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Parashat Chukat 5779 — 07/13/2019

Parashat Chukat 5779 — 07/13/2019

Bamidbar 19:1-22:1

One incident that we have not touched on in the past is the incident with the poisonous snakes that attacked the people after one of their periodic bouts of complaining. This took place towards the end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, when the new generation, the one that would actually enter the Land, had grown up and the old generation, the ones who left Egypt, had died off. This generation quickly recognizes that the snakes had come as a consequence of their bad behavior, and implores Moshe Rabbeinu to pray to Gd to remove the snakes. Gd, in turn, tells Moshe to make a snake and put it on a tall pole, so that the Israelites who had been bitten would see the snake and survive the bite. Moshe makes the snake (nachash) out of copper (nechoshet) and it works as advertised – those who look up at the copper snake live and vice versa.

What is going on here? Is this some kind of sympathetic magic? Some kind of visual homeopathy? Didn’t Gd just come down pretty hard on us when we made the golden calf? Even though Moshe made the copper snake on Gd’s explicit instructions, there’s at least a bit of inconsistency here, isn’t there? If it’s a miraculous healing from Gd, why the snake on the staff? Does Gd need props to do miracles?

R. Goldin, as usual, reviews a number of approaches from various commentators, which show a wide diversity of opinions, as one might expect in the case of such a cryptic passage. Of particular interest to me is the approach of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany):

Most intriguing, perhaps, is the approach to this episode mapped out by R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch notes a powerful linguistic detail in the Torah’s introduction to the serpents’ attack: Vayishalach Hashem ba’am et hanechashim haserafim, “And Gd let the fiery serpents loose against the people.”

There is a significant difference between the words va’yishlach (“he sent”) and va’yishalach (“he let loose”). The former term indicates an act of “sending.’ while the latter term implies an act of “setting free” or “letting loose.’  By introducing the attack of the serpents with the term va’yishalach as opposed to va’yishlach, the Torah conveys that Gd does not “send” a supernatural plague of serpents to attack the Israelites. The nation is, after all, already traveling through a land of “snake, fiery serpent and scorpion” Gd simply lifts His divine protection from the people and, by doing so, “lets loose” the dangers that are already there.

The copper serpent can therefore be seen, Hirsch boldly suggests, not as a symbol of Gd’s miraculous intervention, but as a reminder of what can occur when Gd fails to intervene.

This kind of turns the relationship between Gd and Israel on its head! We generally think that Gd doles out positive or negative consequences depending on our actions. Alternatively, we could say that the universe reacts to individual action. It is Gd’s Will that we have all good, all progress in life, but for that to happen, we must align our will with Gd’s Will. Sometimes that is difficult, as we are distracted, generally by some outward-directed sensory impressions, or we are unable to discern Gd’s Will because of the limitations of our mind and our intellect. When that alignment is not perfect the result is negative action and negative reaction, which we experience as suffering.

R. Hirsch’s view is in one way closer to that of some modern-day atheists who claim that the universe is profoundly indifferent to human beings, that there is, essentially, no moral order in the universe. R. Hirsch, of course, tempers that view with the axiom that there is a Gd Who protects Israel (and perhaps, in his view, all people). It is only when one’s individual will, or the nation’s collective will, falls out of alignment with Gd’s Will, that the forces of nature take over. It is as if Gd tells Israel, “If you want to go the way of nature, fine, but understand that nature can be harsh.” As R. Goldin points out, nature, in the form of fiery serpents, is already there, ready to do its thing. It is only Gd’s protection, in the form of restraining these creatures that allows the nation to continue to exist.

Several centuries before R. Hirsch, Ramban argued that in fact there is no such thing as nature – everything that happens, including the apparent regularities that science studies, is the Will of Gd. Gd continually creates the universe, moment by moment, and it is only through some Gd-given persistence of memory that we “know” what happened prior to the present moment. (Bertrand Russell once remarked that we have no way of knowing that the universe was not created 5 minutes ago, complete with our memories, the fossil record, and rocks that can be radiocarbon-dated to 4 billion years ago. Since there is no way either to verify or to disprove that statement, it is not amenable to the scientific method.) R. Hirsch’s formulation appears to be a less radical counterpoint to Ramban’s view; whether he meant it that way I don’t know. In both cases, however, the critical component in our experience is the level of alignment of our will with Gd’s Will.

Our Sages ask: Now, does a [copper] serpent kill, or does a serpent keep alive? NO! But when Israel directed their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven; they were healed. But otherwise they pined away. (Rosh Hashanah 29a). Apparently the copper serpent provided a mechanism by which this particular disjunction between Gd and the people could be rectified. Perhaps the image of the snake became an object of meditation – by experiencing the snake at finer and finer levels, the specific misaligned structures within the people’s nervous systems that caused this specific plague, were brought back to their normal functioning. This is “medicine” at its finest.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Chukat

In this parshah, Miriam dies, the well that follows her dries up, the people complain, Gd tell Moses to speak to a rock and water will come out of it, Moses strikes the rock instead and Gd denies him entrance to the Promised Land for his disobedience — there are different rabbinical theories about why Gd denies Moses entrance but Torah is very clear that Gd did deny Moses entrance.

Does that mean that Moses has lost his chance for teshuvah, return to primordial Oneness?

Put it another way: when Moses is denied entry to the physical land of Canaan, Eretz Israel, does that mean he’s also denied entrance to the spiritual Promised Land, the land of fully developed awareness?

No, this Land he can enter.

Let us see what we can find in Torah and in this parshah that supports this view, not only for Moses but for every generation, including our own and all future generations.

1. “Be Thou holy”:
Gd many times said, “Be thou Holy, for I Am Holy”(for example, Leviticus 11:44) and has given many directions that suggest how this can be done; for example, “Love Gd with all thy heart and all thy soul”. This Love is something Moses clearly has: even when he pleads with Gd to give forgiveness to wrongdoers, Moses is loving Gd with all his heart and soul, pleading for the life of people who are Expressions of Gd, even though Gd is seeming to hide within them, even though they seem to be unaware that they are the Whole hidden in Its Expressions. “Loving Gd” is something that clearly doesn’t depend on entering the physical Promised Land.

2. Earlier in Torah Gd (Numbers 12:8) describes Moses as someone with whom Gd speaks mouth to mouth, clearly, not in riddles.
What will make the physical Promised Land a spiritual place will be the ease with which people can perceive Gd’s Presence in it: since Moses is already in Gd’s Presence (and serves as the physical body through whom Gd’s Voice speaks to the people) Moses is already living in the spiritual Promised Land even though he cannot enter the physical Promised Land.

3. Going beyond duality.
Teshuvah, return to Oneness, requires going beyond the struggle between opposites; for example, requires seeing that Gd is within Egypt (restrictions), within the wilderness/desert (freedom) and within the Promised Land (freedom along with restrictions).

4. Perceiving Gd in All.
Experiencing that All is One requires perceiving Gd in All. When Gd denies Moses entrance into the physical Promised Land, He is forcing Moses to experience freedom within restrictions: to accept the restriction of not entering the physical Promised Land and to find freedom within that restriction. Gd is the Restrictor and the Restriction: The Restriction is Filled with Gd’s Presence. Gd is setting up the condition in which Gd as Gd begins to reveal himself fully to Gd, playing the role of Moses; Gd begins to reveal Himself as Unlimited, and His Moses role begins no longer to be lost in weeping over the lost, exulting over gain, but begins to perceive itself as the Wholeness that flows in Streams of Loss and Gain, of Weeping and Exulting.

The same thing happens to us: Gd hides within each of us, playing the role of the limited people that we are and he may sometimes give us restrictions that force our limited self to surrender, open to Gd within our self, as Gd – always Gd, always Whole, always One–begins to soften the limits and to reveal that we are what we always are: One!

Baruch HaShem