Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Click here to buy the book
by Rabbi Asher Schechter
At the end of Parashat Chukat, the Torah tells us once again of the rebellious behavior of Klal Yisrael during their travels through the midbar. The pasuk relates, “And the people spoke against Hashem and against Moshe” (Bemidbar 21:5), complaining that they were tired of the manna and of the lack of water in the desert. The Torah tells us that Hashem got angry and sent as punishment a horde of poisonous snakes—“ha-nechashim ha-serafim”— to bite the complainers. Many Jews died. The survivors came to beg Moshe Rabbenu for forgiveness and beseeched him to pray to Hashem to get rid of the snakes. Moshe did so, and Hashem told him to make an image of a “saraf,” a serpent, and to place it on top of a high pole. Any Jew who got bitten was to look at the image of the serpent on top of the pole and would survive. The Torah tells us that Moshe then fashioned a “nechash nechoshet,” a copper snake, and placed it atop a pole, and the rest of the Jews were saved.
The distinction between the word nachash, snake, and the word seraf, serpent, is worth a second look. When Hashem punished Klal Yisrael, He unleashed “ha-nechashim ha-serafim.” The Torah uses both terms—Hashem unleashed snakes that behaved like serpents. Then, when Hashem told Moshe how to stem the plague, He commanded him to create a saraf, but Moshe created a nachash instead. Why? What is the difference between these two terms? And why does the Torah use both in this story? Furthermore, why did Moshe make the nachash out of copper when Hashem did not instruct him to do so, and why is that detail important enough for the Torah to mention?
In the English language the word serpent is a synonym for snake. In lashon ha-kodesh also, the words nachash and saraf are more or less synonymous. Nonetheless, being different words they still convey somewhat different meanings. The word nachash has at its root nichush, as in the command “lo tinachashu” (Vayikra 19:26), the prohibition of magic acts and fortune telling, seemingly supernatural pursuits. Likewise, a snake can kill a large human or even a tremendous beast with a tiny dose of poison, a seemingly supernatural faculty. This is an important connection. Those who believe they have supernatural powers no longer feel compelled to rely on Hashem for their needs. This is why the Torah considers magic and fortune telling to be forms of idolatry.
The term nachash represents the challenge of maintaining faith in Hashem, the challenge of adherence to His commandments. It is not a coincidence that the very first individual to challenge Hashem’s commandments was the nachash ha-kadmoni in Gan Eden. His behavior was classic nachash.
The word saraf, on the other hand, emphasizes the method through which the serpent kills. Serefah means burning in lashon ha-kodesh. The saraf injects a tiny dose of venom which burns its way throughout the body of the victim, eventually killing him. The venom is like a small spark that can spread to become a large conflagration. The word saraf is used by Chazal (Pirkei Avot 2:10) to refer to the punishment of one who rejects the commandments and direction of the Chachamim (“lechishatan lechishat saraf”). This hints to the insidiousness of transgressing the Chachamim. Once one lights a spark by violating one rabbinic principle, one is liable to create an entire conflagration by continuing to violate other rabbinic rules and guidelines. Once someone loses respect for the Chachamim, the poison can spread throughout his body. Hence Chazal refer to the retribution against such an individual in terms of the saraf.
With this background, we can understand what was happening in this parashah. When Klal Yisrael rebelled, they committed two sins—one against Hashem and one against Moshe Rabbenu, who represents the Chachamim. Thus, Hashem sent ha-nechashim ha-serafim to kill them, demonstrating that they deserved two punishments—the nachash, for rebelling against Hashem, and the saraf, for rebelling against the Chachamim, i.e., Moshe.
When Klal Yisrael came to Moshe Rabbenu to repent and beg forgiveness, Hashem agreed to forgive Klal Yisrael for the violation of His own honor, but insisted that Moshe Rabbenu’s honor be upheld by a public display of the image of the saraf. Moshe Rabbenu, on the other hand, was quick to forgive the violation of his honor, but was very concerned about the honor of Hashem. Therefore, he created a nachash rather than a saraf, to focus Klal Yisrael on that violation.
As mentioned above, however, nachash and saraf are hard to distinguish one from the other. A typical passerby would look at the image and would not know whether he was seeing a nachash or a saraf. Therefore Moshe Rabbenu decided to make it out of copper. This gave it the memorable name, “nechash ha-nechoshet” that everyone used. This would help Klal Yisrael focus on the honor of Hashem which had been violated, and bring about a proper teshuvah.
This idea dovetails with the famous saying of our Sages that Hashem wears tefillin just like we do. However, the text in His tefillin is different from the text in our tefillin. Our tefillin focus on Hashem’s greatness, beginning with “Shema Yisrael.” God’s tefillin, as it were, focus on our greatness, containing the passage “mi ke-amecha Yisrael—who is like your nation, Israel...”
There are very important lessons we learn from this. First and foremost, we appreciate the importance of respecting Hashem and His Torah, as well as the Chachamim. Second, in life we are surrounded by many nechashim—such as the idea that the “magic” of modern science obviates belief in Hashem. We are also besieged by seraphim, such as the constant degradation of and modern day Chachamim through the mouths and blogs of cynics who try to entice us to deviate from the path of Torah and mitzvot.
We must be diligent in our faith to overcome these temptations and be true ovdei Hashem. In addition, the love between Hashem and Moshe, where each one focused on the other one’s honor, is truly a lesson in musar of how we should treat our family and friends.
Rabbi Schechter is rav of Congregation Ohr Moshe of Hillcrest, New York.