“All’s Well that Ends Well” Parashat Chukat 5777

The Jersualem Talmud in Tractate Ketubot tells of a place in the Sea of Galilee just off the coast of modern day Tiberias that bubbles silently below the surface. The Talmud asserts that this is the final resting place of “Miriam’s Well”, a boulder that travelled with Am Yisrael providing them with drinking water during their wanderings in the Sinai wilderness. My wife feels that it is particularly fitting that Miriam’s Well ended up in the Sea of Galilee, a major source of drinking water for the State of Israel[1].

This year I got to thinking about the mechanics of a miracle in which a boulder provides a nation of three million people with drinking water. The first problem would be dispersing the water to three million consumers from one central location. Assuming that the plumbing in the desert was rudimentary at best, the drinking water would have to have been channelled through a network of canals, which were most likely dug each time Am Yisrael camped at a new location. The next question was how big the boulder would have to be in order to hold a sufficient amount of drinking water. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation: Assume each person needed 3 litres of drinking water per day, for a total of 9,000,000 litres[2]. Let’s assume the boulder was made of some super absorbent high-tech material, such that the volume of the boulder without water is negligible. Now let’s assume the boulder was a perfect sphere. Recalling that 1 cubic metre of water holds 1000 litres and that the volume of a sphere is , then it can be easily shown that the radius of the boulder was about thirteen metres. In other words, the boulder was about 26 meters tall, about the height of a ten-story building. This whole water-from-a-boulder thing was getting a bit out of hand.

And then I realized that I was trying to rationalize a miracle. There is no difference between a rock giving water and manna falling from heaven. If one was possible, so was the other. But there is one difference: While I had internalized the fact that the manna was completely supernatural, I was at the same time trying to construct a natural explanation to Miriam’s Well. Just because I had gotten my head around the manna did not mean that it was any less miraculous. An event should be considered miraculous because it alters the laws of physics and not because an observer finds it interesting.

Parashat Chukat contains an episode in which Am Yisrael are guilty of this precise logical fallacy. The road to the Land of Israel is long, the people begin to tire of traveling and they murmur against Hashem and Moshe [Bemidbar 21:5]: “Why have you taken us out of Egypt to die in the desert? We have no bread and no water and we are sick and tired of this unsavoury bread!” Hashem punishes Am Yisrael by sending poisonous snakes. People die in droves. Am Yisrael repent and Hashem tells Moshe to fashion a copper snake and to place it on a high pole. A person who had been bitten by a snake needed only to look up at the copper snake in order to be cured.

As a person who spends a nontrivial amount of his time traveling, I can completely relate to their complaint. No matter what class a person flies in, no matter how many stars his hotel has, he eventually runs out of gas and yearns for his own pillow. Am Yisrael’s punishment seems to be far more severe than their sin would warrant. Rav Levi ben Gershom, the Ralbag, asserts that Am Yisrael should have realized that they were living a miraculous existence. Just like they received bread from the heavens, they would also receive water from the heavens. You’re sick of miracles? Then try some snake bites out for size.

Let’s try to develop this thesis. The Sinai Peninsula is home to four species of snakes: the Burton’s Carpet Viper, the Black Cobra, the Horned Viper, and the Egyptian Sand Snake. While the first three species are venomous, the Horned Viper is especially so. Here’s what the Clinical Toxinilogy Resources website says about the Horned Viper bite: “All cases should be treated as urgent and potentially lethal. Rapid assessment and commencement of treatment including appropriate anti-venom (if indicated and available) is mandatory. Admit all cases.” This is one bad hombre. The Torah makes it crystal clear that were it not for Hashem’s constant vigilance, Am Yisrael would have met up with these venomous snakes the moment they crossed the Red Sea into the desert [Devarim 8:15]: “[Hashem] Who led you through that great and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought water for you out of solid rock”. In the words of Rav Shabtai Sabato, “the attack of the poisonous snakes was not really an active punishment; the snakes were not even directly sent by Hashem. Yes, the Torah states ‘He sent the venomous snakes upon the people’ but this was really no more than the removal of the Divine protection that [they] had received during their wanderings”.

Rav Sabato’s words make Hashem’s response to Am Yisrael’s repentance seem incongruous. If the snakes appeared naturally in order to show what happens when Hashem’s miracles stop happening, and if you’re going to cure the snakebite with a snake, why not cure the snakebite naturally? Snakebites are treated today with anti-venom. Anti-venom works on the same principle as vaccines, by injecting a host animal, usually a horse, with the snake venom until the host produces antibodies. The antibodies are removed from the host, concentrated into a serum and then injected into the body of a person who has been bitten, where they suffocate the toxins from the snakebite. While anti-venom was not invented until 1895, having Moshe use anti-venom could have sent a most powerful message: the same venom that kills can also cure. In the words of the Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [3:8] “Does a snake then kill, and does a snake give life [that one can look at it and be cured]? No; rather, when Am Yisrael lift their eyes heavenward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they are cured.” Having Moshe fashion a copper snake to cure the bites seems to be blurring the message.

Unless that wasn’t the message. Let’s go back to the Ralbag. Am Yisrael spent forty years in the desert living one big miracle. All of their most basic needs were provided supernaturally: Their daily nutrition came from manna and their water supply came from a rock that may or may not have been ten stories tall. They were surrounded by some of the most poisonous snakes in the world and yet they were never bitten. They were led by a pillar of cloud in the day and by a pillar of fire in the night. Flocks of quail appeared out of nowhere to satisfy their craving for meat. Their shoes did not wear out and their clothing did not need washing. Everywhere they looked they could see the Hand of Hashem – if they so desired. Alternatively, they could also scientifically explainable coincidences: The snakes stayed away because they naturally stay away from large crowds of humans. The manna was actually kind of plant lice that infected certain shrubs in the Sinai Desert. Miram’s Well was made from hyper-absorbent nanotubes.

But a copper snake that cures snakebites? That was an indisputable miracle. And this miracle proved that all the other explainable events were also miracles. The Ramban writes [Shemot 13:16] “From the great public miracles, a person can [also] concede to hidden miracles, which constitute the foundation of the entire Torah… [We must] believe that all of the things and events we [encounter] are all miracles [and] that they are not natural events”. According to the Ramban, “miraculous” means “Heaven-sent”, and so the world one big miracle, even the things we can explain with equations and YouTube videos. The only reason things are as they are is because that’s the way Hashem wants them to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [35a] suggests that Miriam’s Well ended up in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of modern day Haifa. The Jerusalem Talmud’s explanation is more appealing as Miriam’s well is still giving water to Am Yisrael.

[2] While Am Yisrael had copious amounts of livestock, we’ll leave them out of the equation.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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