Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Snake that Heals

The frustration of the Israelites in last week's Torah portion motivated them to speak out against G-d. This rebellion, in turn, elicited swift punishment, an attack of venomous snakes. This punishment is unique amongst G-d's acts of retribution.

While previous punishments included fire and sword (Numbers 11:1, 14:45), this time the Israelites are subjugated to snakes! What lies behind this strange punishment? Rabbi Hirsch advances a conception of the punishment of the serpents:

"'Shelach' (to send) in the 'kal' (simple conjugation form) means to send, to put something in motion towards a goal. But 'shale'ach' (as found in our verse - 21:6) in 'pi'el' (intensive conjugation form) predominantly has the meaning of letting something go, to leave it to its natural way, not to hold it back ... Here too, G-d did not send the serpents, but let them go, did not keep them back ... They had always been there in the wilderness, but hitherto they had been kept back by G-d's careful protecting power.

Now G-d withdraws this restraining power, and the serpents of the wilderness follow their natural traits to which the people succumbed. Thus, Moses describes the wilderness through which they had wandered unscathed through G-d's miraculous protective power as 'the great and terrible wilderness of poisonous snakes, scorpions and drought' (Deuteronomy 8:15). So that poisonous snakes are as much a natural appendage of the wilderness as thirst."

The serpents are not an unusual punishment at all. Quite the contrary, we would only expect to find serpents in the wilderness! What is outstanding is that the Israelites did not suffer from the serpents till this point. G-d's supervision protected them throughout the perilous journey in the desert. However, when the people proved ungrateful, and denigrated the manna that G-d provided, the L-rd withdrew His protection of the people.

They were left to contend with nature's hazards on their own. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, G-d did not send the serpents. Rather, He did not prevent their onslaught. The Israelites were left to contend with them on their own.

Many of the Israelites fall prey to the serpents. It is then that the people realize that it is they who are to blame. Overcome by guilt they approach Moses:

"The people came to Moses and said, 'We sinned by speaking against the L-rd and against you. Intercede with the L-rd to take away the serpents from us!' And Moses interceded for the people. Then the L-rd said to Moses, 'Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover. Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover." (Numbers 21:7-9)

A peculiar punishment is followed by an even more peculiar remedy. The people have acknowledged the fact that they have spoken against the L-rd. In order to prevent further carnage G-d commands Moses to make a "seraph," a figure of a serpent. Whoever was bitten by the snakes would look at the copper serpent, constructed by Moses, and would be saved.

We will conclude with the explanation advanced by Rabbi Hirsch:

"The serpents' bite had the sole purpose of letting the people see the dangers which dog a person's steps when he goes through the wilderness, and that it was only the miraculous power of G-d which had hitherto kept them far from them so far indeed that they did not even have an idea of their existence. 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 G-d'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 G-d lets us escape quite unconsciously.

So that every breath we take in our life is made into a fresh gift from G-d's might and goodness. ... Hence the punishment of these "ingrates," as our sages call them, by G-d removing the protection and the evil which hitherto had made the poisonous tooth of the serpent hidden and innocuous in the wilderness; hence the remedy, that one who had been bitten impresses on his mind to remember permanently the picture of the serpent."

We previously cited Rabbi Hirsch's position that the serpents were a natural consequence of journeying in the wilderness. G-d did not so much send the serpents as he did withdraw his protection. Rabbi Hirsch continues this line of interpretation in explaining the cure of the copper snake. It was not only a physical cure for a biological ailment; it was a process of repentance, of spiritual rehabilitation. The sin of the Israelites was their deriding of the manna, their ingratitude towards G-d's graciousness. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the copper snake reminded the people of the perils surrounding them.

Hence, after looking at the copper snake, they understood that G-d was constantly protecting them. In order to appreciate G-d's benevolence, one must first be aware of the frailty of one's existence. The Israelites became so accustomed to the manna that they no longer appreciated it. They were no longer cognizant of their miraculous wilderness existence. Repentance for their sin involved a re-awakening of their appreciation of G-d's beneficence.

Of course, there is another picture we must be sure to include which brings the meaning of this entire episode to it's ultimate fulfillment in the promised Messiah of Israel:

 "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.   "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:13-15 )

A paradox indeed:

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of G-d in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)


  1. I know this isn't were your originally talked about this, but I want to follow up on comment you made with a question.

    Do you believe that Baalam Son of Beor was a true prophet of God?

  2. "Do you believe that Baalam Son of Beor was a true prophet of God?"

    If we hold to the simple definition of a navi, a prophet, being a mouthpiece to transmit the word of G-d, perhaps, for Bil’am did proclaim and speak the words which G-d clearly put into his mouth.

    But a TRUE prophet of G-d? I'll offer up a few things to ponder and consider.

    What do we know about Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets that were sent to Israel?

    Our sages highlight between the prophets of Israel and the so-called prophets of the nations. Compare Bil’am with an Isaiah or a Jeremiah. The prophets of Israel, as G-d's watchmen, warned the nations against sin. Bila'am, on the other hand, will eventually advise moral seduction so that people's place in the World tom Come would be in jeopardy.

    Israel's prophets were full of compassion for Israel and for the nations of the world. (cf. Isaiah 16:11; Ezekiel 27:2) whereas the prophets of the nations were heartless. This man Bila'am rose up intent on uprooting an entire nation - without cause and for nothing. Bil'am's spiritual aptitude to draw near to G-d is subordinated to his egoism; he places himself at the service of earthly powers and pontenates and their base desires.

    Let's briefly consider the prophecy of Moses versus the prophecy of Bila'am and how it came about. Moshe never knew when G-d would speak to him, until He spoke to him; but Bila'am knew when G-d would speak to him. The point is that it seems that Bil'am's prophecy was always preceded by a self-induced state of ecstasy, which was not the case with Moshe.

    Perhaps for this reason it says of Bil'am's prophecy in Numbers 23 "vayikar Hashem el Bila'am". A different form of the same word and a different word order is used in the opening verse of Leviticus: "vayikra el Moshe vaydaber Hashem."

    Literally in Leviticus: "And He called to Moshe, and G-d spoke to him." If G-d had said in Leviticus "vayikra Hashem el Moshe vaydaber" with the subject Hashem separating the two predicates, the call would have been construed as an independent act, separate from the speaking i.e. G-d called him in order to speak to him.

    (continued . . .)

  3. However, it is worded "vayikra el Moshe vaydaber Hashem" which indicates that G-d's call is connected to His speaking and serves to define its character: G-d called and spoke to Moshe i.e. speech was initiated be a call to Moshe.

    This understanding indicates that that G-d's Word to Moshe was addresses TO Moshe and refutes those who would seek to distort and misrepresent G-d's revelation to Moshe, as if it were a revelation arising from within Moshe's own heart; as though it were comparable to self-induced ecstatic states; as though it were merely the inspiration of a man's spirit.

    But this couldn't be further from the truth. Rather, just as the word spoken by one man to another derives solely from the mind of the speaker and is in no way the product of the thought of the listener - for the word that is heard is not produced from inside the listener; the listener contributes nothing to its creation - so G-d's Word to Moshe was His Word alone. It did not derive from within Moshe but came to him from without, calling him, interrupting him and rousing Moshe from his own thoughts, so that he would concentrate on listening to what G-d would say to him.

    This call, vayikra, which came before G-d spoke to Moshe, precludes the idea that His Word was preceded by some process taking place within Moshe. It distinguishes G-d as speaker and Moshe as listener. In other words, Moshe did not bring it about that G-d would speak to him, nor did he have any idea beforehand what G-d would say to him.

    The advent of G-d's word to Bila'am, on the other hand, is portrayed as something passive, as it were; for Bila'am would bring it about that G-d's Word would come to him - perhaps by means of a spiritual ascent that he would induce. No call (vayikra) preceded G-d's word to Bil'am. By contrast, on every occasion that G-d spoke to Moshe, a call preceded His Word.

    This takes place explicitly in three places in the Torah: 1) when G-d first speaks to Moshe here in Leviticus from the Tent of Meeting; 2) When G-d spoke to him from the burning thorn bush; and 3) when G-d first spoke to him at Mt. Sinai - in order to teach us that in all circumstances and in every place, whenever G-d's Word came to Moshe, a call precede His Word.

    (continued . . .)

  4. In Numbers 22:12, Bil’am is expressly told not to go with the men who had been sent to him, because he would ne be able to accomplish the purpose of his mission. Now, if Bil’am had been a true prophet, he would have accurately conveyed this pronouncement by G-d to Balak’s emissaries, and the purpose of G-d’s intervention would have been realized without all of the subsequent events that follow.

    If Bil’am had been a true prophet of G-d, He would have conveyed G-d’s directive word for word without omitting any of it and, in that case, Balak, Moav and Midyan, instead of fearing Israel’s conquering might, would have been afforded the opportunity to recognize the moral element inherent in this nation to which G-d had promised His blessing, and they would have perhaps befriended Israel, for their own good.

    However, Bil’am deliberately omits the second part of the message he receives from the L-rd, which was the essential element. He mentions G-d’s refusal, implying that he, Bil’am, would have liked to have cursed the people, but G-d does not consider it fitting that one like myself should go with people like yourselves.

    Bil’am is no more a true prophet than his dumb donkey that rebukes him on his journey, as he is determined to accomplish that which G-d had clearly said was bound to fail. Another good contrast is with Elisha the prophet who refused remuneration of any kind when Naaman the leper was healed. Bil’am only gets paid for cursing Israel and he knows it. His greed and covetousness drive and animate him and the Scriptures highlight this trait later on:
    2 Peter 2:14-16
    They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children. They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who LOVED THE WAGES OF UNRIGHTEOUSNESS; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man's voice restrained the madness of the prophet.

    Jude 1:11
    Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.
    The sgaes teach us that Bil’am possessed superior intelligence and eloquence, but that his greed and base desires confused him. When he was no longer worthy of hi intellectual talent, G-d showed favor to the animal’s intelligence and to its impulsive feelings and granted it the gift of human speech. By doing so, G-d sets the stage as it were, for what the future held in store for Bil’am.

    The upshot is that Bil’am was endowed with the gift of eloquent human speech; and although he was unworthy of this Divine gift, and had so far misused it, the human speech of his mouth would now be placed in the service of Divine speech, and he – very much against his will – would lend his mouth to be the herald of Divine truth. In short, He Who can give speech to an animal, can also put His Word in the mouth of a Bil’am.

  5. Interesting, thanks.

    I'm not sure I agree but I don't know if I'm going to have time to put together an intelligent response in the next couple of days.

  6. "I'm not sure I agree . . ."

    Spoken like a Jew. Bravo. :o)

    " . . . but I don't know if I'm going to have time to put together an intelligent response in the next couple of days."

    I am confident that you will think of something and not leave me hanging.