Parshat Chukat: The Bronze Serpent

Naama Frankel is Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum – Lod

%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%A0%D7%A7%D7%9C2 e1720346434206Parshat Chukat transitions us from the second year of our sojourn in the desert to the fortieth year, as we stand on the brink of entering the Promised Land.

Here, we encounter a new generation. The leaders who guided the people out of Egypt are no longer alive. This generation, after years of roaming in the wilderness, is expected to have greater faith, having learned from the sins of its ancestors. As such, we await to see a different spirit among them.

And yet, after the people mourn the death of Miriam and Aharon, they voice a complaint: “They journeyed from Hor HarHar by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom, and the people became disheartened because of the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moshe. Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water, and we detest this miserable food'” (Bemidbar 21:4-5).

Seemingly, the complaint is a legitimate one. There is no water, no bread, and they are forced to take another detour. As Rashi explains, they said – “So close are we to entering the land, and now we are turning back again, just as our forefathers did.” Flashbacks from history remind them of similar situations—real fears that this wilderness ordeal will never end.

We might sympathize with their complaint, but our memories, short as they might be, still recall the recent events described in the portions of Beha’alotcha and Shelach Lecha—only a few chapters before: consuming fire; a burning lust for meat; the episode with the spies, and Korach. The phrase “we detest this miserable food” immediately echoes Bemidbar 11: “Now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, except this manna.” The words “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness?” are reminiscent of God’s reproach when they craved meat: “Because you have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, ‘Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.'”

Reading this, one cannot help but be alarmed by the behavior of the Israelites. Anger wells up, along with the question: Has nothing changed?! Have we not progressed in the deeper sense? Can the people of Israel ever enter the Land of Israel that requires a wholly different perspective?

Unlike previous incidents, this time, God’s response is immediate: “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died.” (ibid. 21:6). There are no attempts by Moshe to explain or placate, no discussions. It is as if God is saying, “I expect more from you.” It is natural for a generation that emerged from Egyptian slavery to be bitter and despondent, but not you—the generation of the wilderness. You, who have witnessed My care for you in the desert, who have seen the consequences of not having enough faith in the Lord, cannot continue on this path.

And at this point, the people’s progress does become evident. They repent instantaneously: “The people came to Moshe and said: ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.'” (ibid. 21:7). The Israelites are in a different place now—they quickly take responsibility for their actions. This is significant progress. A nation that both takes responsibility for its deeds, as well as relies on the Lord, is, indeed, a nation prepared to enter the Land of Israel – a land which demands these very qualities in every generation.

Now the question arises: what is the significance of the serpent in this process the people are undergoing?

The last time the Israelites complained about food, the punishment was also related to food – God provided them with meat “until it comes out of your nostrils,” and killed them while “the meat was still between their teeth.” Hence, the fact that the Israelites are punished with serpents in our portion, must be of significance. 

According to one of Rashi’s interpretations, there seems to be a connection between the nature of the complaint and the consequent punishment: “Let the serpent come, for all foods taste the same to it (the taste of dust), and let it punish the ingrates for whom one thing changes into a multitude of tastes…” The serpent, condemned to eat dust all its life, demonstrates to the Israelites their ingratitude for the manna with its diverse and miraculous flavors.

Rashi’s second interpretation shifts the focus to the fact that they dare complain at all, rather than the nature of the complaint: “Let the serpent, which was punished for speaking ill, come and punish those who dare speak ill.” The serpent, symbolizing the quintessential vilifier since time immemorial, punishes those who dare speak ill of the Land of Israel, of God, and His messengers.

The serpent bites, and miraculously, it also heals the bite when it is positioned on a banner above the people. Abarbanel tries to understand the significance of the bronze serpent that was put up to save the people from the biting serpents. The serpents did not stop biting the people, but, says the Torah, “whoever looks at it [the bronze serpent] shall live”.  How could such an act of looking upwards heal the bite of a serpent? Moreover, if a serpent bites an individual and the latter looks up and sees another serpent above him, surely this would only increase his anxiety?

The well-known Mishnah in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanah suggests that the very act of looking upwards brings home the point that it is not the serpent that kills and heals, but rather – God Himself. In a situation where the people are in doubt about their faith – Will they truly reach the land? Is there someone guiding this journey? – it is the bronze serpent that provides the answers, as it were.  How?  By forcing the Israelites to look upwards towards their Father in Heaven and understand that healing and salvation come from Him alone: [As the Midrash on Bemidbar 21, 8 says:] “Does the serpent kill, or does it give life? Rather, when the Israelites looked upward and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed…'”

I would like to offer another perspective that connects the serpent to the red heifer mentioned at the beginning of our portion. The serpent has two faces: when looked upon on the ground, it brings death, but when one raises one’s gaze and looks upwards towards it, it has the power to bring life. We would expect that anyone touching the ashes of the red heifer would become pure since it has in its power to purify one of the greatest of all impurities – contact with death. However, the Torah tells us that those who handle the purification ritual of the impure individual, even if they, too, touch the purifying waters mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, must undergo a brief purification process themselves. This is because anyone who encounters death, or comes face-to-face with the sorrow and the pain of those made impure by death, is inevitably impacted negatively, and, like the impure persons themselves, requires a journey of faith to return to life in its state of purity. 

We find ourselves in times when we very frequently touch deep pain: “Released for publication” headlines; shiva visits; funerals. We’ve had a challenging year. Yet, we have witnessed how marvelous and holy our people are – myriads of saintly individuals were willing to sacrifice their lives for the nation and the land. This encounter with pain weakens and raises doubts and questions. It seems that the Torah portion asks us to lift our gaze upwards, to know that there is someone supervising our journey, even when our spirits are weary from the road, and to remember in the deepest sense – “By your blood – you shall live.”

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