This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Chukat (5771)
This week’s Torah portion is one of the most action packed in the Five Books of Moses.
It begins with the unusual laws of the “Red Cow” then includes the death of Miriam, the tragically fateful episode of ‘striking the rock’ that precluded Moses from entering Israel, the death of Aaron, a war with Amelek, Edom, Sichon and more. But perhaps the strangest episode is the attack by poisonous serpents thwarted by Moses putting a brass snake on a pole.
The Torah tells us that the serpents attacked because the Jews complained once too much about nothing and when Moses made the bronze snake and put it on the pole they looked up and it saved them.
At first glance this is totally not understood; how could a bronze snake on a pole have such a deep effect?Moses could have just told them to turn their gaze upward.
To understand this here is a story I just read from Yerachmiel Tilles at Ascent of Safed. (Excerpted from "The Trail to Tranquility", by Lazer Brody).
Sergeant Sammy Adler, USMC, crouched shin-deep in the mud of the Vietnamese jungle less than a mile from the Laotian border. The Vietcong had been smuggling massive amounts of armaments into South Vietnamby way of Laos. His company's mission was to ambush the smugglers, confiscate the arms shipment, and capture whomever they could for interrogation.
An annoying mosquito buzzed in Sammy's ear, and a leech bit his wrist. He didn't dare slap himself, for the slightest noise could reveal his position to an enemy ambush. The mission therefore called for radio silence, which necessitated the three platoons of Company C to maintain eye contact with each other.
A heavy dawn mist descended on the jungle. The fog was so thick that Sammy barely saw Captain John Willis, his company commander, from a distance of three feet. Willis scribbled a note and passed it to Sammy: "Platoon B, 0800, green east".
Sammy looked at his watch and nodded in understanding. His orders were to crawl over to Platoon B, one hundred yards to the right, and to inform the platoon leader that at exactly eight a.m., all three platoons would leave their present position and approach the Laotian border due east of them.
Sammy slithered inch by inch in the mud. His life depended on his absolute silence. He looked at his watch again - five minutes after seven. He took a deep breath and continued, first an elbow, then a knee, another elbow, then another knee. He stopped dead in his tracks: A roundishbrown object, the exact size and shape of antipersonnel mine, was right before his nose.
The "mine", none other than a turtle, stuck its head out and laughed in Sammy's face, and then crawled away nonchalantly. He exhaled deeply in relief, and continued in the direction of Platoon B.
Forty-five minutes expired; Sammy wiped the mud off the face of his watch, and read the time - ten minutes to eight. The fog lifted, but a heavy rain drenched the already saturated jungle.
All along the seemingly endless one hundred yards to Platoon B's position, Sammy kept track of his crawling pace. He counted four hundred movements of nine inches each, the equivalent of one hundred yards. He should have reached Platoon B by now, but saw nothing other than mud and jungle.
A minute before eight: What a mess, Sammy thought. In sixty seconds, Platoons A and C will be moving east, and Platoon B hasn't been informed yet. Where in daylights is Platoon B? Where the heck am I?
"Chikachikachik! Chikachikachik !" The cobra's forked tongue almost touched Sammy's nose. The snake snarled, exposing his two deadly fangs, and braced to an attack position.
Sammy froze - he thought that the pounding of his pulse could surely be heard for miles away. In a few split seconds, he envisioned his entire life flashing before his eyes. What a pathetic way to go, he lamented, killed by a cobra in the muck and mire of a Vietnamese jungle, ten thousand miles from home. He couldn't ask the cobra for a stay of execution until he had a chance to send a postcard to Mom and Dad.
Sammy's M-16 rifle lay in a futile silence beside him. His commando knife remained idle in its scabbard, as did the three assault grenades in his ammo belt. He didn't dare move a muscle. Beads of salty sweat from his forehead traversed his right eyebrow and then dripped down and stung his right eye. Wiping his forehead was out of the question.
Jungle survival school taught him that only a bronze statue lives through an encounter with an irate cobra. I'm a bronze statue, Sammy thought to himself; I'm a bronze statue.
"Chikachikachik! Chikachikachik !" The cobra continued with his head cocked in a foreboding assault position. The snake seemed to lock itself - only his tongue darted periodically to and fro.
The cobra was massive - eight, maybe nine feet long and no less than ten inches thick. It maintained direct eye contact with Sammy. An entire hour transpired, then another hour.
Eventually, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. The sun was in the treetops directly overhead, indicating that the time was approximately twelve noon. Sammy heard the staccato of machine-gun fire and the thuds of mortar shells in the distance. The snake wouldn't let Sammy budge; it had been holding the exhausted, nerve-shattered Marine at bay for four hours already.
Every muscle in Sammy's body cried out in pain. His neck was as stiff as granite, his fatigues were soaked, and the unbearable winter dampness seemed to chill the fibers of his soul.
Another two hours passed. Each minute was a trial of a lifetime. Sammy kept thinking to himself, "One more minute, onemore minute. I'm still alive. Hold on, Adler, one more minute! You can stick it out for another minute. Thank you, G-d, for letting me live another minute."
G-d? When did He come on the scene?
Sammy surprised himself. He never prayed in his life. His parents never practiced any form of religion, even though his grandparents were religious Jews. Sammy Adler was raised American - baseball, apple pie, The Marine Corp, and nothing else.
The snake seemed to alter its facial expression from threat to understanding. The minute Sammy thought about G-d, he could have sworn that the snake nodded its head, as if to say, "You're correct, soldier!" At that very instant, the snake uncockedits head, performed a perfectWest Point"at ease" and "about face", and slithered away to the thick of the jungle.
Sammy's head dropped like a two-ton anchor. He broke out in a cathartic sob, and his entire body shuddered for a good five minutes, releasing the pent-up tension from within. He looked at his watch - seventeen hundred hours, or five in the afternoon.
Who could ever believe it? A U.S. Marine had just been held captive for nine hours in the custody of a nine-foot cobra. Were it not for his aching muscles and the leech bites all over his body, he wouldn't have believed it himself.
After several minutes of massaging his legs, he was able to stand. He didn't have much time, for nightfall was less than an hour away. The last nine hours felt like nine years.
Sammy, a superb navigator, began walking in the direction of the company bivouac - exhausted mentally and physically, but alive. He arrived at the clearing by the river, in the proximity of his platoon's ambush position, and received the shock of his life: Captain John Willis and the Marines of Company C's three platoons were slaughtered to the last man in a counter-ambush.
The realization of the miracle hit Sergeant Sammy Adler like a ton of bricks: The Al-mighty had sent a gigantic cobra to guard over him. Were it not for the cobra, he would have returned to his company's position and would have been slaughtered too. Nine hours of unimaginable stress and suffering, with a deadly cobra staring him in the face, turned out to be the blessing of his life, a divine revelation in the jungles ofSouth Vietnam, February 1969.
This answers our question. Sometimes a deadly snake can be our be our best friend.
As we see from our story, the most threatening evil can become the greatest friend, but first we have to change perspective. Instead of evaluating life according to selfish standards we must be open to G- d’sstandards.
When we realize that all of our character flaws; anger, depression, lust, etc. are really challenges from G-d to ‘ raiseour eyes’ i.e. ‘elevate us’ to live a life with eternal standards, like the soldier in our story.
May we all merit to transform the ‘cobra’ within us and beginto see the world the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us (see your local Chabad House for details).
Then we will discover that one prayer can save not only our lives but the entire world.
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