Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat 5764/ June 26, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

The Copper Serpent

 

Dr. Yair Barkai

Jerusalem

 

When Moses broke the tablets of the Covenant, they were described as “G-d’s work, and the writing was G-d’s writing, incised upon the tablets” (Ex. 32:16).  Why did Moses break the tablets? According to the interpretation of the Meshekh Hokhmah on this verse, Moses feared that if he were to give the tablets to the people dancing around the golden calf, the people would worship them just as they were worshipping the calf – the tablets themselves and not that which was written on them.

The same concern holds for any tangible object that is a symbolic representation of a lofty spiritual idea which transcends the object itself. Sanctity is conferred on the object by virtue of the sacred spiritual message it expresses; there is nothing sacred in its physical substance. As put in no uncertain terms by Rabbi Meir Simhah Cohen of Dvinsk (loc. sit.):

In the final analysis there is nothing in the world which is holy and to be worshipped in submission, save for the Lord, praised be His name, who is holy in His very existence and to whom praise and worship are due.

The same holds for the miracles that are recounted in Scripture, as Yehezkel Kaufmann explains (Toledot ha- Emunah ha-Yisraelit, vol. 2, p. 473): [1]

Manifestations of miracles served as excellent material for the biblical faith to express this new idea.  For there are two aspects to miracles:  they can appear as the spark of eternal-magical forces, that glimmer mysteriously and burst fleetingly through the natural order; or they can appear as the spark of the will of the supreme G-d, who rules over all and determines the laws of nature as well.

The copper serpent was fashioned at G-d’s behest.   We are not dealing here with standard devices (names, charms, incantations), but with special and unique means that resulted from a special revelation of the deity’s will.  It is not a matter of magical action, for the serpent was not a charm ( kamea), and it was not a permanent fixture; rather, it was something passing that reflected the will of G-d, in contrast to a “pagan magical action, which appears as if it were operating of its own force and has no need of a supreme force to put it in action.” [2]

Presumably it was this understanding that led Hezekiah to destroy the bronze serpent, as it is written:  “He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post.   He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan (II Kings 18:4).  Radak comments on this verse:

They thought it a good intermediary to worship G-d, and since the time of Moses it had been kept as a memoriam of the miracle, like the container of manna… Hezekiah saw fit to abolish it, just as he did idol worship, for in his father’s time it was worshipped just like the idols; and even though the better people were reminded of the miracle by it, he said:   better to destroy it and let the miracle be forgotten than to let it be and have the Israelites go astray in the present and the future because of it.

By way of belittlement, Hezekiah even called it Nehushtan, i.e., a small bronze snake, in order to emphasize the absence of sanctity in the serpent, even though it was made by Moses at G-d’s command.

As long as the bronze serpent fulfilled its original purpose to remind people of the  miracle and strengthen faith in Him who wrought it, it rightfully had a place in the Temple alongside the container of manna, which had a similar purpose.   But when the serpent itself became the object of worship, it fell into the same category as the other signs of idolatry that Hezekiah abolished.

This, it appears, was also the focus of the famous Mishnah (Rosh ha- Shanah 3.8):  “But could the serpent kill or could the serpent keep alive? – Only, when Israel looked on high and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven were they healed, but if not, they perished.”  The mishnah seeks to say that everything depends on one’s intention, as Maharsha points out in Hiddushei Aggadah on the mishnah in Rosh ha-Shanah 29a:

For it depends on the intentions of the heart… This is the issue in the passage, “Make a seraph figure” (Num. 21:8).

Maharsha’s comment sums up what we said above:   the intention, as the mishnah puts it, is what determines a person’s attitude towards a tangible object.   If the object helps the person have the right sort of intent regarding the idea that the object represents, then it is a positive means, but if it directs a person to use it as an object which itself is to be admired and worshipped, then it is no different from the objects of idolatry.

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on this passage, the Israelites’ sin lay in their not recognizing the miracles that had been accompanying them throughout their wandering in the wilderness:

The attack of snake bites served no other purpose than to show the people that every step of the way all sorts of danger awaited them, and only the might of the Creator, blessed be His name, miraculously kept it at bay, so much so that even the worker of the miracle does not recognize it.   Anyone who was bitten had but to set his eyes on the figure of the serpent in order to know and understand, even after the mercy of the Creator had removed the serpents from him, that dangers always exist, … and the Holy One, blessed be He, is our protector who saves us, so that each and every moment of our lives is thought of as a new gift from the Almighty.

Thus the copper serpent expressed the idea of acknowledging the miracles which we need for our existence in any time and place.  To ignore this would be sinful, and it is for such a sin that the Israelites were punished; for they did not perceive the fact that their entire existence in the desert thus far was miraculous. They should not have accepted this fact as self-evident, as is explained by the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 19.22):  “To inform you of the miracles that the Holy One, blessed be He, performed for them, He set them [the serpents] upon them.”

Malbim found support for this idea precisely in the fine points of language in the verse:

He would look at the copper serpent”:   I have already explained that there is a difference between seeing (ra’ah) and looking (hibbit).  Looking denotes directing one’s thought and examining the thing that is looked at, understanding the idea of the copper snake that Moses made and learning to subdue one’s desires and live.

“Subduing one’s desires” in this context refers to recognizing the miracle of the manna, even though the Israelites wished for food which was natural and not miraculous.   This same direction is taken in the commentary, Akedat Yizhak:

In their dismay they came to complain about the divine bread given to sustain them and the water given them by miracle, and said that such things are uncertain, as if to say, “One cannot rely on a miracle” (Kiddushin 39a); and since they were easily obtained, they considered them as insufficient to their needs…  Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, judged them according to their own ways, saying:   since you do not wish to live except by the natural way of the world, I shall do the following to you:   I shall let the snakes that are in the great wilderness behave naturally and will not restrain their mouths from harming you, as I have done thus far.

Rabbi Isaac Arama, author of Akedat Yizhak, raised the halakhic argument that the Israelites ostensibly used, namely that one should not rely on miracles.  Yet this argument does not contradict the fact that our lives are affected by miracles every day, and ignoring the fact of their existence makes of us ingrates before G-d.   That is why they were punished by having the miraculous aspect of Divine Providence taken away from them.   Therefore, the miracle of the copper servant served to amend this moral depravation, as he put it:

To this end they acknowledged their sin in the first place and begged him to pray for the miracle to be restored…  So that they would recognize and know the great, miraculous idea, that someone smitten could live by what smites, and that someone sick could be healed by that which makes sick, … and that is having faith in divine ability, as it is said:   “But the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity” (Habakkuk 2:4).

A common moral pitfall is to ascribe the hand of fate to the usual routine of life instead of ascribing it to the miraculous behavior of the Creator.   As Rashi’s student, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor put it:

The serpent did not give life and had no medicinal qualities.   It was made for the sanctification of G-d, for when they observed that whoever looked at the serpent would live and not die, as the Holy One, blessed be He, had said, they would recognize that life was granted them by the Holy One, blessed be He.   For if life and death were of themselves, they would say it was a chance occurrence, some dying and some living.   And the reason he made a serpent and not some other object was to magnify the miracle, for the Holy One, blessed be He, smites with a knife and heals with a knife (as said in the Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, s.v. va-yasa, p. 156).  If the Holy One, blessed be He, had so wished it, no object would have been necessary, and they would immediately have been healed; rather, it was to intensify the miracle, so that they would not say it was mere chance.   

In conclusion, the miracle of the copper serpent teaches us two fundamental tenets of faith:  not to ascribe sanctity to objects which are not expressive of an idea that transcends the object itself, lest we fall into the sin of idolatry; and that our physical existence should not be taken for granted, rather we must understand that it has miraculous underpinnings for which we must be grateful to the Creator. 

 



[1]  Translated into English as The Religion of Israel, by Moshe Greenberg, Chicago, 1969.

[2] Da’at Mikra, Numbers 21:8.