The Snake that Heals

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





The Snake that Heals

By Rav Zvi Shimon



            When the people of Israel approach the borders of the land of Edom, Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom requesting permission to cross his territory.  This request is denied and the people must turn away by way of the Sea of Reeds.  The Israelites begin to complain and then disaster strikes:


"They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom.  But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?  There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.'  The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people.  They bit the people and many of the Israelites died."  (Numbers 21:4-6)


            The moaning of the people recalls many previous expressions of dissatisfaction from the wandering Israelites: "And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" (Exodus 15:24).  "In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron ... If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt ... for you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death" (Exodus 16:3).  "If only we had meat to eat ... There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to" (Numbers 11:4,6).  And again, in our own section, "The people quarreled with Moses, saying, "If only we had perished when our brothers perished ... Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs ... There is not even water to drink" (Numbers 20:3,5).  However, there is one striking difference in our episode which distinguishes it from the rest.  While in the other instances God responds by providing for the people's needs, either by supplying drinkable water (as in Exodus 15:25, 16:4, 17:6, and Numbers 20:11) or meat to eat (as in Numbers 11:18), in our incident, God does not provide for the needs of the people.  Rather, the people are instantly attacked by serpents and many of the Israelites die!  What distinguishes our incident from the long chain of similar grumblings preceding it?  Why is the reaction in our section so harsh?


            If we analyze the Israelites' complaint carefully, we find that, although the complaint resembles many of its counterparts, there are some notable differences:


            First, while all the previous complaints were directed towards Moses and Aaron, in this instance, the Torah stresses that the grumbling was leveled against God: "And the people spoke against God and against Moses" (21:5).  This time, it was not only Moses' leadership which was under attack; it was God Himself who was being indicted.  Previously, the nation felt that Moses was not representing their cause before God.  Now, they spoke out against God and against having been taken out of Egypt to a desolate wasteland.  A rejection of God, of the divine plan, incurs harsh and immediate punishment.


            A second difference involves not the target of their grumbling, but its content.  This time, the Israelites do not confine their complaint to lack of water or food; they do not only gripe about being thirsty or hungry.  They also critique that which God has provided them with: "There is no bread and no water, and WE HAVE COME TO LOATHE THIS MISERABLE FOOD" (21:5).  Throughout their wanderings God sustained the nation with the heavenly bread, the manna.  The people did not need to toil for their food; all they had to do was to collect it daily from the ground.  Yet, after all that God had done to sustain them in the wilderness, all they could do is carp about the food!  It is this thankless attitude, this lack of appreciation for that which God had done for them which arouses God's wrath.


            We have explained what made the Israelites' complaint, in this instance, more problematic than all the others.  What requires elaboration is what caused this deterioration?  Why did the people suddenly turn against God and forget all the good which He had done for them?


            Before relaying the Israelites' grumbling, the Torah recounts that: "the people grew restive on the journey and the people spoke against God" (21:4,5).  What made the people restive?  The Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yosef Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12 century) offers the following explanation:


"When they [the Israelites] saw that they were turning back to the desert it was very difficult for them since they were expecting to enter directly into the land of Israel and eat from its produce.  Now they saw that they were returning to a place which has not bread nor water."


            According to the Bekhor Shor, the frustrations of the people stemmed from approaching the borders of inhabited and fertile land.  As long as the people were in the desert they were content with the manna.  Now, however, when the fields of Edom were within their sights, they desired the natural fruits of the land rather than the manna.  It is "the grass is always greener on the other side" syndrome.  The bountifulness enjoyed by the people of Edom ignited within the Israelites a desire for the material, a rejection of the spiritual fruit that was the manna.


            Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) suggests a different explanation for the discontentment of the Israelites:


"'They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom (21:4).'  This was a move backwards and a lengthy detour ... The people could not stand the waiting for the desired end.  The spirit of life urging forwards could not bear patiently the long, long road, for the sought after goal." 


            Impatience motivated the Israelites to complain.  Progression towards their goal sustained their spirit.  A trying journey could not dampen the spirits of these weathered travelers.  As long as they progressed steadily towards their destination, they endured the hardships.  In this week's portion, however, the nation suffers a devastating setback.  Upon reaching the border of Edom, a stone's throw from the land of Israel, God commands them to turn back.  The people's hopes are dashed.  How could they retreat after this trying journey?  Were all their sufferings for nought?  Although they knew waging war with Edom was forbidden (see Deuteronomy 2:5), withdrawal was unacceptable.  The Israelites failed to understand that true persistence includes the ability to accept and overcome setbacks.  The true champion knows that "just because you're down, it doesn't mean you're out."  Ultimate success inevitably includes setbacks.


            The frustration of the Israelites motivated them to speak out against God.  This rebellion, in turn, elicited swift punishment, an attack of venomous snakes.  This punishment is unique amongst God's acts of retribution.  While previous punishments included fire and sword (Numbers 11:1, 14:45), this time the Israelites are subjugated to snakes!  What lies behind this strange punishment?  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), citing our sages, offers the following explanation:


"Let the snake, who was stricken over bringing forth malicious talk, take his due from those who bring forth malicious talk." 


            The fiery serpents represent the serpent of Eden who spoke out against the lord and led Eve to sin (see Genesis 3).  As well known to all educators "the most effective punishment fits the crime."  The fiery snakes are a reflection of the sin of the Israelites.  The message of the snakes is clear and concise; if you speak out with an evil tongue, you will pay the consequences.  The Israelites spoke disparagingly of the manna: "we have come to loath this miserable food (21:5)."  The fiery snakes inform them that this vitriolic speech, this "serpent's tongue," will not be tolerated. 


            Rabbi Hirsch advances a totally different conception of the punishment of the serpents:


"'Shelach' (to send) in the 'kal' (simple conjugation form) means to send, to put something in motion towards a goal.  But 'shale'ach' (as found in our verse - 21:6) in 'pi'el' (intensive conjugation form) predominantly has the meaning of letting something go, to leave it to its natural way, not to hold it back ... Here too, God did not send the serpents, but let them go, did not keep them back ... They had always been there in the wilderness, but hitherto they had been kept back by God's careful protecting power.  Now God withdraws this restraining power, and the serpents of the wilderness follow their natural traits to which the people succumbed.  Thus, Moses describes the wilderness through which they had wandered unscathed through God's miraculous protective power as 'the great and terrible wilderness of poisonous snakes, scorpions and drought' (Deuteronomy 8:15).  So that poisonous snakes are as much a natural appendage of the wilderness as thirst." 


            The serpents are not an unusual punishment at all.  Quite the contrary, we would only expect to find serpents in the wilderness!  What is outstanding is that the Israelites did not suffer from the serpents till this point.  God's supervision protected them throughout the perilous journey in the desert.  However, when the people proved ungrateful, and denigrated the manna that God provided, the Lord withdrew His protection of the people.  They were left to contend with nature's hazards on their own.  As Rabbi Hirsch points out, God did not send the serpents.  Rather, He did not prevent their onslaught.  The Israelites were left to contend with them on their own.


            Many of the Israelites fall prey to the serpents.  It is then that the people realize that it is they who are to blame.  Overcome by guilt they approach Moses: 


"The people came to Moses and said, 'We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.  Intercede with the Lord to take away the serpents from us!'  And Moses interceded for the people.  Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard.  And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.  Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover."  (Numbers 21:7-9)


            A peculiar punishment is followed by an even more peculiar remedy.  The people have acknowledged the fact that they have spoken against the Lord.  In order to prevent further carnage God commands Moses to make a "seraph," a figure of a serpent.  Whoever was bitten by the snakes would look at the copper serpent, constructed by Moses, and would be saved.  This "cure" is as amazing as it is shocking!  Why does God choose this restorative?  Does this solution not run the risk of idolatry?  The Torah in all its opposition to graven images chooses one as the cure!  How are we to reconcile this difficulty?  How are we to reconcile the copper serpent with the second of the ten commandments?  "Thou shalt not make for thyself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below (Exodus 20:4)."


            Our sages repel any such thoughts:


"Now, does a serpent kill, or does a serpent keep alive?  NO!  But when Israel directed their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven; they were healed.  But otherwise they pined away." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 29a)


            It was not the copper snake which healed.  Salvation was in the hands of God.  While this was clear to our sages, history proves that there were those who thought differently.  Scripture recounts the following episode regarding Hezekia, king of Judah:


"He [Hezekia] did what was pleasing to the Lord, just as his father David had done.  He abolished the idolatrous shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred posts.  He also broke into pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made; for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nechushtan." (Kings II 18:3-4)


            Centuries after Moses had constructed the copper serpent, it was being worshipped by the Israelites.  They believed that the serpent possessed magical healing powers; the serpent, not God, saved the people!  This historical testimony magnifies our question manifold.  It turns out that the snake which Moses used in curing the people created a new ailment, an idolatry which continued for generations!  Why would God choose to cure the afflicted in a manner that entailed such great risk of backfiring?


            The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167), the prototypical rationalist, raises this question only to acknowledge that he is at a total loss for an answer:


"It [the copper snake] was made at the command of God, and it is not for us to inquire why [the cure] came in the shape of a snake."


            The copper snake is an example of a divine command which is beyond our comprehension.  Attempting to explain why the cure was in the shape of a snake is a futile enterprise.  The copper snake pertains to the category of events which are beyond our rational grasp.


            Nevertheless, many of the commentators attempt to explain why God cured the people in the manner in which He did.


            The Bekhor Shor offers the following interpretation:


"It is not that the snake keeps alive, nor does it have any medicinal capacity.  It was made for the sake of sanctifying God's name, for upon observing that whoever looked at the snake survived, just as God promised, and whoever didn't, died, they recognized that it was God who saved them.  For had the people survived and died, in and of themselves [without the copper snake], they would have thought it was all coincidental [and not the hand of God]."


            According to the Bekhor Shor the function of the copper snake is to demonstrate to the people that both the punishment and the cure are a direct result of the hand of God.  A physical manifestation was the perfect way to express this point.  The plague of snakes which afflicted the people was a punishment for their sinful behavior and not a random natural disaster.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274), taking a similar approach, elaborates. 


"It appears to me that the secret of this matter is that this is one of the ways of the Torah, every deed of which is a miracle within a miracle.  Thus [the Torah] removes injury by means of the cause of the injury, and heals illness by means of the cause of the sickness. ... Now it is a well-known medical principle that all people bitten by poisonous creatures become dangerously ill when they see them, or [even] when they [only] see their likeness. ... Similarly, doctors protect them from [people] mentioning in their presence the name of the animal that bit them, [and they forbid people] to mention it at all, because their minds cling to this thought and do not turn away from it altogether until it causes their death. ... Now in view of all this, it would have been correct that the Israelites, who had been bitten by the fiery serpents, should NOT look upon a serpent, and should NOT mention it or bring it to mind at all.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Moses to make for them the likeness of a fiery serpent, which was [the creature] that killed them. ... The general intention [of this section, then] is that God commanded that they should be healed by the harmful agent whose nature is to kill; and when a person concentrated his gaze upon the brass serpent which resembled totally the offending agent, he lived.  This was to make them realize that it is God [alone] "Who sendeth death and maketh alive' (Samuel I 2:6)."


            The Ramban explains, similar to the Bekhor Shor, that the purpose of the copper snake is to inform us of the supernatural nature of the punishment and the cure.  However, his interpretation explains the particular form of the copper snake as opposed to all other possibilities.  The Ramban notes the paradoxical nature of the remedy.  The cure takes the shape of the illness!  According to the Ramban, seeing the image of their attackers should have a negative effect.  It should only exacerbate the situation.  This, however, was not the case in our narrative.  The Torah stresses specifically that those who looked at the snake recovered (21:9).  This paradoxical phenomenon highlights the miraculous nature of our narrative.  Both the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra accentuate the irrational nature of the punishment.  However, the Ibn Ezra concluded from this irrationality his own incapability to explain the cure.  By contrast, the Ramban sees the true understanding of the cure in the fact that we do not understand it.  The paradoxical nature of the cure highlights its miraculous nature.


            We will conclude with the explanation advanced by Rabbi Hirsch:


"The serpents' bite had the sole purpose of letting the people see the dangers which dog a person's steps when he goes through the wilderness, and that it was only the miraculous power of God which had hitherto kept them far from them so far indeed that they did not even have an idea of their existence.  One, who had been bitten, had only to fix the image of a serpent firmly in his mind so that he realizes that even when God's gracious power will again keep the serpents at a distance, he will remember that the danger is still in existence, dangers that daily and hourly the special care of God lets us escape quite unconsciously.  So that every breath we take in our life is made into a fresh gift from God's might and goodness. ... Hence the punishment of these "ingrates," as our sages call them, by God removing the protection and the evil which hitherto had made the poisonous tooth of the serpent hidden and innocuous in the wilderness; hence the remedy, that one who had been bitten impresses on his mind to remember permanently the picture of the serpent."


            We previously cited Rabbi Hirsch's position that the serpents were a natural consequence of journeying in the wilderness.  God did not so much send the serpents as he did withdraw his protection.  Rabbi Hirsch continues this line of interpretation in explaining the cure of the copper snake.  It was not only a physical cure for a biological ailment; it was a process of repentance, of spiritual rehabilitation.  The sin of the Israelites was their deriding of the manna, their ingratitude towards God's graciousness.  According to Rabbi Hirsch, the copper snake reminded the people of the perils surrounding them.  Hence, after looking at the copper snake, they understood that God was constantly protecting them.  In order to appreciate God's benevolence, one must first be aware of the frailty of one's existence.  The Israelites became so accustomed to the manna that they no longer appreciated it.  They were no longer cognizant of their miraculous wilderness existence.  Repentance for their sin involved a re-awakening of their appreciation of God's munificence.


"Now does a serpent kill, or does a serpent keep alive?  NO!  But when Israel directed their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven; they were healed.  But otherwise they pined away."