This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Chukat (5770)
This Shabbat we read about many interesting things; the unfathomable Red Cow commandment, the cessation of the water from the rock and of the protective clouds of glory caused by the deaths of Miram and Aaron… and more.
But perhaps the strangest story here is the "Bronze Serpent":
The Jews complained once too much, G-d got angry, sent deadly serpents to kill them and then told Moses to make a serpent-statue, put it on a pole so whoever looked up (in the direction of G-d) would not die. Moses then made a Bronze Serpent, raised it on a pole ….. and it worked.
This story seemingly makes no sense.
First of all, why did G-d tell the Jews to look at a snake-statue? Isn't that forbidden?
Second; why didn't G-d just tell them to look up to the heavens? Why a statue?
Third; why did G-d get mad? Since when is complaining punishable by death?
Fourth (and most important), Torah means 'Teaching'. What does this ancient, very strange story come to teach us?
To understand this here is another story thatI heard last week from a good friend.
About ten years ago a rich Israeli businessman who we will call Jerry was on the top of the world. He was a multi-millionaire, toured the globe enjoying the best hotels, restaurants, cars and anything that money could buy. He was a self-made-man who loved his creator (i.e. himself). Saying; "My talents and strength gave me all these riches." (Deut. 8:17) and he seemed to be right ……. until Hungary.
One of the most grandiose building projects of all time in Israel, the Azreali business complex in Tel Aviv, was nearing its completion and Jerry was given an opportunity to purchase the entire top (49th) floor!
It would cost him several tens of millions of dollars but he had the money, or could easily borrow what was lacking and it looked like a promising investment. He examined all sides of the deal with his lawyers, took a lot of advice and was just about to say yes until one of his best friends came up with a better investment.... Hungary.
"What?" His friend exclaimed. "For the same money you can buy not just one floor but ten complete offices buildings in Hungary! And the economy there is on the rise! In just two years you can have your entire investment back.. and after that… pure profits! You'll be one of the biggest! Get in on it now before it's too late and it's all sold. It’s a sure thing!!"
To make a long and painful story very short, Jerry took his friend's advice, dropped the Azrieli idea, invested all he had in Hungary and within a few months ……. lost it all.
In just months every penny he had saved and slaved for was gone and he was a pauper! And after he liquidated all his assets and even sold his house to pay his debts he still owed Seventeen Thousand shekels to the Israeli Revenue Service.
Things happened so fast that he almost didn't have time to digest it all. At first he even tried to deny it saying. "After all, that's business; right? ups and downs! Right? It will pass! The main thing is to smile, keep my eye open for opportunities, think positively; soon I'll be on the top again. Even more than before! Etc. etc."
But reality began creeping up on him when he tried to get that 17,000 shekels. He soon discovered that his old friends weren't as friendly as before. Doors that he used to lock were now locked before him and people weren't returning his phone calls. With no collateral, the banks refused to loan him money on any terms. He was getting desperate, things were looking very bad. But then an old friend returned one of his calls. "Jerry, how are you? I hear you're looking for a loan. Come up and see me, I think I owe you a few favors from the good days. Whatever you want I'll try to help."
But as irony would have it, this friend's office was nowhere other than … the 49th floor of the Azrieli center!
Jerry, still full of confidence took the elevator to his friend's office, signed for the loan, shook his hand, put the bills in his inside coat pocket and exited the office to the plush corridor.
The door closed behind him and he was alone, it was quiet with only soft recorded music coming through the small ubiquitous speakers. Jerry began to realize the irony of it; this whole place could have been his! With nothing better to do he decided to walk around and have a look. After a few minutes of strolling he noticed a set of stairs leading up to a large metal door, which he ascended and opened the door. A cold autumn wind blew into his face. It was the door leading to the roof, 'why not', he thought to himself as he went out.
Ahh it was beautiful! From here he could see far into the distance; the Judean hills in one direction, the wide, vast Mediterranean sea on the other. He just stood there, thinking and trying to enjoy the weather when suddenly a loud thud behind him broke his thoughts; a quick glance revealed that the wind slammed the door shut. He decided it was time to go back.
Jerry went to the door and tried to open it but … it seemed to be locked. He tried peering from all sorts of angles to figure out the latch but he couldn't. So he began to pound on the door and when that didn't work, to kick at it. For sure someone would hear.
But no one did. The wind was getting stronger and colder now and he wasn't really dressed for this. He looked around for some object to hit the door with, to attract attention and get out but there was none. He still had a good hour before dark; people were probably still in their offices so he pounded, kicked and yelled but there was no response.
'Hey, what a fool I am!' He slapped his forehead and said to himself, "My cellular phone! I can just call someone with my cellular phone!' But when he took it out he discovered that the battery was dead. Totally dead! Of all times for this to happen!
But he didn't loose his composure. He had to work fast. He went to the edge of the building, peered over the small protective fence and began waiving his arms and yelling to the people far below which, after just five minutes, he realized was totally futile. There was no way that anyone would notice him from 49 floors below. But he had to remain calm. It was his only chance. Soon it would be dark and really cold. And there was no where to get protection from the wind, which was getting colder by the minute.
Suddenly he had an idea. The money! He had 17,000 shekels in his pocket. For sure if he threw a 200 shekel note down people would look up to see where it was coming from… and see him.
He pulled out a stack of bills, removed one, looked over the fence and threw it. He watched as it floated crazily in the wind and finally, after several minutes, landed on the other side of the street, someone stopped, bent down, picked it up and continued walking.
This time he took out five bills, 1,000 altogether and let them drop… but it was the same thing. No one noticed them until they hit the ground, then they picked them up, looked around for more and kept going.
He knew what he had to do! It was his only chance! He took all the money from his pocket, tore the band that held it neatly in a pack and with a yell, threw it below as hard as he could. With his last optimism he gazed as it scattered far below him. He removed his shirt and began waving it frantically for someone to notice. But he couldn't believe his eyes; not only did no one look up or hear his cries for help; they were all arguing down there about who saw which bill first!
He looked around on the roof, the sun was setting, it was still light enough to see, but he saw nothing……. only the sky.
His eyes filled with tears, suddenly he felt small, he needed help..... he was sure that G-d would help him. The sky said so. A second ago he didn't even believe there was such a thing but now it was obvious… he wasn't alone.
He yelled out, "HaShem! HaShem! (G-d)…. help! Help me!"
Suddenly his eye caught a medium sized sack of sand … small pebbles. Why didn't he see it before? But there it was! He dragged it to the fence, took a handful, said a prayer, threw it over the side and began waving his arms and looking down again.
Sure enough, this time it worked! People began cursing; looking up pointing and screaming at him. Probably all of them called the police because in just moments the door burst open, police with guns drawn stormed through, put handcuffs on him and took him to the station. He was saved!
It took some serious explaining. He was lucky that no one was really hurt from his pebbles and, of course, he lost the 17,000 shekel and still owed the taxes. But after a few days they accepted his story and let him out.
But he said that it was well worth it. Not only he got saved but he got adjusted as well.
For the first time in his life he got a good look at how foolish he had been; the people on the street taught him.
They were just like him; all the time money was raining down they never looked up… only down for more money. But as soon as they started feeling the pebbles hurting them they looked up to see where they were coming from.
Jerry never looked up when he had money, he felt he was G-d incarnate. But when he began to hurt he realized he needed help to change.
Jerry began taking classes in Judaism, began doing the commandments and, as far as anyone knows, today is a totally observant Jew.
This answers our questions. The reason G-d told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole was not just to make the Jews look up at G-d, but rather to realize that the SOURCE of evil is also G-d and the reason G-d creates it is for us to transform it.
Namely, that when we pay attention ONLY to its source we can eradicate evil and even transform its energy to holiness. (Much as Moses transformed the staff to a snake and back again (Ex. 4:4) or Nachum Gamzu (Taanis 21) transformed sand to arrows (see Lekutei Torah of Chabad 61:4).
This is a very deep lesson to all of us. It is difficult to believe in G-d when there are hard times … but it is even more difficult when we succeed. Then, just like Jerry, we feel certain that we ourselves are G-d.
This is the serpent… the feeling of self importance and lack of humility that must be raised on a 'pole'.
We must realize, as Jerry did in our story, that this destructive egotism, like everything else, is a creation of G-d, which, with G-d's help, can be removed and even transformed.
And that is why G-d got angry when the Jews complained; because rather than trying to change themselves and the world around them they were allowing the world to dominate them. The OPPOSITE of what they were created for!
This will be the job of Moshiach; to convince each of us to, just as Moses (and Jerry) did, transform the 'serpent' and use all our energy to improve the world.
Even one positive thought, word or deed according to the Torah, can tilt the scales and bring
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