The action in this week’s parasha takes place in the 40th year after the Exodus, at the end of the time in the wilderness. The older generation has died out, and a new generation has taken their place. But some things never change — they’re still complaining. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” Yes, after 40 years, they’re still complaining about the food.
And so God sends fiery serpents — poisonous snakes whose bite produces burning pain — and many people die. The people turn to Moses and exclaim, “We have sinned! Intercede with God so that He will take the snakes away.” God tells Moses to make a copper figure of a serpent and mount it on a pole so that anyone who is bitten can look at it and recover.
This is strange. Not only does God tell Moses to fashion an image of a living creature — something specifically forbidden in the Ten Commandments — but the act of looking at this image can counteract the effects of a poisonous snakebite.
The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah asks: How could the serpent slay or the serpent keep alive? The Mishnah’s answer is that the copper serpent was a device to cause the people to direct their attention toward heaven. When they directed their thoughts on high and kept their hearts subject to God, they were healed.
Perhaps, but the late Israeli master-teacher Nehama Leibowitz points out a nuance in the Torah’s language that goes to the heart of the matter. The Torah says, “The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people.” But, as Leibowitz notes, “The Lord sent” would be “Va-yishlach Adonai.” The text actually says, “Vay’shalach Adonai,” which means “The Lord let go.” Therefore, the Torah is not saying that God sent snakes, but that God released the snakes He had been holding back.
In the normal course of events, we would expect the wilderness to be full of snakes and so snakebites would be a frequent occurrence and cause of death. However, for almost 40 years, God had protected the people by holding back the snakes, just as He had provided for their sustenance by sending the manna. When the people complained that they were sick of manna, that it was “miserable food,” it was as if they were saying, “We don’t need your miracles, we want to live normal, ‘natural’ lives.” So God’s response was, as it were, “Fine, if you don’t want my help, I’ll stop restraining the snakes.”
Therefore, the copper serpent mounted on its pole was a reminder that, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “Danger beset their every step and it was only thanks to the miraculous and perpetual intervention of Divine Providence that they were able to proceed unharmed. Their path was so smooth that they failed to perceive the constant miracle in their unmolested progress.”
Often, when something bad happens — a death, serious illness, financial hardship — people are quick to turn to God and complain, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why are you punishing me? It’s not fair!” But when good things happen, how often do you hear, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?”
When good things happen, we, like our ancestors, tend to take them for granted. We are all too often blind to the hand of God. If we were only able to look up and see the copper serpent, perhaps we would more easily remember our blessings and thank God for them.