“Snakes and Serpents” Parashat Chukat 5778

Am Yisrael hit a roadblock on their way to the Land of Canaan. The Edomites, descendants of Esav, refuse to let Am Yisrael past border control and they are forced to reroute[1]. The people, tired of sitting in traffic, speak out against Moshe [Bemidbar 21:5]: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.” Rotten bread? Excuse me? This “rotten bread” – the manna – was a daily miracle. It fell every morning, just the right amount, double on Friday. Like tofu, it could taste like nearly any food that the customer desired. The body could convert the manna completely into energy with zero by-products for a nutritional efficiency of 100%. And you’re calling it “rotten bread”?

In Modern Hebrew we would say “Lo rotzeh – lo tzarich” – “If you don’t want it, you don’t need it” – and so Hashem took away all of the miracles [Bemidbar 21:6]: “Hashem sent against the people the venomous snakes and they bit the people and many people of Israel died”. Hashem did not simply send “snakes”, He sent “the snakes”, snakes that everyone knew about and that everyone feared[2]. Which snakes were these? The Sinai Peninsula is home to Burton’s Carpet Viper, the Black Cobra, and the Horned Viper, three extremely venomous snakes. According to the Midrash, Hashem had been keeping these snakes at bay. When Am Yisrael said they were tired of miracles, Hashem assumed that they were tired of all miracles and so He set these snakes free.

After the snakes begin to bite and people begin to die, Am Yisrael repent, begging Moshe for a reprieve. Hashem tells Moshe [Bemidbar 21:8] “Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole and let whoever is bitten look at it and live”. Moshe complies [Bemidbar 21:9]: “Moshe made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live”. Rashi asks why Moshe made his snake specifically out of copper and not out of iron or titanium. Rashi, quoting the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah, answers, “Moshe said, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, called it a snake (nachash), so I will make it of copper, (nechoshet), one term similar to the other term’”. The only problem is that Hashem did not tell Moshe to make a “nachash”; He told Moshe to make a “saraph”. While both “nachash” and “saraph” are translated as “snake”, “saraph” is usually understood as a particularly venomous snake[3]. So it seems that Moshe took two liberties: first, he built a model not of a venomous cobra, but, rather, of a harmless Egyptian sand snake, and because he made a harmless snake, he made it out of copper, a word that is etymologically similar to the word “[harmless] snake”. Surprisingly, Moshe’s snake managed to cure the snakebites even though it diverged from the requirements document that Moshe had received from Hashem.

Why did Hashem command Moshe to cure the snakebite by having the injured party look at a metallic snake? The Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [3:7] asks “Is it the snake that kills or [is it] the snake that [revives]? Rather, whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed; if not, they would be harmed.” The important was not the object that the victim was looking at, but, rather, the direction in which he was looking.

The Talmud’s innovation enables us to restructure the episode as a series of causes and effects. The initial cause is Am Yisrael’s rejection of miracles. The effect is the termination of all miracles, specifically Divine protection against poisonous snakes. In order to reinstate Hashem’s miraculous protection, Am Yisrael must acknowledge that Hashem runs the world. Cognition is achieved by forcing the person to look upward at the copper snake. Once the person sees the snake, he can see what lies behind the snake.

Earlier we noted that Hashem had commanded Moshe to fashion a “saraph” – a venomous snake – while Moshe, instead, fashioned a “nachash” – a non-venomous snake. A careful reading of the verses shows that Moshe made one other change. Hashem told Moshe that after fashioning the snake, “let whoever is bitten look (v’ra’a) at it and live”. On the other hand, after Moshe makes the snake, “[the victim] would gaze (v’hibit) upon the copper snake and live”. Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the Torah Temima, differentiates between “ra’a” and “hibit”. “Ra’a”, translated as “to look”, means “to glance” or “to glimpse”. In twenty-first century jargon, it means to “take a snapshot”. “Hibit” means to gaze at an object, often from multiple different views. In twenty-first century jargon, it means to “take a panoramic picture”. I suggest that if we combine the nachashsaraph mismatch with the ra’ahibit mismatch, we can begin to see two possible ways in which a person can recognize the Hand of Hashem in our world. One way to see Hashem is through shock and awe, through take-your-breath-away, blinded-by-the-light sort of things, like the sudden gust of wind that blows the rocket away from a packed shopping mall and into the ocean[4]. These are overt miracles that cannot be explained away. The problem with this kind of revelation is that it can be painful, especially when used as a last resort. The destruction of Pharaoh’s Empire along with eighty percent of the Jewish slaves is a prime example. Using the snake metaphor, recognizing Hashem in this way is like looking at a King Cobra: it causes nearly paralysing fear followed by a powerful urge to flee. Nobody is going to stop and get a better look. This was the snake that Hashem told Moshe to build. Another way of recognizing G-dliness in our world is by slow and deliberate analysis. There are things in our world that, if viewed from the right angle, can be attributed only to Divine power. Examples include the human body and return of Am Yisrael to the Land of Israel after two thousand years of exile, pogroms, and holocaust. A strong background is required in order to appreciate one of these miracles for what it truly is. Using the snake metaphor, recognizing Hashem in this way is like looking at a garter snake. The more you look at it, the more you understand what a truly amazing creature it is, and how it was created in a way that enables it to thrive. This was the snake that Moshe built and this was the snake that cured Am Yisrael. Only with this kind of snake could the victim look skyward long enough to understand that the clouds, the sun, and the stars are all indicative of the Divine.

Living in Modern day Israel, one can easily become inured to miracles. For the first sixty years of her existence, her three greatest problems were energy, water, and security. Over the past ten years these problems have, to a great extent, been solved. Massive natural gas deposits have been discovered under the Mediterranean Sea and soon, when gas begin to flow in a network of pipelines to Europe, Israel will become a net exporter of energy. Only recently, Israel was mired in the depths of its worst drought in at least 900 years. We were watching television commercials telling us to conserve water because “Israel is drying up”. Today, desalination plants are turning seawater into drinking water and we actually have a surplus of water. Plans are afoot to turn the Sea of Galilee into a storage container for desalinated water. Ten years ago, the Syrian Army had hundreds of tanks less than ten miles from our border, threatening to strike at any time. Today, the “Country Formerly Known as Syria” is an amalgam of Iranian, Russian, and Lebanese forces. While the geopolitical situation is still unclear, the threat from the northeast is no longer existential. And have we mentioned Iron Dome lately? Not everyone attributes these changes to the Hand of Hashem, not yet, at least, but I believe that if we gaze at them for long enough, we will begin to see miracles blossoming from things that we had, until now, taken for granted.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] Moshe’s Waze probably made that infuriating sound that it makes when it reports that “Traffic is building ahead” and that your trip is going to take considerably longer than originally estimated.

[2]HaNechashim HaSerafim”. In Hebrew, this is called “Heh HaYediah”, or “the particle Heh”.

[3] The Chabad.org on-line translation of the Torah translates “saraph” as “serpent” and “nachash” as “snake”. The term “venomous snakes” in verse 6 is a translation of “nechashim seraphim”.

[4] See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2717659/Hand-God-prevents-rocket-striking-target-Israeli-Iron-Dome-operator-says-sudden-gust-wind-blew-missile-sea-defence-failed.html

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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