It’s sin and not poverty that makes men miserable. — Scottish Proverb
The Jewish people demonstrate yet again why God calls them a stiff-necked people. Near the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert, they complain needlessly. They prove to be an ungrateful lot, crying that they have nothing to eat as they are tired of the miraculous sky-delivered Manna that nourished them daily. God’s wrath is immediate. He allows the desert snakes, that were previously kept away from the Israelites thanks to the divine cloud cover, to now enter and attack the Jewish camp.
The poisonous snakes attack and start biting people. People start dying. Belatedly, they realize the error of their ways and apologize to Moses. God commands Moses to construct a giant metallic snake. Whoever looks up at the metal snake is saved, whoever doesn’t, dies.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 21:9 (Chukat) says that God’s solution of the giant snake would seem to fly in the face of convention. He explains that after a person is attacked by some animal, he will be in deathly fear of that animal thereafter. His fear would be so great, that just seeing such an animal again can be enough to fatally threaten the health of the traumatized person. He gives an example of someone bitten by a dog who thereafter will have a mortal fear of dogs, and actually being confronted by a dog or even an image of a dog can threaten their mental, if not their physical health.
So too, the nation of Israel. They had just been bitten by venomous snakes. They are lying there on the desert floor, dying with the poison flowing through their veins. The last thing in the world the snake-victims would want to see is a giant metallic snake over their heads.
Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that God was trying to make a point. It’s not the snake that kills. It’s the sin that kills. The snake is just God’s agent. Just as the snake was God’s messenger for the punishment, it can just as easily be His agent to heal.
By getting the snake-victims to look up at the metallic likeness of the snake, it forced the Jewish people to acknowledge their faith and belief in God. They needed to realize that what placed them in their precarious life-or-death situation was not the snakes, but rather their obstinacy in refusing to listen to God and following His desires. Their stubborn refusal to see His hand in their lives and to be grateful for his daily sustenance put the people of Israeli in mortal jeopardy. Only confronting the very agent of their misery rekindled their faith in God and saved them.
May we realize that there is often a deeper, spiritual cause for many of our challenges and tribulations.
To Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and his new initiative for Jewish education, Emek Hamelech.