In the merit of a refuah sheleima for Yitzchak Yaakov ben Henna Lentza.
As we discussed yesterday, the Torah in Parashat Chukat tells the story of the “nechashim ha-serafim,” the poisonous snakes which entered the Israelite camp and killed many among Benei Yisrael as punishment for their complaints. Forced to circumvent the territory of the Edomite Kingdom, whose king heartlessly and senselessly refused to grant them passage through its country, Benei Yisrael grew weary and impatient, leading them to complain about having been brought out of Egypt, and about having to subsist solely on the heavenly manna. After finding themselves assaulted by the swarm of killer snakes, Benei Yisrael apologized to Moshe, repented, and begged him to beseech God on their behalf. In response to Moshe’s entreaties, God instructed him to constructed an image of a snake which the people were to look upon after suffering a snakebite, from which they would then miraculously be cured.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his Torah commentary, notes two subtle but important linguistic nuances in the Torah’s description of the punishment brought against the people. The Torah (21:6) tells that God “sent the poisonous serpents” against the people, using the verb “va-yeshalach” (“sent”), a slight variation of the more common form of this verb, “va-yishlach.” Rav Hirsch avers that whereas “va-yishlach” means “sent,” the form “va-yeshalach” means “released” or “let go.” God did not “send” the snakes against the people; He allowed them to act naturally. At all other times throughout Benei Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness, God miraculously blocked the desert serpents from doing what they would normally and naturally do – attack humans. But in response to Benei Yisrael’s grumblings, He released these snakes from their “chains,” as it were, allowing them to pursue their natural course, thus resulting in deadly attacks upon Benei Yisrael. On this basis, Rav Hirsch explains a second nuance – the definitive article “ha” (“the”) in the expression “ha-nechashim ha-serafim,” which suggests that the Torah refers to a specific, known group of snakes. Rav Hirsch writes that the Torah speaks of the snakes that naturally lurk in the desert that would have ordinarily attacked Benei Yisrael throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, and were only now allowed to do as God “released” them so they could act naturally.
Rav Hirsch proceeds to apply this approach to explain the symbolic meaning of the punishment brought against the people and the manner He later remedied the situation. Benei Yisrael needed to look upon a snake in order to contemplate all the kindness that God had performed for them throughout the previous forty years, protecting them from all the various “snakes” – dangerous elements – that abound in the desert. This was the most effective cure for the ill of ingratitude that plagued the people, for their petty complaints about the conditions of travel. The snakebites they suffered symbolized the imaginary “sting” that we pretend to feel when life does not serve us precisely what we desire, the psychosomatic “pain” of disappointment that we experience when our wishes are not perfectly fulfilled. And the cure for this self-inflicted malady is to reflect upon all the “snakes,” all the many dangers that lurk from which we are spared every moment. In Rav Hirsch’s words:
One who had been bitten had only to fix the image of a serpent firmly in his mind so that he realizes that even when God’s gracious power will again keep the serpents at a distance he will remember that the danger is still in existence, dangers that daily and hourly the special care of God lets us escape quite unconsciously. So that every breath we take in our life is made into a fresh gift from God’s might and goodness. Nothing is so thoroughly calculated to conciliate us in the everyday disappointments in life which so easily sting us to impatience – every big prize in the lottery which God has failed to let us win – and to mix them with the exalted feeling of God having saved us, and the joy of being granted a new life, than the conviction of the abyss on the narrow edge of which the whole path of our life treads which the loving Hand of God veils from what would be our giddy sight, nothing so much but to see, to realize the nechashim ha-serafim which lurk invisibly on our path, and which only the Almighty Power of God knows how to impose the ban of impotence to injure us on them.
The message of this episode, then, is that we must work to cure ourselves from the unnecessary “sting” of frustration and despondency that the day-to-day rigors and disappointments of life so often cause us to feel. We do this by looking at the “snake,” at all the potential forms of suffering and hardship that we do not experience, at all that is going right in our lives, so we can live in joyous gratitude and contentment, rather than constantly worrying and complaining about what we feel is missing.