Not long ago, I heard a powerful vignette from Rabbi Marvin Hier, the former director of the Simon Wiesenthal center. When Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, celebrated his 90th birthday, he insisted the celebration take place in Vienna’s Imperial Hotel. When Rabbi Heir asked him why, he explained that it was Hitler’s favorite hotel. He and Himmler had had permanent suites there.
That night at the Imperial hotel, Mr. Wiesenthal spoke just after the band played Mein Shtetele Belz (My Little Town Belz), a lullaby that evoked the innocent happiness of childhood. With tears in his eyes, he gazed up at the elaborate crystal chandeliers that lit the room like six million stars in the night sky, leaned toward Rabbi Hier and whispered, “You see? Even the chandeliers are shaking because this is the first time they have heard such music in this hotel. Hitler and his dream of a thousand-year Reich are gone, but here in the Imperial, his favorite hotel, Jews are still alive and still singing.”
This week’s parsha, Chukat, contains a fascinating yet somewhat bewildering story.
The Jews are complaining yet again (Bamidbar 21:5-9). They are tired of the moldy bread they feel they are getting. They feel deprived of water. G-d, apparently fed up with the complaining, sends poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. The people come to Moshe, admitting their sins and begging G-d to remove the serpents.
G-d responds with a rather strange set of instructions. The people must fashion a serpent and place it high on a flagpole. The victims will look up at the serpent and will live. Moshe makes the snake, and people who were bitten look at this snake on a pole, and live.
What is this story all about? What have the people done wrong to merit such a terrible plague? And why are snakes the instrument of their suffering? Even stranger, if it is snakes that are killing them, why is a snake chosen as the vehicle for their salvation? After all, as Rashi notes, it is not a snake that kills or saves; Hashem is the source of life and death. Assuming the people are worthy of death, let them die of a plague; why the need for the snakes?
The snake is the first symbol of temptation and downfall in the Torah. It is the snake in Bereishit 3 that proves the downfall of Adam and Eve, and their consequential banishment from the Garden of Eden. And it is the snake as well that is the first symbol of salvation, as Moshe, as instructed by Hashem, throws his staff to the ground to see it turn into a snake that swallows the serpents of Pharaoh, setting in motion the long-awaited Exodus.
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, suggests that when the Jewish people looked up to see the snake on the flagpole, their eyes were drawn heavenward, their hearts were drawn to return to their creator and they were healed. But again, why the need for the snake?
There is a powerful idea here worth noting. The Jewish people mistakenly assumed that it was the snakes killing them in the first place. But the snake, after all, was only the messenger; as Rashi points out, it is G-d who allows death or life, so it is the snake the people make themselves that makes clear that it is not the vehicle for salvation. Salvation is the provenance of G-d.
But this entire story is strange to begin with. The Jewish people receive manna from heaven every day, yet complain that they want bread? Perhaps they have become so accustomed to the manna they no longer appreciate it as the wondrous miracle that it is. They may be aware of the blessings in their lives, but they have begun to take the source for granted.
The issue here is not that G-d has already given them what they want. Rather, whatever G-d gives us is what we should want. It is no accident that the solution they are given is to look heavenwards so that their hearts will turn there as well; there is a connection between the heart and the eyes. In fact, we read daily in the Shema that we should be careful not to stray after our hearts and our eyes. The heart represents our desires, and the message of our story is that we can change what we want by choosing to see things differently.
This is what the snake represents. In the hands of Moshe it is our staff upon to lean on, the straight and true path Hashem directs us to follow. But thrown to the ground, representing our basest desires, it becomes the snake: twisting and slithering along a warped path of life that is not really living but dying.
And this is perhaps why the snake that is killing the Jewish people becomes the instrument of their salvation: the difference between a meaningless life and a life of meaning is how we choose to channel our desires; how we see the world we live in. It’s about the decisions we make when we choose not only what we see, but how we see it.
As the Ramban notes, the very fact that the same snake that kills also brings healing demonstrates that it is all really in Hashem’s hands. Whatever we have is a gift we are meant to have. Ours is only to decide what we will do with it.
Indeed, the desire itself is the gift. It is, after all, a mystery why different people want such different things. Hashem gives us those desires for a reason, and ours is to figure out why.
Standing in that hotel, Simon Wiesenthal made a profound point: The same hotel, same chandelier — what makes all the difference is what we want, and who or what we think we serve.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.