Here we go again.
The Torah relates that, during the long march from the outskirts of Edom-Land towards the eastern approaches of Israel, the Jewish People got a little cranky, and started to complain against Gcd and His faithful servant Moses.
They dragged out the same tired canards they raised every time something went even the slightest bit wrong: Why did you ever lead us out of Egypt? Why must we die in this barren place? Blah. Blah. Blah.
To shake the Jews out of their torpor, the A-lmighty unleashes an attack of asps, serpents with a fiery - and deadly - bite.
We know that Divine Punishment is always precisely measured to befit the crime, so why poison snakes anyway? Some commentators believe that the snake is a reference to The Snake, the instigator of Adam and Eve's sin, and how he slandered Gcd to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Others suggest that the fiery sting of the snake bite exactly mimics the pain and injury of Lashon Harah, the slanders they were hurling against Moses and even Gcd Himself.
In fact, in dream symbolism, snake bites can represent harmful remarks by you or others. (Therapist: Interesting...Talk about snakes...)
Anyway, back to the narrative. The people beg Moses to intercede with Gcd to stop the deadly snake attacks. And then this amazing interchange occurs:
And Gcd said to Moses: make for yourself a fiery [serpent] and put it atop a pole [Nes]; and thus it shall be that any bitten person that looks upon it shall live. And Moshe made a copper serpent [Nachash Nechoshet] and placed it upon the pole [Nes]; and so it was that anyone bitten by the snake and gazed upon the Nachash Nechoshet lived (i.e., did not die from the snake bite). - Numbers 21:8,9What kind of strange voodoo is this? What did Moses create here? The Talmud (Avodah Zara 44A) relates that this mystical Nachash Nechoshet existed for hundreds of years, and could actually heal any kind of bite - dog, snake, deer tick. (During his reign, the righteous King Hezekiah had it destroyed, because, as is so often the case, awe became veneration became idol worship.)
Remember that the snake symbolizes Lashon Harah? The Kli Yakar seizes upon this and says that the copper serpent served as a point of recognition and focus. Since a snake bite caused their pain and snakes are a symbol of Lashon Harah, the afflicted person could connect the dots between their present distress with the injury they inflicted through their rash speech. This dawning recognition, this admission of guilt, is the first necessary step in the process of spiritual healing, of Teshuvah.
Let's develop this idea even further.
I suggest that not only did the Jews not connect the dots between their affliction and their slander, they failed to connect the dots on two other critical occasions.
We are told in our parasha that Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, died in the first month of the last year in the desert. Immediately thereafter, the Torah describes a crisis in the water supply. Out there in the high desert, their water supply vanishes, and a life-threatening crisis erupts.
In the fifth month of the last year, we are told of the death of Aaron atop Mount Hor. Immediately thereafter, the Torah describes the attack of the serpents. Another life-threatening crisis.
Number One: the people failed to recognize that it was through the merit of the righteous Miriam that the Jews had been supplied with water in the desert for forty years. And that well - Miriam's well - was miraculous in nature, so when Miriam died, poof! went the well.
Number Two: the people failed to recognize that it was through the merit of the righteous Aaron that the Jews had been protected by the Ananei HaKavod - the Clouds of Glory, a sort of climate-controlled Divine bubble that protected them from the hazards of the desert for forty years. So when Aaron died, poof! went the Ananei HaKavod. Exit the Divine bubble, enter the poison snakes.
Instead of connecting those dots, instead of reflecting inward, the Jewish People reflexively lashed out against their leaders with gratuitous complaints. So what does Moses do in response? He constructs a copper serpent. Now in English, "copper" and "serpent" are utterly unrelated words. But in Hebrew, they are almost identical: N-H-Sh and N-H-Sh-T. No Hebrew speaker could fail to see the word connection.
Next, Moses puts the Nachash Nechoshet on a Nes, which usually means a miracle, but in this context means a pole. The symbolism is clear: Nachash Nechoshet - focus on the [word] connection, to Nes, to the miracle that you are missing.
Moses is telling the people: your distress is because you took the miraculous for granted. You assumed the water and Divine protection would be there forever. Sad to say, you took Miriam and Aaron for granted. That was the sin of the Jewish People.
There was no voodoo here; Moses was guiding people to the path of healing. Once we cultivate a sensitivity to the miracles that surround us, that sense of awe and gratitude will lead to healing, to recovery, to Teshuvah. That was the lesson Moses was conveying in the Nachash Nechoshet.
One of the most uplifting books I have ever read is called Small Miracles, by Judy Leventhal and Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum. It describes true stories of extraordinary coincidences in everyday lives that, if viewed in the proper perspective, are nothing less than miraculous. It is a mini-documentary of the presence of the A-lmighty in our lives. I urge you to read these vignettes aloud at your Shabbat table.
Put on your miracle specs and start recognizing the abundant miracles, blessings and gifts that envelop us like the Ananei HaKavod; that nourish and water our very lives, like Miriam's Well; that indeed sustain each and every one of us. Recognize that every good thing in your life is a wondrous gift from Gcd Himself, specially selected for you.
Be the person in your world that connects the dots.
[For earlier blog posts on Parashat Chukat, click HERE and HERE.]