These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: CD #1082 – Should You Buy an Expensive Esrog Box? Good Shabbos!
We Must Integrate the Lesson of the Snakes Into Our Daily Lives
The pasuk in Parshas Chukas says, “They journeyed from Hor HaHor by way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people grew short with the road.” [Bamidbar 21:4] Aharon haKohen had just passed away, and the people again became agitated. “The people spoke against G-d and Moshe: ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our soul is at its limit with the insubstantial food.'” [Bamidbar 21:5] If there seems to be one underlying theme about which they repeatedly complain – it is about the mann. Basically, they say they are disgusted with the mann.
It is important to realize something that is not readily apparent. Thirty-eight years elapsed between last week’s parsha (Parshas Korach) and this week’s parsha (Parshas Chukas). The incident of the Meraglim (in Parshas Shelach) preceded – at least according to the Ramban – the story of Korach. Those events both occurred at the beginning of their sojourn in the Wilderness. For the next 38 years, nothing dramatic occurred — at least not anything the Torah shares with us. Thirty-eight years later, they are again on the boundary of Eretz Yisrael, and they are complaining again. They complained at the beginning of the 40 years and they complained at the end of the 40 years. What is their complaint? “We can’t stand the mann.”
It would seem to be that the mann is the greatest thing going. It tasted like whatever each person desired. Someone wants milchigs one night – it tastes like dairy. Someone wants fleishigs the next night – it tastes like meat. There was no bodily waste created by it. It was great! Yet, it seems that when Bnei Yisrael start complaining, they always complain about the mann. What is the message here?
The pasuk continues, “Hashem sent the snakes, the burning ones, against the people, and they bit the people, and a large multitude of Israel died.” [Bamidbar 21:6] Throughout Sefer Bamidbar, the Almighty punished the people in different ways. Here, Hashem uses a new method – they are attacked by snakes. Why snakes? Why could they not just drop dead? Why did the earth not swallow them up like last week? Why did fire not come down from heaven and consume them like in Parshas Shmini? Why snakes?
“The people came to Moshe and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against Hashem and against you! Pray to Hashem that He remove from us the snakes.’ Moshe prayed for the people.” [Bamidbar 21:7] What was the remedy for this plague? What was the cure for someone who was bitten by the snake? “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Make yourself a burning one and place it on a pole; and it will be that anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live.'” [Bamidbar 21:8]. The remedy for snakebites was to look at a snake! This has to be the most peculiar anti-venom serum ever created! Just look at the snake and you will be cured.
In fact, the international symbol of medicine has become the caduceus, a staff with two snakes wrapped around it. The source for that is this Biblical passage – the cure was the snakes. What is the message here? The plague is strange and the cure for the plague is even stranger.
My son, Reb Yakov, told me he heard an interpretation from a Rabbi Bukspan, which provides an interesting answer to this question. The Gemara [Yoma 76a] says that the disciples of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai asked him, “Why did the mann not descend for Israel once a year (in a quantity enough to last them for a whole year)?” Rabi Shimon bar Yochai answered them with a parable to a king who had an only son. He provided his son with his needs of sustenance once a year, for the whole year. Therefore, the son only came to see the king once a year, when he needed money.
When I went off to Yeshiva, my father used to send me a weekly allowance. Every week he would send me a check – five dollars a week. This way I could buy toothpaste and pay for any other miscellaneous expenses. The Yeshiva provided meals as part of the room and board. My father sent that check like clockwork. Every single week, I received a check for $5.00. Today, parents give their children a credit card. When does the father hear from the son? Maybe never. When the father sees that the son has overdrawn the credit card, then the son hears from the father!
The Gemara says that when the king gave his son enough money for a whole year, he heard from him once a year. Therefore, the Gemara continues, the king changed his method of financing his son. He provided for his daily needs, one day at a time. This way the king heard from his son every day.
So too it was with Bnei Yisroel. Every single day people would worry – how am I going to feed my family? Every day they were afraid – maybe the mann will not fall tomorrow and my entire family will be wiped out in famine. The result was that everyone had their hearts focused on their father in heaven. The mann came from heaven so they needed to pray every day: “Master of the Universe, give us food.” That is why the mann came down every day.
This Gemara is saying something that the Sefas Emes articulates in a different context. The Sefas Emes says that Hashem cursed the Snake – “You shall eat dust all the days of your life.” The world asks – what kind of curse is that? Dirt is available ubiquitously. The Snake will never worry about the source of his next meal. However, the curse is that the Almighty is, in effect, saying to the Snake: “Here is your sustenance. Do not bother me again. I do not want to see you ever again.” The contact that every other living creature needs to have with its Creator does not apply to the Snake. This is not a blessing. It is a curse.
This is why Hashem gave mann every single day. He wanted Klal Yisrael to realize that we are dependent on Him, and that “He is the one who gives you strength to act with valor…” [Devorim 8:18]. That is precisely why they did not like the mann. Human beings do not like to feel their dependence. We like to delude ourselves and think we are independent. That is why they kept on complaining about the mann. The Ribono shel Olam had this calculation – you should know that you are dependent on Me. The people resented that. They did not want to admit this fact.
“Modim Anachnu Lach…” Modim does not only mean ‘we thank.’ Modim means ‘we admit…’ that our lives are given over to Your Hand, and that our souls are delivered to You, and that Your miracles are with us every single day. We need to admit these facts, as much as we do not like to do so. That is why they did not like the mann.
Now the punishment they received makes sense. The punishment came from snakes because the people were acting like snakes – they did not want to be dependent on Divine handouts. That was the fate of the Snake. The Ribono shel Olam was sending them a message: Snakes. You want to be like the primordial Snake? Then the snakes will bite you. Do you know what the cure for this is? “You shall stare at the copper snake and be cured.” The Talmud [Rosh Hashannah 29a] comments that it was not a matter simply of looking at the snakes – because snakes cannot cure. The idea was that they put the snake on a high place and raised it on a flagpole. When they lifted their eyes towards their Father in Heaven, they were cured. The cure was in looking upwards and figuring out from where their Help came from, and upon whom they were dependent.
That was the aveyra [sin]. That was the punishment and that was the cure. The aveyra was saying, “I want to be independent. I do not want to realize my dependence on the Almighty.” The punishment was: You are acting like snakes – you will get bitten by snakes! The cure came when Israel cast their gaze up toward heaven. This is a lesson that is as important today as it was then. We think that with all our wisdom, we can go and we can come, and we can invent and we can function independently. However, it is “He who gives you strength to act with valor.” We dare not say, “It is my strength and the power of my hand which has made for me all this valor.” [Devorim 8:17] We need Him for every step and breath we take. The lesson of the snakes is one we need to integrate into our daily lives.
The Death of Aharon: Mission Accomplished
The pasuk says, “And Aharon shall be brought to his people, for he shall not enter the Land that I have given to the Children of Israel…” [Bamidbar 20:24] The Sefas Emes asks a very simple question here: If his time to die had not come yet, just because he was not able to enter the Land, is that a reason to diminish his lifespan? If it is not the time for him to die, he should not die. On the other hand, if his pre-destined time to die had already arrived, why was it necessary for the Torah to link his death with his not being able to enter the Land? What does this pasuk mean?
The Sefas Emes interprets based on a basic concept: The length of time we live in this world is not pre-determined to be X number of days or years. We live in this world until the time we complete our assigned mission. When we complete our mission, then we leave this world. Some people take 80 years to complete their mission. They live until 80. The Ramoh (Rav Moshe Isserles) died when he was 33 years old. Apparently, he completed his mission by the time he was that age. He wrote 33 sefarim. He died on the 33rd day of the Omer). He only needed 33 years.
The Sefas Emes explains that Moshe and Aharon asked to enter Eretz Yisroel so that they would be able to fulfill Mitzvos that were land-dependent. [Sotah 14a] In other words, they felt “Our mission in this world is not finished yet – we have not been able to fulfill the mitzvos ha’teluyos b’Aretz. The Almighty told them “I have other plans.”
According to the approach of the Sefas Emes, if Aharon’s mission included going into Eretz Yisrael, he would not have died yet, because he would not have completed his spiritual mission in life, which included fulfillment of the mitzvos of terumos and ma’asros, etc. He was a Kohen who never ate terumah in his life. The Torah therefore says, “He will die now, because he is not going to enter…” — meaning that entering Eretz Yisrael and fulfilling the special mitzvos there is not part of his life’s spiritual mission. Perhaps that mission was removed from him as some kind of punishment for the sin of Mei Merivah, but ultimately his time to die came because he was not going to enter the Land, and his mission in life was already complete.
A friend of mine, who unfortunately died recently, told me a rather chilling statement before he died. He said, “We go into the supermarket and buy a quart of milk or a pound of cream cheese and we check its expiration date. After that it is not good anymore.” He told me, “We all have expiration dates printed on our foreheads. We just do not see the expiration date, but it is there.” That expiration date is dependent on when we complete our mission in life. When we complete our mission, we leave this world.
“…Because he will not enter…” Aharon is not going to go into Eretz Yisrael because the Land-dependent mitzvos are not part of his life’s mission. If so, that is why “Aharon died on Hor HaHor.”
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Chukas is provided below:
- #018 – Rending Garments on Seeing Yerushalayim
- #063 – Intermarriage
- #107 – Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva — Do Sons Inherit?
- #152 – Halachic Considerations of Transplanted Organs
- #199 – Stam Yeinam: Non Kosher Wines
- #245 – Skin Grafts
- #335 – Postponing a Funeral
- #379 – The Jewish “Shabbos Goy”
- #423 – Tefilah of a Tzadik for a Choleh
- #467 – Detached Limbs and Tumah
- #511 – Autopsies and Insurance
- #555 – Women Fasting on 17th of Tamuz, Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur
- #599 – Blended Whiskey
- #643 – Choshed Bekesherim and Daan L’kaf Z’chus
- #687 – Water, Coffee and Tea
- #731 – Shkia – 7:02: Mincha 7:00 A Problem?
- #775 – Wine At a Shul Kiddush
- #819 – Mayim Geluyim – Uncovered Water – Is There a Problem
- #863 – Shabbos In The Good ‘Ol Summertime
- #907 – Bracha Acharono on Coffee and Ice Cream
- #951 – The Body Works Exhibit
- #994 – Bilam and His Donkey: A Problem with Tzar Ba’alei Chaim?
- #1038 – Flowers At The Cemetery?
- #1082 – Should You Buy An Expensive Esrog Box?
- #1125 – Saying Kaddish For More Than One Person; Lo’aig Le’rash for Women?
- #1167 – “If Hashem Saves Me, I Make A Neder to…….” Good Idea or Not?
- #1210 – Postponing A Funeral Revisited
- #1255 – I keep 72 Minutes, You Keep 45 — Can I Drive Home With You After 45 Minutes?
- #1256 – The Last Day of Sheva Brachos Starting Before Sh’kia, Bentching After Tzais — Are There Sheva Brachos? And other such Shailos.
- #1299 – Can You Remove Your Yarmulka for a Job Interview?
- #1343 – Making a Mi’she’bairach for a Choleh on Shabbos – Is It Permitted?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.