This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Chukat (5772)
Near the end of this week's portion, Chukat, we read the strange story of the brass serpent.
When the Jews complained about the bland taste of Manna, G-d first sent serpents to kill them and then told Moses to make a statue of a serpent and raise it on a pole in order that anyone who looked at it would live.
Rashi quotes the Talmud and explains that really it wasn't really this statue that helped, but the fact that they raised their eyes to heaven.
This, of course, is very strange; if just looking at heaven was what saved them, then why didn't G-d order Moses to tell the Jews to just look up to heaven? Why did he have Moshe make a serpent?
Here is a story which will help us understand.
The most joyous holiday in Judaism is Simchat Torah. Religious Jews dance and sing well into the night celebrating the holiness of the Torah.
But Yankel wasn't happy. A few months ago he had a heart attack and it looked like his dancing days were over, in fact it looked like all his days would soon be over. Now he was having trouble breathing, he couldn't work and he felt miserable all the time.
Yankel wasn't really a Chassid, but every year he used to walk to Lubavitch and partake in the Simchat Torah festivities with the Chassidim; it gave him inspiration and joy for the rest of the year, but now just the thought of hour's walk to Lubavitch made him cringe, his happy days were over.
But Yankel's wife thought differently. "Yankel," she said "I think we should go. I mean, you don't have to dance, we'll just watch. And as far as the walk goes, we can walk slowly, take two hours even three. Here, we can stop at your friend, Fival's, house on the way, you can rest there. After all, we can't just sit at home on Simchat Torah! And who knows, maybe the Rebbe will give you a blessing."
So, that Simchat Torah he and his wife took their time and arrived in Lubavitch after a four hour walk. When they reached the town gate they could already hear the singing and dancing and knew they had made the proper choice.
"Thank G-d! Boruch HaShem!" His wife said to him, while Yankel just beamed with joy; he was still alive!! He would celebrate Simchat Torah!!
When they reached the Shul (Synagogue) Yankel went into the main door while his wife went around to the women's section, entered and found a place where she could see all the dancing.
It was just one huge room. In the middle hundreds of Chassidim were dancing to a lively tune they themselves were singing while the women were on the other side of the room watching the festivities.
Then it happened;
The Rebbe (Rebbe Shalom Dov Ber the fifth Rebbe of Chabad circ. 1900) was dancing in the circle with the crowd surrounding him clapping their hands and singing at the tops of their lungs when suddenly he looked at Yankel, made a sign with his hand to his Chassidim and the sick man was pulled into the circle with the Rebbe who promptly grabbed him by the arm and began dancing with him around and around.
Yankel tried to protest but his voice was not heard above the noise. He even thought of resisting but he was too weak. He couldn't understand how the Rebbe, who had a reputation for knowing everything, could make such a tragic mistake.
But the Rebbe danced with more and more vigor.
"Rebbe! Rebbe! Stop!!" His wife yelled out from the women's section. Yankel even stumbled once or twice but the Rebbe held him up until finally poor Yankel let out a groan and fell to the floor unconscious.
"Oy! Rebbe!!" She screamed, "YOU KILLED HIM!! YOU KILLED MY HUSBAND!!"
They carried him out of the Shul, outside into the fresh air, and laid him on some hastily pushed together tables. Then from somewhere a doctor appeared briefly checked Yankel's pulse and announced "He's still alive! Bring some blankets and keep him warm. There is nothing we can do now but wait."
Yankel lay there unconscious, pale as a sheet, surrounded by a small crowd, his wife crying and wringing her hands while some ladies tried to comfort her.
This lasted for about fifteen minutes when suddenly Yankel let out a loud moan, opened his eyes, looked around, sat up and asked what happened. His wife almost fainted. The Doctor was called out again, again checked the pulse and said and declared. "You're healthy! Just take it easy." and returned inside.
After a few more minutes the crowd also returned to the festivities in the Shul and Yankel and his wife were alone. "To tell you the truth", Said Yaakov to his wife, "I feel better than I felt the last twenty years". He stood up, brushed himself off, returned inside and never had heart problems again.
This answers our question about the serpent. The main power of the serpent was that Moses made it.
The Jews in the desert had forgotten that the uniqueness of the Jewish people was not to get spiritual (as they were in the desert) but to appreciate the true purpose of the PHYICAL (That is why G-d got angry at them for not entering Canaan) because physical can be higher than anything if used according to the Torah, but ONLY Moses had the power to reveal it.
Like the dancing of the Rebbe; ordinary dancing would have killed Yankel, in fact even a spiritual blessing wouldn't have helped him, but the Rebbe's dancing, a physical act, because it touched on the G-dly source of dancing, had the power to heal.
But there is even a deeper lesson here. That in fact everything, including all bad, also comes from G-d; there are no ‘accidents’. And as soon as we really realize this, instead of becoming depressed, angry or losing control of ourselves we can gain new insight, joy and power in life to the degree that we can TRANSFORM curses to blessings (as we will see in next week’s Torah portion, Balak, as well).
That is the lesson of the Brass Serpent: that bad things also can encourage us to ‘raise our eyes’ and see that their source is really good.
This was how the Rebbe in our story transformed Yankel’s heart condition into health.
And in a big way this will be the main accomplishment of Moshiach: to teach ALL mankind to transform their ‘curses’ into blessings through observing the Torah.
But it all depends on us to make this happen even one minute sooner.
Just one more good deed, word or even thought can transform the world to the side of merit and reveal …
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