“Remorse is the punishment of crime; repentance, its expiation. The former appertains to a tormented conscience; the latter to a soul changed for the better.” -Joseph Joubert
Moses indubitably had a good relationship with God, if not the best that a human can aspire to. Multiple times, God threatens to destroy the Children of Israel for their sins but then Moses intercedes. He prays to God, he argues with God, he beseeches God. God is then appeased, God is convinced, God forgives.
However, at some points, it’s not enough. God does punish. He punishes the Children of Israel multiple times throughout their sojourn in the desert. In one case, however, both the punishment and the forgiveness are unusual.
During the fortieth year of their trek through the desert, the Israelites, not for the first time, complain: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert. There’s no food, no water and we had enough of this manna.” (Numbers 21:5)
God sends fiery serpents that bite and kill a multitude of Israel. The people realize they’ve done something wrong, admit their sin and then beg Moses to pray on their behalf. Moses acquiesces and prays. God however, is not impressed. He tells Moses to make a serpent of copper. Only then, if a victim of the deadly bites looks up at the copper serpent are they saved. Otherwise they die.
The Ohr Hachayim (on Numbers 21:7) explains that the apology by the Israelites was not heartfelt. They understood intellectually that they were wrong, but they had not truly repented. Saying sorry was not enough. Only by looking heavenward, only by realizing, internalizing and reaffirming their faith in God, could they be saved. As long as they looked downward, as long as they kept God out of their hearts and souls, they died.
Lip service was not enough. Only by demonstrating their faith in God did they truly repent and achieve forgiveness. May our own sights be ever upward.
To my cousins, Rabbi Yair and Nitza Spitz, on their departure to Toronto to take up important roles in the community. Good luck!