Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

How Do You Deal With Venom?

Chukat-Balak

“Any wonder why I feel so horrible? Look at all the venom I’m surrounded by!” the young man on the other side of the screen said.

People often feel dejected because they believe that they are either the product or the victim of uncontrollable circumstances around them. Is this really so? Is not perhaps the opposite true? Who has more influence, the outside world on us or we on the world around us?

In this week’s Torah portions of Chukat-Balak [1], we read about many very important and interesting topics. Let’s explore one of them, the story with the vipers [2]: 

The Jewish people were complaining about the tiring journey to Israel and the uncomfortable conditions they found themselves in, with no predictable access to food and water. As punishment for their ingratitude, G-d sent vipers and many died as a result of their venomous bites.

The people came to their senses, repented and asked Moses to intercede with G-d on their behalf to retract the plague.

G-d instructs Moses to make a viper and mount it on a mast, so that whoever is bitten and stares at it will live. 

The Torah concludes by telling us that Moses made a viper out of copper, placed it on top of a mast, and anyone who stared at it after being bitten survived.

What healing qualities does a copper viper have that enable it —just by looking at it from a distance— to save someone bitten by a viper from death?

Our sages [3], —quoted by Rashi— ask this question and explain that the healing power was not in the viper on the mast but elsewhere: in the very heart of the one that was bitten. 

“Does a viper [have the power to] kill or [to] revive?” they ask. “This comes to tell you that when the people of Israel looked upwards and subdued their hearts to their father in heaven, they were healed, and if not, they succumbed”.   

In other words, what served to neutralize the effect of the poison introduced into them by the viper’s bite, was their own attitude and behavior. By looking up and, as a consequence, repenting and subjugating their hearts —including the “venomous viper”, the negative and destructive impulses that reside there— to their Heavenly Father, they succeed not only in neutralizing the destructive effect of the poison delivered by the bite of the viper, but even in transforming the venomous viper itself into a source of healing: “and it shall come to pass that whosoever is bitten shall look upon it and live” [4]. Looking up and seeing the snake, becoming aware of their own ungrateful and viperine behavior [5], served to make them come to their senses and repent, thus protecting them against the fatal effect of the bite.

In other words, the viperine forces in the world are a reflection of and nourished by the viperine character in man. When one succeeds in dominating, neutralizing and transforming his own internal “viper”, there is no viper or viperine force in the world that can harm him.

We have a Biblical precedent to this in the story of Joseph and his brothers. The Torah describes the pit that Joseph’s brothers had thrown him into as a “pit that was empty, without water” [6]. Why the redundancy? If it was empty, isn’t it obvious that it had no water?

Our sages explain that although it was empty of water, it was full of vipers and scorpions [7]. 

Now, how did Joseph survive such a hostile, venomous environment? The answer is that an animal can only harm a human being who behaves like an animal, dominated by the dictates of his animal impulses and instincts. Joseph, who had mastered his instincts and impulses, was a man in the truest sense of the word and, as a superior being, had nothing to fear from any animal. 

Since we are talking about vipers and their poisons, I’d like to share one more detail: according to Maimonides’s treatises on poisons and antidotes, vipers and scorpions have different types of poison; hot and cold, respectively. The “hot” venom attacks the victim’s circulatory system while the “cold” venom attacks the nervous system. 

On a spiritual level, too, there are two types of poison —negative attitudes— that paralyze and kill: the “hot” one, namely, sensitivity and ambition, and the “cold” one, namely, insensitivity and lack of ambition. Let’s imagine two different scenarios: 1) someone who is sensitive to how others perceive him and will do anything to get their approval, being indifferent to his personal, inner condition and spiritual content; 2) someone who aspires to do good and works constantly to become a better person, no matter what others think of him. Which of the two would you consider a healthy behavior and which of the two would be an expression of “viperine” behavior, motivated by hot and cold poisons?

So this week’s tool is: when you feel that the world around you is toxic and threatening, don’t complain; concentrate on reconfiguring your own viperine attitudes; not only will that make you feel better, you will be pleasantly surprised by the positive impact and repercussions around you.    

Based on Likutei Sichot, Vol. 13, pp. 71-77

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  1. Numbers, 19:1 – 25:9
  2. 21:4-9
  3. Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29a. See Rashi’s commentary on verse 21:8. 
  4. Numbers, 21:8
  5. See Rashi’s commentary on verse 21:6 where he explains that the punishment of vipers was because their behavior was “viperine” and ungrateful.  
  6. Genesis, 37:24
  7. See Rashi’s commentary on the verse.
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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