols of the phenomena in our natural world. As long as we’re steadfast in our relationship with Hashem, all the banners Hashem placed in His world will further reinforce our faith in Hashem and bring us closer to Him.
May we all be Zocheh to always remember that Hashem is our source of life, use this world to enhance our faith in Him and improve our ways, return to Him completely, and Hashem should prove to be our Ultimate source of life and success with the coming the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂