Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Bnei Yisroel were nearing the end of their journey to Eretz Yisroel. They now bring yet another complaint to Moshe. They were disgusted with the manna that had nourished them for forty years. They want real food. Hashem sent fiery serpents to afflict them, and many Jews died. The people came to Moshe, admitted their sin, and asked Moshe to pray that Hashem remove the serpents.
Moshe prayed, but Hashem, instead of immediately removing the serpents, instructed Moshe to make a fiery serpent, place it up on a pole, and anyone who would be bitten should look at that serpent and would live.
There are several puzzling aspects to this episode. First, after forty years of eating the manna which could have been prepared in so many different ways and could taste like anything the eater craved at the moment, why do the people complain about the manna now? And they seemed to have done teshuvah. So why did Hashem punish them? Further, of all the punishments at Hashem’s disposal, why did He choose the serpent to punish Bnei Yisroel? What message was Hashem trying to convey to His people? Finally, how did looking at the serpent become the agent of cure?
It is interesting to note that the people were not hungry. They were just bored with the food they considered monotonous, writes Rav Hirsch z”l. Therefore, they cultivated a complaint without really having any reason. And Rav Pam z”l notes that therefore the snakes were the appropriate punishment. The serpent eats the same dust every day and its taste never varies. By contrast, the people ate the manna and could taste in it anything they imagined. Unfortunately, like some other people who have everything but are never satisfied, so were Bnei Yisroel at this juncture. This attitude seems even more puzzling when one realizes that for forty years Bnei Yisroel lived on the highest spiritual level in the presence of Hakodosh Boruch Hu,, adds Rav Reiss.
Perhaps it was this spiritual level that prompted Bnei Yisroel to ask Moshe that he pray to Hashem to remove the serpents from them, suggests Rav Kofman z”L in Mishchat Shemen. Perhaps they saw in the snakes that attacked them an allusion to that primordial snake that lured Adam and Chava into sin. Bnei Yisroel hoped that Moshe’s prayers would help them get rid of the yetzer horo represented by the serpent. Hashem then instructs them in the remedy: Construct a snake and put it on a pole and examine it closely. Notice that it is only a snake. Now find how the snake/yetzer horo is sinking its teeth into you. When you recognize the yetzer horo for what it is, you will be able to overcome it.
As the Parsha continues, we are told of Bnei Yisroel’s requests other nations for permission to peacefully travel through their lands. When they refused, Bnei Yisroel waged war against them and captured the land. One of these captured cities was Cheshbon, originally an Amonite city that had been captured by Sichon and became part of the land of the Emori. While Hashem had prohibited Bnei Yisroel from capturing the lands of their “cousins” Amon and Moav, now that this city no longer belonged to Amon, Bnei Yisroel were free to take possession of it. The verse here relates, “Therefore the rulers will say, ‘Let Cheshbon be built and established...” Rabbi Kofman z”l quotes Chazal who interprets this verse homiletically rather than historically. He says, “Let us make a Cheshbon/accounting of ourselves in the world.” If you see your proper place, you will be able to subdue your yetzer horo and build yourself up to live in this world and in the next world. That’s why in the Hallel Hagadol/Great Hallel we thank Hashem for His enduring kindness not only for the lands of Sichon King of Bashan and of Og King of Emori, but also for the lands Hashem gave us using these kings as middlemen.
But there is a deeper lesson here. Sichon thought he had accomplished so much by capturing this great city Cheshbon. In fact, Hashem just built him up so that he would fall even harder. Hashem was telling us to look at the big picture when we are being lured into sin. Is the current opportunity really just setting the stage for our later downfall?
An analogy can be made to a farmer selling crates of produce for $100 per crate. When the trucker comes to load up the merchandise, he suggests they keep count of the crates by putting a quarter on the table for each crate loaded. After they finish loading, they will count the number of quarters and pay the full price accordingly. The foolish farmer sees the group of quarters on the table and convinces himself that if he takes some of those quarters for himself, no one will notice that they are missing. In his rush for the momentary profit, the farmer has lost out on hundreds of dollars. So, it is with people. In our rush for the momentary pleasures the yetzer horo puts before us, we sacrifice so much both in this world and in the next.
Rabbi Schlesinger in Eileh Hadevarim points out that the yetzer horo comes as two different persona. One is easily recognizable and therefore more easily overcome. But the second one comes disguised as a talmid chacham. This sly yetzer horo will rationalize and even try to convince us that the sin is actually a mitzvah. This was the tactic of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. That serpent convinced Adam and Chava that if they ate of the forbidden tree, they would become godlike and be able to serve Hashem on an even higher level.
The yetzer horo here in the desert used similar tactics. He convinced Bnei Yisroel that serving Hashem in this spiritual bubble was not challenging. How much greater could they be if they had a challenge to their spirituality. The serpent donned the guise of a talmid chacham interested in serving Hakodosh Boruch Hu on a higher level. Rabbi Zvi Kushelevsky gives us a guideline in trying to recognize a sin dressed up as a mitzvah. When we experience some resistance, the action is more likely to be an actual mitzvah than when we are suddenly drawn to act without any resistance.
After forty years of subsisting on manna, why was Bnei Yisroel suddenly drawn to ask for natural food? Rabbi Schwab suggests that Bnei Yisroel had bought real food, bread and water, from the Edomites. Having now tasted natural food, their taste for spiritual food was blunted. As the Netziv z”l points out, once a child starts eating table food, it is less interested in mother’s milk.
The snakes’ arrival, however, could be the natural consequence of Bnei Yisroel’s request, suggests Rav S. R, Hirsch z”l. If Bnei Yisroel wanted to live in a natural world, outside the spiritual, protective bubble Hashem had kept them in, then Bnei Yisroel would now experience the dangers of the natural world. These snakes had been in the desert all along, but Hashem had protected Bnei Yisroel from them. Now Hashem set the snakes free and sent them among Bnei Yisroel to do what snakes do naturally, to bite Bnei Yisroel.
Everything is in Hashem’s hands. While major miracles are more overt, we should recognize the daily miracles that Hashem does for us and thank Him and praise Him for all. When someone asks us how we are, our response should be a sincere, “Boruch Hashem/Blessed be God, I’m well.”
Rabbi Reiss now takes us in a completely different direction. Certainly, all the physical needs of Bnei Yisroel were taken care of in the desert. They had as much bread and water as they needed. But that sustenance was a source of spiritual stress. Only one day’s ration of manna was provided daily. Perhaps tomorrow they would no longer merit the manna from heaven or the water from the rock.
But Hashem gave Bnei Yisroel only one day’s stipend of manna per day because He wanted a relationship with Bnei Yisroel. He wanted Bnei Yisroel to converse with Him daily. On the other hand, Hashem wants no relationship with the serpent, and so the serpent’s food, the dust of the earth was ubiquitous, writes Rabbi Schlesinger. Hashem sends the snake into Bnei Yisroel as if to ask them, “Do you desire a relationship with Me, or not?” Put that snake on a pole and look up at it so that your eyes will be drawn heavenward, reawakening a relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. As the Be’er Moshesays, remember that it’s not the snake who is biting of its own accord, but Hashem Who is telling the snake to bite.
But it is important to remember that although Hashem Himself told Moshe to make the snake and put it on the pole, merely looking at the snake as a magical amulet would not work unless you turned your eyes and your heart heavenward. Whatever challenges we go through, adds Rabbi Ezrachi, we have to turn our hearts and our entire beings toward Hashem, for what will stop the “snake bite” is our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, not the “magic” of a copper snake on a pole. It is not just in challenges, but in every aspect of our lives that we must recognize Hashem’s presence, writes the Sifsei Chaim. I should see Him as I look through the windows of my house, visualize Him before me as I make every phone call, or when I take any action. Especially when we pray, it is important not just to understand the words, but to try to connect with our Creator through those words, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l.
True healing occurs only when you find the cause of a disease and uproot it rather than just treating the symptoms, reminds us Rabbi Rivlin. The same is true of repairing sins. Since Bnei Yisroel sinned with their mouths, with their speech and their words, Hashem punished them with the bite from the mouths of the snakes.
Tamuz is a month for teshuvah, and it is important to uproot the underlying cause of our personal idolatry. If you cheat other people in your dealings with them, for example, the root is your love of money. Doing teshuvah should involve more than regretting the incident; it should include asking Hashem’s help in eradicating the love of money, our personal idolatry, from our hearts, writes the Mesillot Bilvovom.
The Nesivot Shalom gets at the root of Bnei Yisroel’s sin and its connection to the snake. He says that in the future, the other animals will ask the snake why it kills. After all, the snake has everything it needs and doesn’t even derive pleasure from killing. But the snake doesn’t appreciate everything it has and always wants more. This was also the problem of Bnei Yisroel at this point. They also had everything, but they lacked appreciation for what they had and therefore they were unhappy and looking for something else. This unreasonable discontent was the root of their problem.
Unfortunately, there are some people with the same problem. They have everything, but they still complain. All the reasons they cite for their discontent are probably just excuses, for they are really unhappy about their relationships, writes Rabbi Pam z”l. Instead of complaining about what you don’t have, thank Hashem for all that you do have. Then Hashem will continue to bless you. Cultivate the relationship with Hashem and look up to Him and thank Him at all times. Our job is to thank Him and praise Him constantly. We don’t need a symbol on a pole.