Parshas Chukas: The Snake Above

In this week’s parsha the Jews complain yet again. Incredulously, the nation protests that they have no bread or water. So, as punishment for this complaint, God sends a plague of snakes that bite and kill many of them. The Jews, now realizing their sin, ask Moshe to pray on their behalf and request that God remove the snakes. God responds favorably and tells Moshe to fashion a snake out of metal and place it on a pole in the middle of the camp so that everyone who gazes at it will be healed.

There is, however, an inconsistency in this story; the request of the people does not align with the response from God. The Jewish people asked to remove the snakes, but God answered with a cure for them instead. If God thought it appropriate to heed their request, why did He not just actually remove the snakes as the people requested? Instead of providing a cure, should not God have simply removed the snakes altogether?

To answer this question, we must first ask yet another. Upon careful analysis of this story there arises a textual inconsistency. The Torah first states that God sent “snakes,” in the plural:

Numbers 21:6:

וַיְשַׁלַּ֨ח יְהוָ֜ה בָּעָ֗ם אֵ֚ת הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וַֽיְנַשְּׁכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֥מָת עַם־רָ֖ב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

The LORD sent seraph snakes against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.

In the very next posuk, however, it states that the Jewish people requested that God remove “the snake,” in the singular:

Numbers 21:7:

וַיָּבֹא֩ הָעָ֨ם אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֜ה וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ חָטָ֗אנוּ כִּֽי־דִבַּ֤רְנוּ בַֽיהוָה֙ וָבָ֔ךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה וְיָסֵ֥ר מֵעָלֵ֖ינוּ אֶת־הַנָּחָ֑שׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֖ה בְּעַ֥ד הָעָֽם׃

The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD to take away the snake from us!” And Moses interceded for the people.

Why did the Torah shift from plural form to the singular? This problem is addressed by Rabbeinu Bachyah, who answers that the Jewish people were requesting that “the Snake Above,” or the power of death, be removed from their midsts. They weren’t necessarily asking to remove all the physical snakes from their camp — those were just the mechanism for death. Their request was really more macro, asking to remove death. This, then, is why God commanded Moshe to craft a snake and place it on a pole — so that the Jews could see it and recommit themselves to God. So, in fact, God did give the Jews exactly what they asked for. They wanted to rid themselves of the death plague, and God answered that in order to do so they must properly commit themselves to Him.

Not everyone explains the shift from plural to singular in this way, however. The Ohr HaChaim explains that the shift is there to make a point that the Jewish people didn't even want one snake left over. How, then, would the Ohr HaChaim explain why God responded by instead telling Moshe to display a metal snake on a pole?

Perhaps the Ohr HaChaim would suggest that the reality is that we don't always know what is the best for us. Just because the Jewish people asked God to remove all the snakes doesn't mean that this was the best solution for them. Indeed, God clearly thought that a better resolution for their difficulty would be to place a snake on a pole in the middle of the camp to serve as a constant reminder of Who is in charge. This would then help the Jewish people change their ways. After all, the real issue at play in this story is not the snakes, or the removal of them, but the lack of faith the Jewish people had in God. In order to solve this issue, merely removing the snakes would be insufficient as the nation would then find something else to complain about. Therefore, God answered their prayer by giving them a real solution — a way to remind themselves Who is in charge. God’s solution was long-term.

This idea has ramifications in the realm of tefillah: We often pray for things that seemingly go unanswered. Many, surely, pray to win the lottery, for instance, but such prayers are seemingly denied by God. The simple explanation is that oftentimes God simply says “no.” The same way that a parent sometimes says “no” to a child, God says “no” for our own good. If God would answer “yes” to every request people made of him, the world would quickly become quite dysfunctional.

Sometimes, though, as we see in this week’s parsha, God responds to our inquiries with a different “yes” then we were expecting. What we think is a “no” is really just a better “yes” then we were asking for originally. The Jewish people thought that it was best for them to have God remove the snakes from their midsts. God, however, knew that what was truly best for the Jewish people was to install a mechanism to allow them to realign their lives.

Maybe, if we take a good enough look, we will see that many of the times we thought that God had answered us “no” were really instances of God giving us a better deal than we asked for.

Halacha And Kabbalah (Part 4): When Kabbalah Supersedes The Traditional Halacha

Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos (Part 5): “Whoever Says” In The Formal State Of Prayer