In the merit of a refuah sheleima for Yitzchak Yaakov ben Henna Lentza.
One of the stories told in Parashat Chukat is that of the “nechashim ha-serafim,” the poisonous snakes which God unleashed against Benei Yisrael as punishment for their grumblings while traveling. After the people repented and Moshe prayed on their behalf, God instructed him to make an image of a “saraf” – a poisonous snake – and put it somewhere high where the people could see it. Anyone bitten by a snake would then look upon the image and be miraculously cured.
God instructed Moshe in general terms to make an image of a “saraf,” but the Torah tells that Moshe chose to make a “nechash nechoshet” – a “copper snake.” Rashi (21:9) explains that when Moshe heard God’s instructions, he figured that since he must make an image of a snake, the common Hebrew word for which is “nachash,” he was presumably to make it out of copper, the Hebrew word for which is “nechoshet,” which strongly resembles the word “nachash.” Seforno explains differently, suggesting that Moshe decided upon a “nechash nechoshet” in order to allude to the people that through their complaints against God they resembled the “nachash” – the snake in Gan Eden who spoke against God in luring Chava to partake of the forbidden tree.
Rav Elimelekh of Lizhensk, in Noam Elimelekh, offers a profound symbolic interpretation of the difference between God’s command to make a “saraf” and Moshe’s decision to make a “nechash nechoshet.” The word “saraf” is associated with the Hebrew word for “burn,” likely referring to the painful burning sensation experienced after suffering a snakebite. Accordingly, Rav Elimelekh suggested that the image of a “saraf” symbolizes a person with spiritual “fire,” who has the unique ability to inspire and inject religious passion in others. The scene described in the Torah of gravely ill patients being healed upon looking at the image of a “saraf” thus symbolically represents the “healing” effect of uniquely inspirational figures, people of genuine piety and spiritual greatness who exert a powerful influence upon others. Moshe, however, went a step further, making a “nachash.” The term “nachash” is sometimes used to refer to the seductive “snake” within us, our innate weaknesses and frailties. Moshe’s decision to make the image of a “nachash” instead of a “saraf” points to the fact that even a “nachash,” those of us struggling – and occasionally failing – to overcome our negative tendencies, are also capable of bringing “healing,” of exerting a positive spiritual influence. Even if we are not on the level of “saraf,” where our spiritual “fire” ignites the hearts of the people around us, we can still affect them, each in our own way. And so even in our state of “nachash,” as we continue to struggle with our weaknesses and bad habits, we should still be seeking to place ourselves “al neis,” in positions that allow us to impact our fellow Jews and the world generally to whatever extent and in whichever manner we can.