The pattern is fairly simple and uncomplicated. Bnei Yisrael sin.
Bnei Yisrael feel remorse. Moshe beseeches Hashem to forgive
them. Hashem accedes to the request.
It happens so often we lose track of the number of times. In one episode
in our parshah, however, events take a different turn.
Dissatisfied with the mon, Bnei Yisrael project their
disappointment upon Moshe and Hashem. Hashem sets fiery serpents upon
them; many die. The survivors, overcome with guilt, voice their
teshuvah to Moshe, who prays for them. But rather than forgive
them, Hashem orders that a large copper serpent be erected. Those who are
bitten by the fiery serpents are saved from death only by focusing upon
the copper image, and directing their hearts towards the One above.2 Expressing their teshuvah was not
enough to save them from the effects of the snakebite.
What was exceptional about this failure that Hashem dealt with it do
differently? For that matter, we are hard pressed to understand the
severity of their punishment in the first place. To be sure, their
complaint seems to us to be as “unsubstantial”3 as the mon about which they muttered. Hashem’s
punishments always match the crime. Did some juvenile sputtering need to
be answered by the painful and frightful attack of the serpents?
We must understand what it was that they were really saying with their
complaint. They were not hungry; they were not thirsty. The mon
nourished them while they drank water from Miriam’s well. What they
rejected was the general order of their lives, which was not quite the way
they would have liked it to be. Their dissatisfaction did not stem from
any real need, but from the manner in which those needs were fulfilled.
They had their own priorities, their own likes and dislikes, and these
were not in synch with the choices Hashem made for them. In short, they
rejected the life that Hashem chose for them, valuing their own choices
Chazal tell us4 that the rich man is
the man who finds happiness in his lot. We achieve such happiness not by
simply adopting a pragmatic and optimistic embrace of one’s fate in life.
We get there by comprehending the Hand of G-d in it. We can be happy with
our lot when we understand that it was custom designed by His providence.
By the same reasoning, fundamental unhappiness is a terrible failing,
because it rejects His Will. We are unhappy when we insist on
superimposing our own will, our own choices upon the providential
trajectory that Hashem has selected for us.
Keeping this in mind, we can unlock the meaning of a famous teaching of
Chazal. They tell us5 that Avraham was
subjected to ten tests. He passed all of them, demonstrating his
preciousness. Some of those tests required responses on his part, and
Avraham responded magnificently, such as agreeing to die for his beliefs
at Ur Kasdim, and in following Hashem’s directives at the akedah.
Another group of tests, however, afforded him no options. How could the
famine in the land and Soroh’s captivity in the house of Paroh serve as
tests, when Avraham was a passive participant, who had no role in shaping
These tests measured Avraham’s attitude, not his actions. He met every new
trial and tribulation with happiness and love of Hashem. He was
fundamentally pleased with the way Hashem ran his life. This state of
mind was every bit as significant as his decision to allow himself to be
thrown into the furnace at Ur Kasdim, and to offer up Yitzchok at the
Akedah. Avraham completely understood that from the Good comes only
good. Whatever Hashem had in store for him could only be in his best
The harshest treatment we receive from the yetzer hora is to come
to deny all this. The yetzer hora comes at us with something more
potent than the meretricious allure of self-importance, of lusts and
desire, of honor. Worse than all of those is the growing feeling within a
Jew that he is simply dissatisfied with the way He conducts his life.
A plague of serpents was a fitting response to the behavior of the
complainers. The serpent, of course, has been symbolic of evil itself
since it led Adam astray in Gan Eden. Moreover, aspects of the serpent’s
behavior are especially relevant to the human flaw we are discussing. The
serpent was cursed to slither on the ground, and eat dust.6 R. Moshe Midner explained that the ready availability
of sustenance was a terrible curse to the serpent, because it meant that
HKBH did not it to turn to Him for its needs. “Take what you need, but
don’t turn to Me. I do not wish to hear your voice!”
Additionally, the Gemara7 depicts a
scene in the future, when other animals will gather around the serpent
accusatorily. “We often behaved violently, but we did so to gather prey,
to sustain ourselves. You, serpent, lunge at people and kill them without
any purpose, and without any benefit.”
Taken together, the serpent’s profile is one of bitterness and gratuitous
damage. It lacks no food, but lashes out nonetheless. The fit is
perfect! The complainers in Klal Yisrael also lacked nothing, but still
verbally lashed out at Moshe and at Hashem in their unhappiness.
For this reason, their teshuvah required the copper serpent. They
could easily have overlooked or minimized the gravity of their offense.
They had actually done nothing wrong. They needed to look intently at a
symbolic representation of their sin in order to properly repent. The
copper serpent had to be raised aloft for all to peer at it intently, and
come to understand what wrong they had committed, and how grievous a wrong
The fiery serpent episode comes on the heels of Aharon’s death. It could
not have taken place in the lifetime of the person who “loved peace,
pursued peace, and loved people.”8
These qualities are known to lead to love of Hashem. While Aharon lived,
his love of Hashem was available in such intensity and bounty that others
felt it too. And where there is ahavas Hashem, there is
satisfaction with the way He runs His world. With his death, with
ahavas Hashem in shorter supply, dissatisfaction and complaints
The complaints did not arise randomly. Introducing the story, the Torah
tells us that “the spirit of the people grew short on the way.”9 Rashi explains that the rigors of the
journey became unbearable to them. The Torah, it would seem, seeks to
mitigate their transgression. Their patience was in short supply; they
did have legitimate reasons to complain, even if not for the reasons they
expressed. In truth, however, the Torah does not mitigate their sin as
much as underscore how serious it was. At times a person appears to have
good cause to complain. He is dealt blows such that optimism and insight
are banished by grave concerns and problems. The Torah tells us that even
at such times, dissatisfaction with the lot in life allocated by Hashem is
a major failure. Life, presided over by HKBH, is always good.