“Rebbi, when my friends and I completed our army service, we decided to go on a world tour. We found ourselves in the jungles of Africa one night when all of a sudden one of my friends woke up screaming. a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. We tried as much as we could to pull the snake off, but with no success. He was turning blue; close to death. We didn’t know what to do. At that point, one of us shouted to him, ‘Yigal, you’re going to die, at least say Shema.’ Yigal started saying Shema. As soon as he finished the first passuk, the snake released himself and slithered away.”
The cab driver continued, “Rebbi, do you know that as a result of that incident my friend Yigal became a baal teshuva! Today, he is frum with a beautiful religious family. They keep kosher, his wife covers her hair and his kids all go to cheder.”
Rav Levenstein responded, “That’s amazing.” He paused for a minute and then suddenly asked, “and what about you?”
“Me? Oh no,” said the cab driver, glancing away from the road. “It didn’t happen to me. It happened to him.”
A man has a life-threatening experience. He prays, and the situation resolves. He is safe. To his credit, his life and behavior is changed dramatically going forward. But those who witnessed the event? Those who saw the miracle? They acknowledge the wisdom of their friend becoming baal teshuva but what lesson do they take from the incident? What do they incorporate into their own lives?
A life-altering event is reduced to little more than a story a taxi driver tells to pass the time when he has an observant passenger.
Must we always be deaf to the truths that we speak? Must we always be blocked in our ability to translate earned wisdom into appropriate behavior?
How many times have I heard someone say, “Do as I say, not as I do”? as though the insights and intelligence of our words can truly teach someone else if they have not taught us!
* * *
It has always been thus. It is telling that even after witnessing the miracles that freed them from Egypt, B’nai Yisrael quickly began to complain in the desert. It was not long after the Children of Israel had complained yet again about their desert “menu” that God sent snakes and serpents that bit and killed “multitudes from among them.
What was this horror!
The Israelites hurried to Moshe to mercifully plead for their lives. Despite no doubt knowing their nature only too well, Moshe once again prayed on their behalf. In response to his prayer, God gave him the following instruction, “Make yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole and it will be that anyone who is bitten will look at it and live.” (21:8)
This was indeed a curious response. What is one to make of God’s instruction?
The Mishna in Rosh Hashana asks, “But does a serpent kill or restore life? What is the meaning of looking at the serpent?”
A simple reading of God’s command could almost be misinterpreted as a suggestion of idolatry. “Rather,” the Mishna responds, “when Israel gazed upward and subjugated their heart to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not they perished.”
This explanation makes clear that it was not gazing upon the copper snake itself that provided some kind of medical antidote for anyone who had been bitten by the snake or serpent. Rather, it effectuated a spiritual repentance, reflection and introspection, “a subjugation of the heart.”
The Maharal teaches that looking at the copper snake high upon the pole accomplished two goals. One, it caused the person to look heavenward, ensuring his realization that he was totally dependent only on God. Two, by viewing a representation of that which caused him harm and pain, his prayers would be more intense and focused.
In his teaching, Maharal is conveying an important lesson in prayer. When engaged in tefila, one must feel and clearly visualize that for which he is seeking God’s intervention. It is not enough to say the words. He must feel the experience.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch goes further than the Maharal. In referring to God’s command, he argues that the point was not to look beyond the snake and into the heavens but rather, to look directly at the snake and by doing so, fully understand the wildness of the snake and the environment he found himself in. By looking directly at the snake, he would understand exactly the dangers of the Midbar years and, “Who leads you through the great and awesome wilderness – of snake, fiery serpent and scorpion.” (Devarim 8:15)
In other words, Don’t you get it?! You are in the midst of constant danger and challenge. If not for God’s benevolence and protection, the scorpion and snake would have the upper hand.
The generation of yotzei mitzrayim, whose voices were raised in a constant refrain litany of complaints, needed to look at the high Nes – not “pole or banner”, but Nes meaning miracle. God is saying to the Children of Israel, “Look at the miracle that surrounds you every minute of your long sojourn in the dessert!”
The serpent cannot kill or restore life. That is for God. Do not be distracted by the telling of the story. See what is essential in the experience. The cure and protection from the snake is a nes, miracle. It is God.
Our cabdriver would do well to see beyond the boa constrictor around his friend’s neck to realize we are all in the midbar unless we look beyond the danger to see God’s protection.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing