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Punished...By Snakes?

The Lesson Behind Moses And The Fiery Serpents


Daniel Loewenstein

Writer

We know that God is just, and when He punishes us, the punishment always fits the crime – what the Sages call מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure. God’s actions are always proportionate and fair.

Parshat Chukat really puts that belief to the test. The Israelites complain about the manna – and God sends poisonous snakes to attack them. Is that a fair and just response? That doesn't sound מדה כנגד מדה.

But maybe that's because we're misunderstanding the real crime and the real punishment here. What if the people weren't really complaining about the manna? And what if God didn't really send snakes to attack the people?

Join Daniel Loewenstein as he analyzes the story of the snakes in the wilderness, and suggests there's a different story hiding in the details – a story that has something important to teach us, today. And no, it’s not about how to react when our kids don’t like what’s for dinner – it’s actually about what it means to be independent.

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Transcript

Hi everyone, this is Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Chukat.

My older daughter is three and a half, and the way she’s always developing new skills just blows me away. Right now, she’s mastering puzzles, and she’s actually getting really good at them. But, of course, sometimes she gets stuck. That weird puzzle piece with the farmer and the duck just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. But if I try to help – to offer a gentle little nudge in the right direction – oh boy. My daughter’s face will cloud over, and with as much indignance as she can put in her little voice, she will tell me, “No, Daddy. I want to do it by myself.”

Now this is classic toddler. They need help, they’re struggling and getting nowhere, but they still refuse to accept a nudge in the right direction. For a three and a half year old, that’s totally age-appropriate. It’s childish – but children are supposed to be childish.

The truth is, though, that sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the same thing. When my mother offers to help us pay for a big expense, or my boss offers to extend a deadline I’m struggling to hit, my knee-jerk response is usually to decline, to say something like, “Thanks, but I’m good, I’ve got things under control.” Because...I want to feel capable, and responsible. I don’t want to need the help. But that desire to be independent, to carry my own weight, is that me being mature, and trying my best to live up to my responsibilities, to soldier through? Or am I being irrational, stubborn and childish, and really just using nicer words to pout and say, “I want do it by myself!”

There’s a story, in Parshat Chukat, that I think actually sheds some light on this issue. Let’s read it carefully together.

The Story of Moses and the Fiery Serpents

It’s the Israelites’ fortieth year in the desert, and they’re traveling:

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר דֶּרֶךְ יַם־סוּף 

The people traveled from Mount Hor, and started heading towards the Red Sea.

Now that may not sound very interesting, but here’s the thing: the Red Sea was actually to the south of Mount Hor, and the land of Israel was to the north. Which means they were traveling in the wrong direction. So why were they doing that? Why go backwards? Well, the Torah actually tells us:

לִסְבֹב אֶת־אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם

They were avoiding the land of Edom. The most direct route to the land of Israel, to the north, would have been through the land of Edom. But when the Israelites requested permission to travel through it, its king had refused. So they were stuck taking the long way.

Okay, so that’s the backstory the Torah provides for us. Now we know. So let’s keep reading. 

וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ־הָעָם בַּדָּרֶךְ

The people became impatient along the way.

וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה

And so they started to speak out against Moshe and against God: 

 לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר

Why did you take us out of Egypt, to die in the desert?

 כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל

There's no bread, there's no water, and we're sick and tired of the miserable manna. Ouch.

So how does God react to their complaints? Well… This is where things get weird.

וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים

God sends poisonous snakes into the camp

 וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת־הָעָם וַיָּמָת עַם־רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל

And they quickly start biting and killing people.

Why Did God Send Poisonous Snakes Among the Israelites?

Now let’s think about that action-reaction for a second. You complain about food, so you...get attacked by poisonous snakes. Does that sound like a reasonable, proportionate reaction to you? No! At least, I really hope not. And it’s not just that it’s overkill… it just seems so...random. Is there some rationale, some deeper significance to this punishment? Because, and excuse me for saying this, but it kind of feels like God borrowed a James Bond villain's wheel of torture, gave it a spin, and it landed just between "pool of acid" and "tied to the train tracks." Poisonous snakes? Really?

And there’s another thing about these snakes that’s puzzling, something pointed out by the great commentator R' Shimson Raphael Hirsch. He notes that there's something a little... off about the way God "sends" the snakes. The word the Torah uses is not the typical וַיִּשְׁלַח, which actually means to send, but וַיְשַׁלַּח, which means something closer to "let go" or "release." Which means God didn't send snakes – He didn’t command them to go and attack the people. He let them go, He opened their cages and set them free. But what would that imply? That the snakes were there all along? That God prepared them in advance, like a lion in a colosseum, waiting to be released, just in case the people needed to be taught a lesson? That sounds so strange

So we’ve got these two questions: Why does God punish the people with snakes, which seems so random and so severe? And why does the Torah use this strange word, וַיְשַׁלַּח, to describe God releasing the snakes? 

Connections to Snakes in the Bible

Well, I think I know where we might find some clues. Because there’s another place in the Torah that has some pretty strong parallels to our story. A place that mentions the desert. That talks about the manna and the water supply. And yes, those things come up a lot throughout the Torah. But here’s the kicker – it’s also the only other time in the Torah that we hear about poisonous snakes.

 

It’s in Devarim, Chapter 8. Here’s some context. The Israelites are standing by the borders of Israel, and Moshe offers them words of warning before they enter: he says, when you settle the land, you’ll have all the food you could want. You’ll have houses, and crops, and cattle, you’ll have gold and silver – and you’ll be tempted to forget God, because you won’t feel like you need Him. So fight that impulse, he tells them, and remember everything that God did for you. 

הַמּוֹלִיכֲךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַגָּדֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא 

Who led you in the great and terrible wilderness

נָחָשׁ שָׂרָף

[A place of] poisonous snakes,

 וְעַקְרָב וְצִמָּאוֹן אֲשֶׁר אֵין־מָיִם

and scorpions, and thirst, with no water – He protected you from all of those dangers!

הַמּוֹצִיא לְךָ מַיִם מִצּוּר הַחַלָּמִישׁ

The God Who draws water for you from a rock

הַמַּאֲכִלְךָ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר

Who feeds you manna in the desert.

וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה

And so, Moshe cautions, if you say to yourselves, “It was my own power and strength that accomplished everything I have,”

וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת־יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

Remember your God.

כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל

Because He is really the One who gives you the strength to achieve and to accomplish.

So look at that: we’ve got the desert, the snakes, the water and the manna – there’s a connection here. It feels like we’re supposed to read these two sections together. Even though one is a speech about remembering God in Israel, and one is a story about how God punished the Israelites for complaining about food, somehow they go together, they form a unit. So maybe, if we take a closer look at the section from Devarim, it will help us answer our questions.

And the truth is, as R’ Hirsch points out, we don’t even need to look that closely to start getting some answers.

The Danger of Serpents in the Wilderness

Moshe mentions the snakes in Devarim as one of the many terrifying dangers that were naturally part of the desert. In other words, the snakes were native to the desert. It was filled with them. And they were a constant danger to the Israelites. And the only reason they managed to make it nearly 40 years without encountering any of these serpents is because God had been actively protecting them, holding the snakes back. And that’s why in Bamidbar, the Torah says vaYeshalach, God released the snakes – God had been holding them back up until that complaint the Israelites made about their food. And after that, He let them go.

So that answers our second question, about the strange word, vaYeshalach. And it also actually sheds some light on our first question, too. We were struggling to understand why God would choose to punish the people by sending snakes after them. But that doesn’t seem to be what He really did. What actually happened was that He withdrew His protection, which led to snakes coming. And that means our question needs a little editing. The real question is: Why did the Israelites’ complaining make God decide to step back? Why did God punish the people by withdrawing His protection?

And I think that Devarim can help us to answer that question, too. In Devarim, Moshe is trying to inspire the people to always remember God. And he does it by reminding the people of how much they’ve relied on God – how He saved them from snakes, and scorpions, and thirst – and then telling them: You know that’s never really going to change. Just because your food is going to grow from the ground instead of falling from the sky, that doesn’t mean that God’s not involved in providing it for you. It may not be as easy to see when you’re in the land, but הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל. Whatever you may think you’re accomplishing by yourself, you’re wrong – God gave you the strength to do it.

That’s a very powerful message. But...what if it fails? Let’s say you’re God, and you try to encourage your nation to follow your Torah by reminding them of all you do for them, of how much they need you – but the people forget you anyway. What would you do? How would you remind them, how would you help them get back on track? Well, isn’t the clearest way to show someone you’re protecting them...to stop for a minute? To withdraw that protection, and let them see what happens then? You think your crops are guaranteed? Your borders are secure? Let’s see how they do when I stop holding back drought and disease and conquerors. That would remind them that things aren’t in their control, and that they need Me.

The Lesson Hidden in the Story of the Snakes

So it would make sense for God to withdraw His protection if the people had forgotten Him, or were trying to reject Him somehow. The problem is, though, that in Bamidbar that just doesn’t seem to be what happened. They weren’t rejecting God – they were just upset about the food!

Unless...this was never really about food at all.

Why did the people suddenly start complaining about their food, seemingly after decades of silence? Was it totally random, they woke up on the wrong side of the tent that day? Or did something happen, something that frustrated them and led them to complain?

Well, let’s go back to the opening verse of our story. What was that context that the Torah seemed to go out of its way to tell us? The Israelites were turned away from Edom. Why does that matter? Well, I think it matters because for most of the Israelites, Edom was their first encounter with civilization. We’re talking about the generation that was born in the desert, where they were completely taken care of by God. So cities, farmlands, a stable existence that doesn’t depend on miracles – it’s all new to them. They’ve never encountered humans living independently like this before.

What if you’d lived your whole life being dependent on someone or something else? Hooked up to a ventilator, or needing to pushed in a wheelchair to get from place to place? And then one day, a miracle happens, and you learn that your condition is improving, and you’re going to be able to function all on your own in just a month. If it were me, I think that every time I saw a person walking around for that whole month, I’d get jitters, and I’d think, “Wow. That’s going to be me soon.”

I think that’s what the Israelites were feeling when they reached the borders of Edom. They see this thriving, independent nation, and in their mind’s eye, they see Israel, waiting for them just behind it. They were almost there, almost off the ventilator. They’d been completely reliant on God their whole lives, and now they’re just a few days away from independence.

And then they turn around.

Think about how frustrating, how demoralizing that must have been. To be so close, and have it snatched away at the last minute. Even if all they had to do was wait another month or two, still – if you woke up the morning after the news broke, and you went to collect your manna, wouldn’t you be tempted to vent your frustration, to lash out?

So how did God’s respond? What reply was He giving when He let go and released the snakes?

Understanding Why God Released the Fiery Snakes

I think He was trying to show the people that the whole reason for their excitement in the first place, their eagerness to be self-sufficient, was based on a false premise. There is no such thing as “off the ventilator.” Real self-sufficiency is an illusion. Because, sure, there are ways that we depend on God that we see, but there are also ways that we don’t. You think I just provide food, and you won’t need Me when you can grow your own? You weren’t even thinking about the snakes. And that was the point of God withdrawing His protection. And if you build houses and domesticate the land, and you make yourself safe from predators, you’ll need rain, and sun, and protection from plagues, and a million other things that I provide behind the scenes. You won’t ever stop needing Me.

So if self-sufficiency is an illusion, if we’re never not being helped, does that mean we might as well take help whenever it’s offered to us? No. If we’re too quick to accept help, we don’t get a chance to give things our all, and to grow. And growth is great.

I don’t want my daughter to need me to solve puzzles with her her whole life. And the more perseverance she puts in, the more she’ll be able to accomplish – like eventually curing cancer. No pressure, sweetie! But what I believe the story of the snakes is telling us is that, when the fact is that we do need help, we can’t let our own pride or insecurity, our aversion to feeling like we’re weak or not enough, stop us from accepting it.

Because news flash: we are weak. We aren’t enough. And Moshe’s speech in Devarim is telling us that, when it feels like we don’t need help, and we’ve got everything under control, we have to actively try to bring that sense of relying on God, back into our lives, and make sure we remember where our strength really comes from.

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1. Punished...By Snakes?