Parshat Chukat: Learning to Recognize Hidden Miracles
Throughout the books of Shmot and Bamidbar there are numerous stories of Bnei Yisrael complaining about a lack of food or water in the desert.
These stories, for the most part, follow a set formula. Bnei Yisrael complain, Moshe prays to Hashem and Hashem performs a miracle. Some examples of these miracles are Moshe throwing a log into bitter water to make it sweet (Shmot 15:25), God sending the manna (Shmot 17:4), Moshe striking a rock with his staff in order for water to come out (Shmot 17:6), and God sending a strong wind which brings quail to feed the nation (Bamidbar 11:30).
One such story, found in Parshat Chukat, strays from the expected formula:
“And the people spoke out against God and against Moshe, ‘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.’ ” (Bamidbar 21:5)
This time, before Moshe has a chance to pray, Hashem sends fiery serpents that bite and kill a large number of Bnei Yisrael.
In her commentary on the parsha, Nechama Leibowitz points out a grammatical nuance which gives great insight into the story of the serpents. She notes that the verb used to describe Hashem sending the fiery serpents is “va-yih-shalach”, the active intensive (פיעל) form of the verb ש-ל-ח and not “va-yeeshlach”, the active simple (קל) form of the verb.
She explains that the active simple form of שלח means to actively send, while the active intensive form means to release or no longer constrain.
The same active intensive verb is used when Moshe tells Pharaoh “שלח את עמי”- let My people go (Shmot 5:1) – i.e. release them from captivity. This seemingly small grammatical lesson is crucial to understanding the story of the serpents.
The Torah is teaching us that snakes did not miraculously appear, but rather Hashem had been continuously protecting Bnei Yisrael from being harmed by snakes during their many years of travel in the desert, and now removed His protection and released the snakes to roam free and bite, as they would naturally do without God’s intervention.
According to many commentators, Parshat Chukat takes place in Bnei Yisrael’s fortieth year in the desert, when the nation is on the brink of entering the Land of Israel. Earlier in the parsha, Moshe is informed by God that he will not be leading Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar, says that the main theme of this sefer is the shift from a supernatural existence to a natural existence. It is the start of a new era.
With this in mind, Hashem is teaching Bnei Yisrael that they should no longer expect Moshe to show up with his staff and make food and water miraculously appear in response to their complaints. Bnei Yisrael have to learn to adapt to their new reality and prepare for their lives in Israel in which Hashem will most often work through nature.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that what prompted Bnei Yisrael’s complaints in Parshat Chukat was their lack of recognition of Hashem’s presence and involvement in their everyday lives.
Therefore, as Nechama Leibowitz explains, God responded by releasing the snakes which He had been protecting them from for forty years in the desert, in hope that Bnei Yisrael would learn to recognize the ways in which Hashem works through nature. It is of course most difficult to notice and appreciate Godly action, which is hidden and not an open miracle, and Hashem wanted Bnei Yisrael to master this.
Unlike in similar stories, here the Torah does not tell us if or how Bnei Yisrael received food and water, demonstrating further that the supernatural miracles of the past forty years in the desert are no longer the focal point. The important message is Bnei Yisrael’s shift to a natural existence.
Bnei Yisrael understood that they sinned and turned to Moshe for help –
“We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to take away the snakes from us.” (Bamidbar 21:7)
Moshe prayed to Hashem as per Bnei Yisrael’s request, but Hashem did not remove the snakes; there was still an additional lesson that Bnei Yisrael had to learn. Hashem told Moshe to build a giant copper snake and place it on top of a pillar. Anyone who looked up at the copper snake after being bitten by a serpent would be cured.
Rashi interprets this to mean that Bnei Yisrael looked up toward the copper snake in the direction of heaven which reminded them to direct their hearts to God. When entering the Land of Israel, Bnei Yisrael would need to pray directly to God and not rely on an intermediary for their prayers to be answered as they had in the desert.
The Jewish people have long since learned to pray directly to God and this has become a central part of Jewish practice. However, the lesson of recognizing God’s subtle hand in everyday life is something that requires constant attention to incorporate into our lives.
For example, during the recent Hamas attacks against Israel, a single rocket landed in a parking lot, which is the only spot in my neighborhood that is not within thirty meters of a house or building, and this was clearly recognized as a tremendous miracle.
On the other hand, in times of peace, it is easy to overlook the miracle of being able to live quiet, ordinary lives while God continuously protects us from our surrounding enemies. This is but one example of God’s discrete intervention in this world. It is up to us to work on recognizing all that God does through the guise of nature and to appreciate His hand in our day-to-day lives.