Beware the Snakes and Serpents!

The Torah in Parshas Chukas tells us a very interesting story. “Va’yedaber ho’om bE’lokim u’v Moshe.” Some people had the brazen chutzpah to dare speak against both Hashem and Moshe. Not only were they ungrateful for having been taken out of Mitzrayim , but they also claimed that they were now going to die in the desert for lack of bread and water. They also claimed that the heavenly bread – the mon – was going to poison them since their bodies didn’t seem to give out any wastes after eating it. They were immediately attacked and bitten by poisonous snakes and died. Yet for some strange reason the snakes didn’t stop biting. They kept coming back for more. The people quickly ran to Moshe for help. “We have sinned and spoken both against Hashem and you,” they cried. “Please pray for us” they pleaded. “Please help!” Moshe immediately prayed on their behalf and Hashem told him to build a large copper serpent and put it on top of a pole and tell the people who were bitten to look up at it and they would be cured.

This entire story seems rather strange. Why didn’t Moshe simply tell them to go and do teshuvah and stop being motzei shem rah and pray to G-d to forgive them? Who needs a cooper serpent? Shut your mouths and you wouldn’t get bitten!

The Mishnah in Mesechta Rosh Ha’shana (29) says that the purpose of the copper serpent was to get the Jews to concentrate their hearts to Hashem. The Or ha’Chaim thereupon asks; Why didn’t Moshe simply ask those that were bitten by the snakes to look up to heaven and pray to G-d? What need was there for a copper serpent on top of a pole?

The Gemara in Shanhedrin (110) says that “Ha’meharher achar raboh ke’ilu m’harher acharha Shechina” – someone who harbors improper thoughts about his rebbi is considered just as if he had improper thoughts about the Shechinah itself’. As proof, the Gemara cites this posuk that states “And they spoke against Hashem and Moshe.” Offering this posuk as proof seems rather strange. This posuk clearly states that they “spoke” againstHashem and Moshe and it makes no mention of merely harboring improper “thoughts“? While this question is so obvious and difficult, I was unable to find it anyplace. The only thing I did find was that when the TargumYoneson translates the word “v’yedaber” he doesn’t translate it in the usual manner but rather translates it “v’hirharu” which means that they had “thoughts“, rather than speaking. While this seems to support what we learned in the gemara, it still doesn’t answer the question but only intensifies it. Why doesn’t the Targum Yonoson translate the word as he always does? Why change a word from its proper translation? V’yedaber means “and hespoke” and not “and he thought”. Why make the change?

In order to properly comprehend what’s happening, let’s analyze the situation. There seemed to be quite a few people that dared bad-mouth Hashem and Moshe. That’s because the posuk clearly states that an “am rav” – lots of people died. Along came some snakes at lightning speed and killed them instantaneously. I highly doubt that they could ever make it to Moshe. Hashem gave them what they deserved and that should have been the end of the matter and taught everyone a lesson. When one is motzi shem rah (slander), the snakes get to work immediately. Since the snake had spoken against Hashem and used its power of speech improperly, it was given the task that whenever man would sin with his mouth it would be his task to bite him. And so when Pharoh opened his big mouth to deny Hashem’s existence, Moshe turned his stick into a snake and warned him that he’d better watch out or the snake would take care of him as well. Those who dared speak ill of Hashem and Moshe died on the spot and certainly wouldn’t be able to come to him. They were long gone. In fact the posuk calls these snakes “n’chashim hasrofim” which can possibly refer to the poisonous cobra whose poison is far more deadly than other snakes since it destroys the body’s nervous system. The problem however, was, that the snakes continued to bite even those that hadn’t uttered a word. Why?

Chances are that when people passed by and saw what was going on they were very curious to find out why they were bitten. They realized that they must have said something terrible. “Does anyone know what’s going on here?” they may have asked. “What did these people say to deserve getting bitten by the snakes,” they wanted to know?

The people who had heard what they had said about Hashem and Moshe probably told them what they had heard. They had asked why they had been taken out of Mitzrayim to die in the middle of the desert where there is no bread and water. They had disparaged the mon – the heavenly bread and claimed that it might actually be poisonous since they didn’t have to go to the bathroom after eating it. What malicious slander! Surely most of the listeners gave this theory a moment’s thought and immediately rejected it. After all, it certainly was outrageous! Yet it took a few seconds of thought before coming to the conclusion that it just couldn’t be true. Those few seconds that one even weighs the evidence in his mind and thinks that perhaps there is some truth to it, are very dangerous indeed. Even though a few seconds latter they rejected any such possibility, they had already became guilty of “m’harher achar raboh.” – suspecting one’s rebbi.

Recently there was a news article accusing a particular yeshivah of being caught with some improprieties. Upon hearing this news, one rebbi immediately said that he does not believe it. “It’s absolutely impossible” he said. Others sat by wondering. Unfortunately, many such stories have been found to be true and while they certainly didn’t believe this one to be true, some may have had their doubts and would wait to hear more before deciding one way or the other.

Everyone was very relieved when someone later reported that the entire story was nothing but a fabrication and a blood libel. Yet until this fact was substantiated, I’m sure some had their doubts. Some people may even have accepted this information as true without even hearing the other side of the story. While we may be big skeptics and know that not everything we hear or read is always true, we are also very gullible and at least churn this information over in our brain and weigh the pros and cons. Sometimes we will remain uncommitted and reserve judgment for later. If it’s about a yeshiva, religious person, or rebbe accused of cheating or swindling, we may even be tempted to chas v’shalom believe it even though the charges are nothing but allegations and are far from proven. After all, don’t we have to give the news some credence and judge them favorably? Little do we realize that news reports may be diluted with bits of truth in order to fool us into believing them. While we may not believe the entire story, we sometimes say “where there is smoke there is fire.” We may not believe the story in its entirety but believe there must be something to it; otherwise the paper would certainly be afraid of being sued for slander. We don’t seem to realize that the law strongly protects the news media from lawsuits. Unless one can provemalicious intent the courts will throw out the lawsuit even if it’s proven that the story was an outright lie. Usually one would need a prophet to prove that the story was written with malicious intent.

The people who were now being bitten by the snakes and came running to Moshe hadn’t said a word. They hadn’t spoken any loshon horah at all, nor were they guilty of slander. They had simply wanted to know what was going on and what terrible thing these people had said to deserve to die. As they listened to what was being said, snakes suddenly came along and bit them as well. The people quickly ran to Moshe and told him that snakes were attacking them. While they hadn’t said a thing, they admitted that they may have harbored some doubts. It was for these people that were guilty of being “m’harher char raboh” that Moshe now davened for and askedHashem for forgiveness. While they had said nothing bad at all, they were guilty of harboring these bad thoughts in their mind even if it was just for a fleeting moment.

We all know how difficult it is not to speak loshon ho’rah, yet controlling one’s inner thoughts is far more difficult. How can one control his thoughts?

Few realize that just being “choshed b’ksheirim” – suspecting the innocent – is a sin for which the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah says that in all certainty one will not do teshuvah for it. That’s because we don’t even realize that we have sinned.

Imagine that someone tells you that he suspects Yossi stole something but later finds out that he made a mistake. In all probability, one will never do teshuvah for this sin since we don’t even realize that we have sinned. We never expressed our thoughts verbally. We were just thinking and no more. What’s so bad about just thinking?

While we are not punished for bad thoughts (unless it is thoughts of avoda zarah) , bad thoughts lead to sin. This is why the Gemara tells us “v’lo sosuru a’charei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem. – refers to “minus”. The Rambam says that just looking at something that is forbidden will lead to actually committing the sin. This is why the Gemara says that “hirurei aveirah” (sinful thoughts) are even worse than the aveirah itself. This is why we are not permitted to look at dirty pictures.

Just suspecting Moshe Rabbeinu of impropriety momentarily in the inner chambers of one’s heart was enough to cause the snakes to bite.

The only way to make the people aware of the great danger of harboring bad thoughts is to erect a large copper serpent whose head looks like the fiery cobra that puts terror into ones heart and get people to constantly look up at it and realize why Hashem had sent it and also recall that very many people died when they were bitten by it. Only by constantly looking at the deadly terrifying serpent, which had attacked the Yidden for having improper thoughts, would they be reminded of the great deadliness of being “meharher achar raboh.”

One must realize that snakes or serpents don’t bite just because they are hungry like most animals do. They bite because some skeptical thoughts about one’s rebbi entered our mind. Having even an inner thought that one’s rebbe committed a sin is just as grave as having that thought about the Shechinah Itself. Just thinking for a fleeting moment that chas v’shalom there is no G-d or that there is more than one G-d is a terrible sin even if it is not expressed verbally.

Only by constantly looking up at that terrifying copper serpent and realizing the great danger of harboring bad thoughts will one learn to be careful not only with what exits from one’s mouth but also what enters into our brain. Let’s remember that the snake is G-d’s messenger and has a specific target. Only when one looks up at it and realizes who sent it and why, will one realize how dangerous mere bad thoughts can be.

Nowadays when one reads the paper or listens to the news on radio one must be extremely careful not to be guilty of this horrid crime no matter how true the story may sound. The mere thought that perhaps it is true, is considered meharher achar raboh.

While nowadays we no longer have a kohen and there is no such thing as negoim when we speak or listen to loshon horarechilus or are motzei shem rah, we all surely know that G-d has myriads of messengers. The Gemara says that while we no longer have a Bais Din that can administer the four misos, they nevertheless remain in effect and it is Hashem that chas v’shalom makes them happen. It may be a small virus or bacteria. It may be a mosquito or a tick. Hashem has a multitude of messengers that stand ready to do His bidding.

While we sometimes may think that we are totally innocent and were bitten for no reason, we had better check our inner thoughts as well. Snakes and mosquitos only go to the address they are given by Hashem. What did we do wrong? Only we know what thoughts we harbor within our minds.

Only by remembering the lesson of the large copper serpent and constantly envisioning it in our minds will we realize “lo ha’nochosh maimis elah hachet mamis.” – It is not the snake that kills but rather the sin that kills. Not only can words kill, but even improper thoughts can kill as well. True! It’s very scary indeed, but that’s the lesson that we must take from this parsha. “Hameharher achar raboh ke’ilu m’harher acher Shechina.” – Evensuspecting a rebbi of wrongdoing can be fateful!

This now explains why Moshe was able to pray for them and forgive for their sin. Ordinarily a King is not permitted to be “mochel” on his honor and as we know, Moshe was considered a king and therefore could not forgive those who defamed him. However since they were not guilty of verbalizing their thoughts publicly, he was permitted to forgive them.