“Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover” Numbers 21:9.
Once again the book’s authors abuse the reader. In the portion of Korach, which precedes our portion, they went back in time to the erection of the Tabernacle (as we wrote there), which was the start of the second year after the exodus from Egypt. In this portion they jump to the fortieth year after the exodus and tell us nothing about what happened in the 38 years which had passed. In Numbers 20:22 it is written, “Setting out from Kadesh, the Israelites arrived in a body at Mount Hor…and Aaron died there at the summit of the mountain.” Aaron died in Av of the fortieth year, as written in Numbers 33:38, “Aaron…died there in the fortieth year after the Israelites had left the land of Egypt, in the first day of the fifth month.” If so, everything written in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is about the first year and a half in the desert and about the last year, the fortieth year. We only know of two and a half years out of the forty. What happened to all the missing years and why the matters were hidden from us we will never know.
About this portion we will deal with the copper snake Moses made, about which we are greatly puzzled. Think about it: Moses made a copper snake and mounted it at the top of a tall stick. Anyone who had been bitten by a snake or dog or donkey (as Rashi wrote) would go and look at the image of the snake and be healed–which is just what idolaters would do. Even when we know that G-d is the one who heals and not the statue, there is still the prohibition against idolatry, which is one of those prohibitions one must be killed rather than violate. As Maimonides wrote in The Laws of Idolatry, chapter two, halacha one: “The main commandment about idolatry is not to worship anything of the creatures, not an angel nor a wheel…and even though the worshiper knows that G-d is the Lord…even to look at the image is forbidden, as it says, ‘Do not turn to idols.'” The snake is certainly “of the creatures,” as Maimonides put it, and it is a grave violation to worship its image.
But what we can say here is what we have said in many other places. The Torah arbitrarily determines the difference between what is and what is not idolatry. As we wrote in the portion of Korach, only a hair’s breadth separates “do not murder” and “murder,” and so, too, with idolatry: there is a hair’s breadth between worshipping G-d and idolatry. If a man, on his own, would make a copper snake it would be low and detestable idolatry. But if that same man would make that same snake because of what was written, he is a blessed observant person and his reward is healing from the harms of various bites.
Go learn what Nachmanides wrote on the matter of the copper snake: “And it seems to me to be the secret of this matter that it is the way of Torah, whose actions are all miracles within miracles, that that which gives harm repairs and that which causes illness heals…It is known in medicine that all who suffer poisonous bites will be placed in danger from seeing that which bit them or an image of that which bit them, to the extent that one who was bitten by a wild dog or any wild animal, should he see their reflection in water, will die…one who has been bitten by a wild dog and has gone mad in his illness, should his urine be collected in a glass container, one would see therein the image of small puppies, but should the water be strained through a rag, no image will be seen there…and when a person deliberately looked at the copper snake, which is something harmful, and he still lived, this told them that G-d alone is He who gives life and death.” Had Nachmanides ever seen the image of small puppies in the urine of a rabies victim? There is no need to say what nonsense this is.
When Hezekiah the king realized that there was nothing of the worship of G-d in the copper snake at all, he destroyed it. As written in II Kings 18:4, “He also broke into pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan.” The matter is difficult. It is clear that G-d knew sick people would come, look at the snake and be healed — and then they would want to thank the snake through some offering. Even so, He let Moses make the snake and encouraged the people to use it. What, then, is the wonder that they worshipped idols; they’d already been given permission by the Torah.
The Gemara, in Hulin 6b, asks in amazement how it is possible that Asa and Jehosaphat, who eliminated all the idolatry in the world, did not cut the copper snake into pieces until King Hezekiah instructed to destroy it. The answer was: “Our fathers left us room to make us a name.” Rashi explains: “When our sons come after us, if they find nothing to fix, how will their names be made great?” That is, it occurred to none of the kings, prophets, or Sanhedrins before Hezekiah to destroy the snake and its idolatry simply so that King Hezekiah could come along and make a name for destroying it.
And if we came to discuss this matter, we cannot escape noting that here we have a statement of Chazal, and therein a strong excuse to permit something that was forbidden for many generations — for from King Hezekiah Rabbi learned to permit what was forbidden before him. In tractate Hulin 6b it is brought that until the time of Rabbi the people of Beit Shean practiced as did the rest of Israel and took tithes from their fruit. Rabbi said they did not need to, for Beit Shean had not been conquered by those who returned from Babylon and therefore was considered as outside the Land. They asked him: “A place that your fathers and their fathers were accustomed to a prohibition you permit?” He answered them: “My fathers left me room to make me a name.” This is a nice way to permit with the wave of a hand what is forbidden, for pride alone. Perhaps each scholar amongst us was left some prohibition by his fathers so that he could earn glory by permitting it?
If you are honest you will see how strange it is that instead of the Torah teaching us to stay far away from all idols and images of any nature so the public is not led astray to fail, the Torah commands that we make a statue of a snake and encourages idolatry. To strengthen our words we will bring the Midrash Aggadat Bereshit, chapter 11: “And thus the copper snake stood. Whenever a person was bitten he would look at it and be healed until Hezekiah came and saw Israel whoring after it and said, ‘From now on, whoever needs to be healed will go to this and leave aside G-d.’ They destroyed it…He said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be healed should go to G-d and he will be healed’.” To this very day we find pious fools who go to their rabbis for healing through blessings instead of praying to G-d alone.
In general, this whole issue of idolatry and its accessories causes great embarrassment amongst our rabbis. To illustrate this we will cite the honest words of the Rashba in his responsa part one, section 413: “What you have said [about the forbidden ways of the Amorites] my heart cannot investigate, for they are embarrassing and their truth beyond me…For one of the wise men in their land did ask me about making a lion’s form in metal for medicinal purposes and I allowed it, saying that I saw no prohibition in making a form for medicinal purposes…[and you] wrote that one who makes such a form at a specific time is violating the prohibition ‘you shall not practice soothsaying’…and perhaps it is so, but Maimonides wrote the opposite in The Laws of Idolatry: ‘Anyone who believes in these things and their implications [the ways of Amorites] and thinks in his heart that they are true but the Torah prohibits them is naught but a fool and lacking in reason; he is like women and children, whose reason is incomplete’… But were I able to determine, your viewpoint seems to me more likely [that there is something to it and it is not mere nonsense as Maimonides says]… and it is the same with wizards and necromancers and the sorcerers of Egypt, who the perfect Torah testified did magical tricks.” According to the Rashba there is something real in wizards and necromancers, as opposed to the view of Maimonides. See the Radak on I Samuel 28:24, “We have seen a debate between the sages on this matter and all said that the issue of the wizard was nonsense, lie and mockery…And despite what can be concluded from the words of the sages in the Gemara, that woman did really revive Samuel, these words should not be accepted if reason denies them.” This is exactly what we’ve always said, words of true knowledge, that nothing should be accepted if reason denies it. Everything we’ve said in pamphlets and essays and articles on weekly portions are naught but this; we were overjoyed to read these words of Radak.
In his abovementioned answer, the Rashba vacillates on the issue of medicine which comes from charms and brings many examples from Chazal; see there. We will bring one of them, the Gemara in Avodah Zara 12b–a person is forbidden to drink water at night and if he does, he’s taking his life in his own hands. Why? “The danger of shavriri” — Rashi explains, “The demon appointed over the plague of blindness.” What remedy is there if he drank? He should say to his fellow: “Your mother had said you be careful about shavriri,vriri, riri, iri, ri,” and Rashi explains, “It is an incantation which lessens the demon’s name, and the demon, when he hears his name is shortened to ri, flees from there — and this is the incantation to chase him off.” (We wonder and are astounded, for if reducing the number of letters banishes and chases away demons, then multiplying the number of letters invites and brings demons closer, G-d forbid. Why did certain people see fit to do this to the name of a long-deceased rabbi; they may, G-d forbid, be thus waking demons from their sleep…) We have brought this example since the Rama relied on this gemara in his commentary on Yoreh Deah 116:5–“And it is a common custom not to drink water during the tekufa time [the transition between one tekufa to another].” We wonder whether harmful demons follow Shmuel’s tekufa or Rav Ada’s. (See pamphlet 6.)
And what did a true sage like Ibn Ezra say about one who drinks water during the transition between tekufot? The Taz cites him in the above section, “I found written that one should be cautious about drinking water during the transition between tekufot lest he be harmed and become swollen, for a drop of blood falls between tekufot, but the sage Ibn Ezra replied that it is merely a guess…and there is no danger in this at all. There are some sages who said that such harm cannot befall Jews, that the early ones only said these things to scare people into believing in G-d, may He be praised, that they would repent and ask Him to save them from the four tekufot of the year.” According to Ibn Ezra, one who follows the Rama violates the prohibition against soothsaying.
Another very important thing you can learn here is that the early ones said untrue things simply to scare people. Woe to the Torah that its sages cast fear and terror through lies to keep the believers faithful. Know that the lies persist to our days, even with science and research common everywhere. The Mishna Brura writes in paragraph 455, subsection 20, that water drawn for the kneading of matza, if it arrives during the transition between tekufot, would be forbidden to drink, so the Chafetz Chaim suggests placing a clean, new piece of iron inside the water and thus saving one from danger. There is no end to this nonsense.
We found that our forefathers used to soothsay, as do the masses in our day who say “If a black cat passes, beware of danger.” Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, went to find a bride for Isaac and said before he set out, in Genesis 24:14, “Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please lower your jar that I may drink’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’–let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.” And Jonathan, before going out to war against the Philistines, said to his servant in I Samuel 14:9, “If they [the Philistines] say to us, ‘Wait until we get to you,’ then we’ll stay where we are, and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us’ then we will go up, for the Lord is delivering them into our hands. That shall be our sign.”
Our rabbis were divided about whether one who does as did Jonathan and Eliezer is violating the prohibition against soothsaying. According to the Tosfot in Hulin 95b, third reference, and according to Maimonides in The Laws of Idolatry chapter 10, halacha four, he is a soothsayer, “One who makes signs for himself, saying ‘if thus and such happens to me I will do thus, and if it doesn’t, I won’t’, as Abraham’s servant Eliezer did, and all the likewise – this is forbidden. Anyone who does something because of these suppositions deserves lashes.”
The Raavad in his work and the Radak on I Samuel 14:9 allow one to follow this nonsense.
And this is the great thing: Since idolatry, with which we are dealing, is completely materialistic, about the form of gods, we will conclude with the words of Maimonides, for without him the Jewish people might still believe, to this very day, that G-d has body and form. In The Laws of Repentance, chapter three, halacha seven, “Five are called apostates…one who says there is one G-d to the world, but he has form and image.” See what the Raavad wrote, “And why is this called apostasy? Some of those greater than he [Maimonides] believed this, based on what they saw in the Scriptures, and even more on what they saw in the aggadah, which distorts one’s mind.” Some of the greatest sages did believe in the material aspect of G-d, based on what is said in the Torah.
See what R’ Yedayah the son of Abraham, a French sage of the 13thcentury CE, wrote in defending the sages of Provence after the Rashba excommunicated them for dealing with the natural sciences and philosophy (Rashba’s responsa, part one, responsum 417). It is quite appropriate for any who seeks truth to study this controversy, despite its length. Thus he responds in responsum 418, “It has been told to us that a verdict had been sent to the ends of Ashkenaz and to France to excommunicate [the sages of] this country and wipe out their name like the seed of Amalek…But these [philosophy and natural science] include logic and nature and the Divinity which you seek to kill…its main and most essential purpose is to verify for us the existence of G-d and His unity through proofs, and to push aside His material aspect…Our rabbis looked at the essence of the use of wisdom for us all and even for those who would detest it, for it is very well known that belief in material aspects [of G-d] spread in the early generations throughout almost all the Diaspora from the very day of the exile. But in every generation there were wise men and sages in Spain and Babylonia, and in Andalusian cities, and their knowledge of Arabic prepared them to scent out — some more and some less — the wisdom copied into that language, and from that they began clarifying many opinions in their teaching, all for the unity of G-d and casting off the belief in His material aspects, specifically through the theoretical proofs found in the research books…We have specifically seen in many writings at the time of the first disagreement against him [Maimonides] from all over the world that they grasp what he says and defend his books for his saying that the Creator of all has no form or image [!]. We have also seen a letter from that great scholar, Nachmanides OBM, sent to the steadfast amongst the French rabbis of those days, in which he, in a very sweet words — which testify to his reason and wisdom — supports our great rabbi OBM on many topics, particularly for distancing the belief in material aspects of G-d, for which he had been accused, as far as I know — so we see from this they were used to acknowledging publicly the material aspects of G-d in that time.”
There are some wonderful and precious things in this letter. First there is a testimony of a sage that “the belief in material aspects spread in the early generations throughout almost all the Diaspora,” that most religious Jews believed in a material G-d from ancient times until the letter was written (“we see from this that they were used to acknowledging publicly the material aspects of G-d in that time”). Moreover, Jewish sages’ “knowledge of Arabic…prepared them to scent out the wisdom,” and from their study and research into Arabic books and the wisdom of other nations “they began clarifying many opinions in their teaching, all for the unity of G-d and casting off the belief in material aspects, specifically through the theoretical proofs found in the research books.” This is a clear testimony that without research, knowledge, and study, specifically of philosophy and Arabic books, we would all have remained with an ancient Jewish faith, the belief in a material G-d with a body and an image of body, who sits in the heavens and reigns over the earth and does as He pleases. That is what Jews believed, even two thousand years after the giving of the Torah!
Words of true knowledge