This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Chukat (5766)
In this week's action-packed Torah portion, we learn a frightening story (21:5-9):
The Jews complained about G-d and Moses; they wanted better miracles. G-d got angry and sent poisonous serpents; each bite was sure death and many died. Moses prayed for mercy and G-d told him to make a bronze snake and raise it high on a pole (today's symbol of the medical profession) for all those bitten to look at and live. And it worked.
In other words, the bronze snake was stronger than death!
At first glance this does not make sense.
First, why did G-d get so mad?
Second, what type of punishment is serpents?
Third, of all things to save them, why another serpent?
Finally, the Talmud (Rosh HaShana 29a; see Rashi 21:8) explains that what really saved the people was not the brass serpent but that they gazed up to Heaven. If so, why make a serpent? Let them just look up!
To understand this, here is a story (HaGeula #307) that might help:
The telephone in Rabbi Rachamim Nimni's home rang. On the other end of the line was an almost hysterical woman pleading for help in Hebrew.
"Rabbi Nimni? Hello? Is this Rabbi Nimni? Ah, good! I'm calling from Israel. Rabbi, you have to help me! This is Rabbi Nimni, yes? You are in New York, yes? You are Chabad, yes? Listen, I am calling about my son. His name is Chezki. He is such a wonderful young man. He is twenty-two and, well, he met a gentile girl here in Israel. At first we thought it would pass but it didn't. We told him we weren't so happy about it but it got more serious until . . . well, now, that is a few months ago. He says they want to get married. Rabbi, someone gave me your number and said that, well, maybe you can help. We are going crazy here!"
"But, why are you calling me?" asked Rabbi Nimni. "I live in New York. I mean, there must be rabbis in Israel who can talk to him face-to-face. Why do it long distance? And why me? I don't think I even know your son? Do I?"
"No, no," she replied. "You don't know him. But I didn't finish. You see, his father and I, we tried everything. First we tried to talk him out of it. Then, when he didn't want to listen, we sent his friends and teachers he knew from school and then we sent rabbis, a lot of rabbis. But it got worse. He got mad and said he wanted us to leave him alone. The pressure was too much. Rabbi, he's left Israel . . . with her.
"They moved. He and this girlfriend of his moved to New Jersey. So they're closer to you than me and they're making plans for the wedding. Rabbi, please help! Do you think you can help?"
Rabbi Nimni asked a few more questions, got a few phone numbers, promised he would at least give it a try, and dialed the number.
Chezki answered and surprisingly he sounded very friendly. Maybe it was because he was glad to speak to someone in Hebrew or maybe it was just a miracle but he and the rabbi hit it off and talked for a good ten minutes.
Of course, Rabbi Nimni was careful not to bring up the topic of the girl or the wedding. His plan was to first establish a rapport and then gradually approach the topic, but Chezki knocked that idea down at the end of the conversation. He said that he really enjoyed talking and would like to talk again. But only on the condition they never speak about his girlfriend or his upcoming wedding or he's going to close the phone.
So every few days, sometimes every day, Rabbi Nimni managed to find a few minutes to call Chezki and talk. But without being able to talk about the girl, the days and weeks went by and the rabbi was getting nowhere. In fact, if the conversation ever got even close to the "forbidden" topic, Chezki would interject with, "I hope you aren't going to make me close the phone, Rabbi."
After a month of this with no progress, Rabbi Nimni was beginning to get nervous. The wedding was approaching and there seemed to be no way to stop it. But on the other hand, he did have one foot in the door. It would be a shame to just give up.
Rabbi Nimni decided to ask his father, Rabbi Michael Nimni, a well-known Sefardic rabbi in New York, for advice. His answer was simple:
"Did you write to the Rebbe?"
He was referring to the custom of many Chabad Chassidim to write questions to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, put them in one of the twenty-seven volumes of the Rebbe's correspondence to people entitled Igrot Kodesh, and see if the answer applies to them.
Rabbi Nimni almost slapped himself on the forehead. He had used Igrot Kodesh tens, even hundreds, of times before but this time it simply had slipped his mind.
He wrote a letter explaining the situation, pulled out one volume from his library, inserted it randomly between two of the pages, and then opened to see what was written there.
It was volume sixteen, page 55, and the letter there stresses the importance of fulfilling the commandment of having a proper mezuza on every door, how mezuza is equal to all the commandments, and how this commandment shows that one's house and possessions really belong to the Creator.
The next time Rabbi Nimni spoke to Chezki, he took the chance. Up to now he had steered clear of bringing up Judaism at all but with the Rebbe's answer now under his belt, he got bold.
"Hey Chezki! How are you today? Hey, I was just thinking. What about a mezuza on your door. Do you have mezuzas?"
There was a moment of silence. Would Chezki slam the phone shut?
"Mezuza?" he answered. "Hey! You know, you're right! A mezuza. Yeah! But where will I get a mezuza?"
"No problem!" answered the rabbi. I've got a bunch (which wasn't true). Tell me where you live and I'll be right there!"
Rabbi Nimni got the address. He drove to the nearest scribe, bought a few good mezuzas, and rushed to Chezki's flat.
A few minutes later the mezuzas were up and a beaming Chezki was thanking the rabbi for the gifts.
As Rabbi Nimni drove home he began to think about what he had just done. He had spent some two hundred dollars for what? After all, he still didn't get a word in about the wedding nor did he even do anything at all to delay it! The more he thought about it, the more he began to wonder if he hadn't made a big mistake.
The next time he called Chezki, two days later, Chezki didn't even mention the mezuzas. All he talked about was his girlfriend.
"Wow! Suddenly she's all tense and unpleasant. In fact, we even had an argument about nothing . . . our first argument. I can't figure it out. I hope this isn't how it's going to be!"
Rabbi Nimni didn't say anything but he almost shouted aloud from surprise. He just tried to talk about something else and ended the conversation pleasantly.
The next time he called, Chezki complained bitterly. The arguing wasn't stopping and she was making his life miserable. Yesterday, she began yelling again and demanded that he remove the mezuzas from the doors. "But," Chezki announced proudly, "I refused! I told her that it was good luck and anyway Jews have been doing it for more than three thousand years, so it can't be so bad!"
Three days later it was Chezki who called the rabbi. "Hey, Rabbi. How're you doing? Hey, don't call me on that other number because, well, I moved. That's right. I came home yesterday and, well, she took down the mezuzas. Then, when I asked her why, she started cursing out me and all the Jews. I couldn't believe it! Anyway, I got the mezuzas. Now I'm just looking for a door to put them on."
This helps us to answer our questions.
The miracles that G-d did for the Jews in the desert -- providing food, water, and protection -- were only to relieve the Jews' material needs in order to free their minds and hearts for more spiritual and G-dly pursuits. In other words, the miracles were a means to a goal -- to transform the world to G-dliness (like it was in the Garden of Eden).
But the Jews got the whole thing wrong. They treated the miracles as an end in themselves and forgot the goal completely.
That was exactly the sin of Adam some 2,500 years earlier when the serpent tricked him into forgetting the goal of Creation. The result was that Adam brought death into the world for the first time (Gen.2:17).
So too, here. G-d sent deadly serpents to remind the Jews that they were repeating the sin of Adam. But, even most important, G-d showed them (and us) how to cure it . . . the cure for death!
The evil inclination . . . the primordial serpent . . . the Angel of Death . . . are all names for the same thing. Today, it is called "self" or selfishness and it can actually be transformed and "elevated" to G-dliness. But only Moses (and the Moses or Moshiach of each generation) can do it.
That is why G-d told Moses to raise the serpent high.
In fact, this is the goal of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov called Chassidut (which are the teachings of Moshiach) -- to fill the world with the awareness of the Creator (the Living G-d) and eradicate all falseness, suffering, and eventually even death.
This is something like how putting up the mezuza in our story revealed the truth and how the advice to do so came from the Rebbe in a way that was above time . . . above death.
The message is clear. We have the secret for bringing Moshiach and the Resurrection of the Dead at our fingertips -- that is, the Chassidic teachings and directives of the Rebbe. All we have to do is open our eyes and our hearts to do all we can to bring....
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