Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, the revered mashgiach and Ba’al Mussar was once riding in a cab and the Israeli driver related the following story:
“Rebbi, when my friends and I completed our army service, we decided to go on a world tour. We found ourselves in the jungles of Africa one night when suddenly one of my friends woke up screaming. a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. We tried as much as we could to pull the snake off, but with no success. He was turning blue; close to death. We didn’t know what to do. At that point, one of us shouted to him, ‘Yigal, you’re going to die, at least say Shema.’ Yigal started saying Shema. As soon as he finished the first pasuk, the snake released himself and slithered away.”
The cab driver continued, “Rebbi, do you know that because of that incident my friend Yigal became a baal teshuva! Today, he is frum with a beautiful religious family. They keep kosher, his wife covers her hair and his kids all go to cheder.”
Rav Levenstein responded, “That’s amazing.” He paused for a minute and then suddenly asked, “and what about you?”
“Me? Oh no,” said the cab driver, glancing away from the road. “It didn’t happen to me. It happened to him.”
A man confronts a life-threatening experience. He prays and, wonder of wonders, God hears his prayer and delivers him to safety. The man, to his great credit, recognized the hand of God in his salvation and resolved to change his life. But those who witnessed this miraculous event? They acknowledge the event but not the miracle! As a result, they are left not with lives transformed but merely a gripping story to be told during a random cab ride.
After witnessing the miracles that freed them from Egypt, B’nai Yisrael quickly became acrimonious. They whined and complained incessantly. Their journey was too arduous. Moshe was too bossy. And, oye, always something to say about the food! It was not long after the Children of Israel had complained yet again about their desert “menu” that God sent snakes and serpents that bit and killed “multitudes from among them.”
That got their attention.
However, while the simple reading of the parasha suggests that God punished the Israelites by “sending” the snakes and serpents, Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein in his comments on Parashat Chukas suggests that rather than punishing the Israelites, God was in fact simply withholding the gift He had been bestowing upon them all along. He did not “send” the serpents so much as free them to do as their own natures dictated.
After all, as Rabbi Alderstein notes, God did not create hordes of snakes with the intent to bedevil Jewish targets. Instead, He simply removed the restraints He had imposed upon them and allowed them the free rein to act as snakes could reasonably be expected to act and bite these clumsy and clamorous intruders!
The wilderness is filled with dangers, not least of which was the, “…snake, poisonous serpent, scorpion, and thirst where there was no water…” That is, poisonous reptiles were as much a part of that landscape as water was lacking from that arid expanse. God did not arrange for some special agents of death to do His bidding because of the Israelites foolish behavior. Those fatal instruments were already in place, naturally part of the scenery.
Which is precisely the point of this episode, according to Rabbi Alderstein. Without God’s merciful protection from the existing dangers, the Israelites could never have gotten to where they were. Too many would have succumbed to the dangers that made the wilderness inhospitable to people. But, in their failure to cherish what God had done for them – and did for them continually – they “convinced” God to take back His gift.
And then what did the people do? They hurried to Moshe to plead for their lives. Despite knowing their nature only too well, Moshe once again prayed on their behalf. In response to his prayer, God gave him the following instruction, “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole and it will be that anyone who is bitten will look at it and live.”
“Without His merciful protection, they could never have gotten to where they were...”.
So blind to the gifts God graced them with! The people were lost in their narcissistic bubble… until God “took His gift back.” How easy it is to complain and ignore the blessings from the safety those very blessings confer upon us.
The wilderness of the Israelites was real. However, just as the narrative of our emancipation from bondage describes an historical event, it is also an allegory for each of our lives. Each Passover we remember that God took “you” out of Egypt. Like the Israelites, we journey through the wilderness and its inherent dangers are held at bay not by our ability or our intelligence or our strength but by God’s grace and mercy.
Like the Israelites of old, we too are surrounded by “snakes and serpents”, by dangers and threats. We are beset by dangers that threaten our hearts and our souls. In the most comfortable home and community, the threat of addiction lurks. Our dear children, driving so attentively in the safe, late-model cars we purchase for them, are not match for the drunken driver, or the brief diversion of a text.
A nuclear power plant just north of New York City could cause untold death and destruction were it to fail. Tankers carrying all manner of hazardous materials speed along our highways and suburban roadways, an errant driver away from flipping over and turning whole communities into “hot zones.” A hurricane inundates major cities with water and waste. An explosive eruption of volcanoes displaces thousands in Hawaii and causes many more to die in Guatemala.
We, like the Israelites of old, tarry in the wilderness and, like them, are in danger not because God might “punish” us but because He might see fit to simply withhold His grace, allowing the dangers inherent in the world to run amok.
“Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole and it will be that anyone who is bitten will look at it and live.” The Mishnah, in Rosh Hashanah, asks, “But does a serpent kill or restore life? What is the meaning of looking at the serpent?” A simple reading of God’s command could be misinterpreted as a suggestion of idolatry. “Rather,” the Mishna responds, “when Israel gazed upward and subjugated their heart to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but if not, they perished.”
This explanation makes clear that it was not gazing upon the copper snake itself that provided protection for anyone bitten by snake or serpent. Rather, it effectuated a spiritual repentance, reflection and introspection, “a subjugation of the heart.”
The Maharal teaches that looking at the copper snake high upon the pole accomplished two goals. It caused the person to look heavenward, ensuring his realization that he was totally dependent only on God and, by viewing a representation of that which caused him harm and pain, his prayers would be more intense and focused.
In his teaching, Maharal conveys an important lesson in prayer. When engaged in tefilah, one must feel and clearly visualize that for which he is seeking God’s intervention. It is not enough to simply utter the words. He must feel the experience.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch goes even further than the Maharal. In referring to God’s command, he argues that the point was not to look beyond the snake and into the heavens but rather to look directly at the snake and by doing so fully understand the wildness of the snake and the environment he found himself in. By looking directly at the snake, he would understand exactly the dangers of the Midbar years and therefore provide the obvious answer to the question, “Who leads you through the great and awesome wilderness – of snake, fiery serpent and scorpion?” (Devarim 8:15)
In other words, you are in the midst of constant danger and challenge. It is only God’s benevolence and protection that keeps the scorpion and snake at bay.
The generation of yotzei mitzrayim, whose voices were raised in a constant protest, needed to look at the high Nes – not “pole or banner”, but Nes meaning miracle. God is saying to the Children of Israel, “Look at the miracle that surrounds you every minute of your long sojourn in the dessert!”
The serpent cannot kill or restore life. That is for God alone.
It is not enough to tell the story. One must see what is essential in the experience. The cure and protection from the snake is a nes, miracle. It is God.
Our cabdriver would do well to see beyond the boa constrictor around his friend’s neck to realize we are all in the midbar unless we look beyond the danger to see God’s protection. And like him, we all must realize that nothing “just happens”. There are no random events, no coincidence. No “dumb luck”. All is directed from above. All we need to do is look, think, reflect and try to understand