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Parshas Chukas: Fatal Error

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Rav Yecheskel Levenstein zt”l[1] was once in a taxi in Yerushalayim. The driver was a secular Israeli who had served in the army years earlier. Seeing that he had a distinguished rabbi in the taxi, he related a personal story:

After he had completed his army duty, he had joined a group of non-religious soldiers on a safari trip to South America. One day a member of the group let out a blood-curdling scream. Everyone ran over only to find a horrific sight. A boa-constrictor had wrapped itself around him and was slowly squeezing the life out of him. The group began throwing rocks and sticks at the snake, but to no avail. With his last remaining breath the man yelled, “Shema Yisrael.” As soon as he said those words, the constrictor inexplicably loosened its grip and slithered away. As a result of the miraculous event, the man joined a yeshiva as soon as they returned home, and today is completely Torah observant.

After listening to the driver’s incredible story, Rabbi Levenstein asked him, “What about you? After seeing such a miracle why didn’t you became Torah observant?” The driver looked at the rabbi incredulously, “Kevod haRav, why should I have become religious? The snake wasn’t wrapped around me!”

For Bnei Yisrael, traveling through the desert for forty years was not only fraught with dangers and external challenges, there were many internal confrontations as well. The Torah relates that the nation became restless and voiced its dissatisfaction. “Why has He brought us up from Mitzrayim to die in the desert, for there is no bread and there is no water, and our souls are repulsed with the insubstantial bread?”

G-d’s retribution was swift, and the camp was overrun with venomous snakes and many people were fatally bitten. “And the people came to Moshe and said: we have sinned… And G-d said to Moshe, ‘Make for yourself a venomous snake and place it upon a tall pole, and it shall come to pass that anyone who is bitten, let him look upon it and he will live. And Moshe made a copper snake…”

Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch zt”l explains that the purpose of the snakes was to make Bnei Yisrael realize the omnipresent dangers that surrounded them in the desert. A desert is a naturally hazardous place, and even more so for an entire nation, of men, women, and children. The people were complaining that their life in the desert was uneventful and trite. When the snakes attacked however, they realized that the insipidness of their travels was the greatest blessing, and a result of the protective Hand of G-d.

Rav Hirsch continues that G-d informed Moshe that anyone who was bitten must gaze at the copper snake, so that this idea would become entrenched in their mind. The mental image of the snake would help the victim remain aware of the vast dangers that surround him constantly and that it is only G-d’s Protection that saves him from them.

Rav Matisyahu Salomon similarly noted that unlike the makkos where G-d miraculously caused animals to gather en masse in Mitzrayim, during this event G-d merely removed His Divine protection. When that happened, nature took its course, and the surrounding snakes, which naturally habituate the desert invaded.

Rav Salomon added that we must view our contemporary situation in the same vein. When, G-d forbid, a terrorist attack occurs[2] it is not that G-d allowed the terrorist to penetrate. Klal Yisroel has so many enemies that our daily survival is unnatural and miraculous. Rather, it is that He has removed a certain measure of His Divine Protection from us. When that occurs and nature is allowed to take its course tragedies are almost inevitable.

One of the mainstays in the life of a Jew is reciting blessings. The Gemara[3] relates that one is obligated to recite one hundred blessings every day. What does it mean to bless G-d? How can a temporal mortal of flesh and blood bless the Eternal, King of Kings?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l explained[4] that when one recites a blessing he is espousing his cognizance of G-d’s hidden hand in this world. “When one recites a blessing over food, for example, he in essence is saying, “Master of the Universe, You are hidden behind a cloud; no one sees You. Yet, as I eat this food, I reveal Your Presence. The very fact that I can eat, that my body absorbs food, that I can digest, indeed the entire biological process behind food consumption and the very creation of food itself is testimony to Your presence. Through this recognition I am removing the obscuring cloud; I am revealing You.”

Blessings are addressed to G-d in the second person: Blessed are You, rather than Blessed is He, in order to affirm G-d’s presence among us. It is as if we are saying that we are testifying about G-d’s presence through the object which we are blessing. The purpose of a blessing transforms the hidden into presence. Thus a Jew becomes a partner with G-d’s revelation of earth every time he recites a blessing.

Rav Hirsch concludes that a person who comprehends this idea, will never be dissatisfied with his lot. He will realize that the mere fact the “venomous serpents” ubiquitously surrounding him do not destroy him is itself a tremendous gift from G-d.

The reason why the plague occurred with snakes is because it has been the symbol of ingratitude since time immemorial. G-d had hidden the venomous snakes of the wilderness, and concealed from the nation the dangers that were ever-present. But when they failed to appreciate that gift, G-d simply removed that shield. Thus the remedy for anyone bitten by a snake was to implant in his mind the image of the snake, which reminded him of G-d’s protection.

The symbol of modern medicine, the caduceus, depicts a short staff entwined by two serpents in the form of a double helix. Although many explanations are purported, it is likely that the original source of the symbol stems from this event in the desert. In a sense it is an appropriate symbol. The purpose of the copper serpent was to arouse the people to recognize the miracles that were occurring constantly around them without their realizing it. All the gifts of life – including health – are miracles.

The wise person does not wait for tragedy to strike. He realizes and thanks G-d for all he has every day of his life.

 

[1] Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, known as Reb Chatzkel, (1895 – 1974), was the mashgiach ruchani of the Mir yeshiva in Europe, and later of Ponovezh in B’nei Brak.

[2] Or when the world hypocritically turns against Israel politically…

[3] Menachos 43b

[4] Rosh Hashanah Machzor

About the Author: Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead in Monsey NY. He is also Guidance Counselor/Rebbe in ASHAR and Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch. His website is www.stamtorah.info. He can be reached at stamtorah@gmail.com.


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