The Life of a Snake

RABBI WAGENSBERG
PARSHAS CHUKAS
“The Life of a Snake”

One of the stories that takes place in Parshas Chukas is when the Jewish people complained about the Manna. God punished them by sending snakes which bit them. The Jews repented and Hashem instructed Moshe to make a serpent and place it on a pole. Moshe constructed a statue of a snake made out of copper and placed it on a pole. Any Jew who was bitten by a snake would look at the copper statue of a snake and he would be healed (Parshas Chukas, 21:5-9).

Rashi (Parshas Chukas, 21:6) cites a Tanchuma (19) which explains why specifically snakes were sent to punish them. One reason was because the snake in Gan Eden was punished for uttering evil talk. Therefore, snakes were used to exact punishment from those who uttered evil talk.

Another reason was because all foods taste like dirt to snakes (Yeshaya, 65:25). Therefore, snakes, who cannot appreciate the tastes of anything, would punish ungrateful people who complained about the Manna which would taste like almost anything one would want it to taste like.

This story raises a few questions. First, how could these Jews complain about the Manna? These Jews witnessed so many miracles, including revelation at Mount Sinai. The Zohar (Parshas Terumah, pg. 147a) says that those people were so great that there was never a generation like them beforehand and there will not be a generation as great as them until the coming of Moshiach.

How did such great people complain about such a good gift, the Manna, that Hashem gave to them every single day?

Additionally, how did looking at a copper statue of a snake heal them? We know that it is teshuva (repentance) and Hashem Who heals. Using a copper statue of a snake sounds almost like idolatry.

We will begin to address these issues by sharing the following Gemara in Meseches Yoma (chap. 8, “Yom Hakipurim”, pg. 76a) which reports that the disciples of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him, “Why didn’t Hashem just make the Manna fall once a year with enough Manna to last the entire year? Why did it have to fall every single day?”

Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai responded by saying that if Hashem would have done that, the people would not have felt the need to pray for their livelihoods on a daily basis because they already had what they needed for most of the year. They would have only prayed once a year when the Manna would start to run out.

Therefore, Hashem created a system in which the Jews would be compelled to pray every single day. That system was to give them just enough Manna for that day. In this way, they would have to pray every single day for their sustenance. As such, there would be an ongoing relationship between the people and God.

This system was implemented by God in order to strengthen the Jewish people’s Emuna (faith) in Hashem, and so that they would pray to God every single day.

There is even a hint which supports this idea that one of the purposes of the Manna falling every day was in order to strengthen the people’s faith in God.

In his Sefer Divrei Yisrael, Rabbi Yisrael Taub of Modjitz (Poland, 1849-1920; Pasrhas Beshalach, 16:15) points out that when the Manna fell for the Jewish people the first time, the pasuk says that the people said to each other, “Mann Hu” (it is food; Parshas Beshalach, 16:15).

The Modjitzer Rebbe says that when you take the letters in the words, “Mann Hu,” and rearrange them, they spell the word “Emunah.” This teaches us that the falling of the Manna on a daily basis was meant to strengthen their Emunah in Hashem on a constant basis.

Now we are going to see how Rabbenu Bachya explains the Jewish people’s complaint about the Manna, because it is deeper than meets the eye.

When the Jews had complained about the Manna, they said, “There is no food and there is no water” (Parshas Chukas, 21:5). This criticism seems to make absolutely no sense because there was food which fell for them every day; the Manna, and there was water which flowed from a rock constantly. How, then, could they complain by saying, “There is no food and there is no water?”

Rabbenu Bachya (Zaragoza, Spain, 1255-1340; Parshas Chukas, 21:5) explains what the Jewish people were complaining about. He says that the Jews complained that they were not being treated fairly when compared to the rest of the nations of the world. The Jews saw that the other nations had enough food and water that could sustain them for long periods of time. Other nations had reserves and storehouses with enough food and water that could last for years to come.

However, the Jews in the wilderness received a fixed amount of Manna that would last for only that day. They did not have storehouses of food. They did not have stocked refrigerators. Their cupboards were empty. Their food pantries had nothing in them.

The Jews could not even depend on their water supply because, prior to their complaint, Miriam had died (Parshas Chukas, 20:1) and, as a result, the water stopped flowing from the rock, because the water flow was in Miriam’s merit (Meseches Ta’anis, chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 9a, Rebbi Yose b’Rebbi Yehuda), and with Miriam gone, the water stopped flowing.

Even though Moshe davened (prayed) and the flow of water resumed, the people still felt that they could not depend on the water because if it stopped before, it could stop again.

Therefore, the Jews complained about being treated differently and harsher than the nations of the world. Therefore, when they said, “There is no food and there is no water,” they meant to say, “There is no food and water like the nations of the world.”

The Shvilei Pinchas points out that the reason why Hashem treated the Jews differently was because He wanted them to strengthen themselves in their Emunah in Hashem, and Hashem wanted them to pray to Him on a constant basis because Hashem wanted (and still wants) a relationship with them in which the channels of communication are open.

Now we can start to tie all of this into the snakes that Hashem sent to punish them with.

Once upon a time, a person asked Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827, Poland) why there are observant Jews who suffer financially, whereas there are Jews who threw away their religion who enjoy great wealth?

Reb Simcha Bunim said that in order to answer that question, we must analyze the punishment that Hashem inflicted upon those who participated in the sin of the Eitz Hada’as, because there is a striking difference between the punishments which Adam and Chava (Eve) received as opposed to the punishment which the snake received.

Hashem punished Adam with the words, “By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread” (Parshas Bereishis, 3:19). Hashem punished Chava with the words, “In pain will you bear children” (Parshas Bereishis, 3:16). Hashem punished the snake with the words, “And dust you will eat all the days of your life” (Parshas Bereishis, 3:14).

The difference is that the punishments which Adam and Chava received are real punishments. However, the “punishment” which the snake received seems more like a blessing than a punishment because the snake never has to worry where its next meal is coming from because it eats dirt and dirt is found everywhere (Yoma, chap. 8, “Yom Hakkipurim”, pg. 75a, Rebbi Yosi; Berachos, chap. 9, “Haro-eh”, pg. 57a).

This raises an obvious question. “What type of punishment was it that Hashem inflicted upon the snake?

Reb Simcha Bunim said that in order to answer this question, we have to define what the greatest reward in the world is. He says that the greatest reward that exists is having a connection and relationship with God. When we have to ask Hashem for parnasah (livelihood), it creates that connection to God. Therefore, when Adam, and by extension all men, beg Hashem to help make ends meet, it creates a connection between man and God.

When Chava, and by extension all women, cry out to Hashem when giving birth, it creates a connection with God. Therefore, these punishments were actually beneficial to Adam and Eve.

However, since the snake has his livelihood at all times, it never has a reason to call out to Hashem. Hashem was so disgusted with the snake for instigating Adam and Chava to sin that Hashem basically said to the snake, “Get out! I never want to see your face again, and I do not want to hear from you, ever!”

This was a tough punishment because it meant that Hashem was severing ties with the snake. If the greatest reward is having a connection with God, then the worst punishment is having no connection to God whatsoever.

Therefore, there can be people who threw away their Judaism who enjoyed great wealth, and yet there can be observant people who are poor. It could be that sometimes, these non-observant people who threw away their connection to Judaism are wealthy because Hashem no longer wants to hear from them, and yet it could be that sometimes, observant people are poor because Hashem wants to hear from them continually.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand, on a deeper level, why Hashem sent specifically snakes to punish the Jews. It is because, according to Rabbenu Bachya, the Jews complained that they were only given small rations of food per day. They wanted to be given so much food that they would never have to worry about where their next meal was coming from.

This means that the Jews wanted to live the life of the snake, because snakes also never have to worry where their nourishment is going to come from. Therefore, Hashem sent specifically snakes to punish them so that the Jews would learn from the snakes that they were asking to live the life of the snake which is a life devoid of Hashem. Hashem was conveying to them that this was not what He had in mind for them, because Hashem desires to have a relationship with them.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains how a statue of a copper snake healed them. The answer is that by gazing at the copper snake it reminded them of where they went wrong. The copper snake reminded them that they wanted to be like a snake with all the parnassah in the world at their disposal. However, they realized that such a lifestyle is one empty of Hashem.

These thoughts prompted them to do teshuva. As they did teshuva, they would look heavenward, beyond the copper snake, and desire to have a connection with Hashem; our Parent in Heaven (Mishna Meseches Rosh Hashana, chap. 3, “Ra-uhu Beis Din”, Mishna 8, pg. 29a).

At this point, we are going to focus on another complaint that the Jews had concerning the Manna. We will see that there were two different complaints about the manna which stemmed from two different groups of people.

Right after the Jews said, “There is no food and no water,” that very same verse concludes by saying that the Jews said, “And our soul is disgusted with this destructive food” (Parshas Chukas, 21:5). What did they mean when they said that they were disgusted with the Manna? Why was the Manna considered to be destructive? What did the manna destroy?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that there were many levels of Jews at that time, just like there are today. We will focus on two of those levels. First, there were the simple folk, but then there were those who were on a higher level who had a true reverence of Hashem.
The simple folk complained with the words, “There is no food and no water.” They complained that they did not have reserves of food and water like the nations of the world (as Rabbenu Bachya explained above).

However, the people who were operating on a higher spiritual level did not complain about that because they appreciated the benefits of the Manna falling every day. They valued the Emunah and connection to God which that situation generated.

Therefore, the people on a higher level complained with the words, “Our soul is disgusted with this destructive bread.” The meaning behind this complaint can be explained based on an earlier complaint of the Jews.

In Parshas Beha’alosecha (11:4) it says, “The rabble that was among them Hisavu Ta’ava (cultivated a craving) and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat?’”

Rashi (quoting Sifri, 11:2) asks how they could complain that they had no meat? They had meat on account of their sheep and cattle (Parshas Bo, 12:38). We cannot say that by this point they had already consumed all of their meat because right before they entered into the Land, the tribes of Gad and Reuven wanted to remain in the Trans-Jordan because of its pastures to accommodate their massive amounts of cattle (Parshas Matos, 32:1). So, what were they complaining about?

Rashi says that they just sought a pretext to complain. In other words, they just picked on something to criticize because they just wanted to complain about something. But what was it that they selected to complain about?

The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, 1847-1905, Ger, Poland; Parshas Beha’alosecha) and the Bikkurei Aviv (Rabbi Ya’akov Arye Guterman, founder of the Radzimin Dynasty, 1792-1874, Poland, known as the Saba Kadisha of Radzimin) say that since the Jewish people ate holy Manna, day in and day out, it had a positive impact on them spiritually. Eating the manna made the Jews very holy. As they say, “You are what you eat!”

The Manna made the Jews so holy that they no longer had ta’avos (lustful passions). The Manna placed the Jews on such a transcendent level that they were liberated from the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination).

The Jews did not want to be missing out on ta’avos because they preferred to have the ta’ava and overcome it by battling with their Yetzer Hara, because in this way they could show Hashem just how much they loved Him and were willing to fight in order to fulfil His will. They thought that this path would give Hashem much more Nachas Ruach (pleasure).

This is what the verse meant when it said, “Hisavu Ta’ava.” It means that they “desired” (Hisavu) a “desire” (ta’ava). In other words, they wanted the ta’avos. Not because they enjoyed satisfying their ta’avos physically but so that they could overcome their ta’avos and show Hashem that they were serious about their Avodas Hashem (Divine service of God).

They made a mistake because asking for ta’avos could very likely lead to giving in to them. They should have preferred not having a Yetzer Hara so that there would be no sinning whatsoever. Not sinning would have brought more honor to Hashem than having the ta’ava to sin and attempting to overcome it because if they would fall prey to the temptation of sin, it would be even more damaging to them.

This is what we mean when we say every morning towards the end of Birchas Hashachar, “Lo Lidei Nisayon v’Lo Lidei Bizayon” (do not bring us to being tested and do not bring us to disgrace; end of Birchas Hashachar). The juxtaposition between these two statements is that being tested can most likely bring a person to disgrace.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this is what they meant when they said, “Our soul is disgusted with this destructive bread.” They emphasized the soul because they had a spiritual complaint. That complaint was that the bread (Manna) was destructive because it destroyed their Yetzer Hara. They complained that it was too easy to serve Hashem without a Yetzer Hara, and this could not be giving Hashem too much nachas. This is what disgusted them. They could not stand serving Hashem without challenges because that requires no real effort.

The word in the verse for “destructive” is “Kelokel.” There is no letter vov in this word which allows us to break this word into two parts. When we do so and change the vowels around, it spells “Kal Kal” (light light or easy easy). Meaning, that without the Yetzer Hara, it was way to easy to serve Hashem. They wanted a Yetzer Hara so that they could overpower it and show Hashem how committed they were to God.

This explains how such a holy generation complained about the manna to begin with. It was because their complaint was on a lofty level. They were complaining that they wanted more of a challenge so that they could show Hashem that they really meant business when it came to serving Him. This desire came from a good place. Only high spiritual people would submit such a complaint.

This will explain another reason why Hashem sent specifically snakes to punish them. Rashi in Parshas Bereishis (2:25) says that Adam and Eve were not ashamed of being naked because they did not possess a Yetzer Hara inside of them. Prior to eating from the Eitz hada’as (Tree of Knowledge), the Yetzer Hara had existed only outside of them. It was only when they ate from the Eitz Hada’as that the Yetzer Hara entered inside of them which caused them to feel ashamed of their nakedness.

The Avnei Neizer (Rabbi Avraham Bornstien, 1838-1910, first Sochotshover Rebbe) and the Chiddushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1799-1866, first Gerrer Rebbe) expand upon this Rashi and say that this was precisely how the snake in Gan Eden got Adam and Chava to sin.

The snake said to them that they had no Yetzer Hara inside of them. Therefore, it was relatively easy for them to serve Hashem. As such, Hashem was not getting so much nachas from them. However, if they were to eat from the Eitz Hada’as, the Yetzer Hara would go inside of them causing there to be a constant internal struggle. By overcoming that internal conflict, they could show Hashem how much they loved Him and how committed they were to Him.

This is what attracted Adam and Chava to partake of the Eitz Hada’as. It turns out that this was precisely the mistake which the higher level of Jews made when they complained about the destructive Manna. Since the originator of this claim was the snake in Gan Eden, Hashem chose to punish the Jews in the Midbar with snakes to teach them that the Nachash in Gan Eden was the root cause of this mistaken philosophy.

Practically speaking, whenever we Daven and ask Hashem for parnassah, whether in the Bareich Aleinu benediction in the Shmoneh Esrei, or during the recitation of Parshas Haman, or in our own words throughout the day, let us remember that if we are struggling financially on any level, it is just a sign that Hashem wants us to call out to Him because He wants to have a relationship with us.

If we keep the channels of communication open and speak to Him constantly, there will be no need for Hashem to make us struggle in order to generate a connection with Him because we will have already forged that relationship.

So, may we all be blessed with so much parnassah that we never have to worry, but if we do struggle with making a livelihood on any level, let us remember that it is just a sign that Hashem wants to have a relationship with us, and may we thereby increase out tefillos and strengthen our Emunah in Hashem which will distance us from the ways of the snake.