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Parshat Chukat – The Snakes

Numbers 19:1-22:1 from 25 June till 1 July 2023

וַיַּ֤עַשׂ מֹשֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּחֹ֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי׃

Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when bitten by a serpent, anyone who looked at the copper serpent would recover. Numbers 21:9

Similar to the previous Parshat Korach, we see that here we are dealing with a serious sin, as a special punishment is given, the punishment with biting snakes. In addition, we see the seriousness of the sin in the fact that it is not enough that the people only do Teshuvah and Moses prays for the people, as for example in Numbers 11:2, but that Moses must place a brass snake on a standard banner, and the people bitten by the snake (and) must look at this standard.

The first important lesson we can learn already now is that each sin has its own specific punishment.

There are two points that stand out. First, the timing of the event, which is after Aaron’s death, and second, the word “serpent”.

This event took place after Aaron’s death. Aaron was the man of love.

Hillel said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron. Love peace. Chase after peace. Love every person that G‑d created, and draw them to Torah.” —Mishnah Avot

Aaron not only made sure that people loved each other and kept the peace among themselves, but he also made sure that people loved G-d and were at peace with Him. Saying, the people accepted what G-d gave them.

After Aaron’s death, the people did not accept what they got from G-d. This revealed itself in their dissatisfaction with the Manna/their daily bread they were allowed to receive from G-d.

That what had been a pleasant miracle for 38 years, the manna tasted exactly like that, and it produced no human waste. Was now becoming something people no longer wanted to eat. One longed for … Besides, one feared that one would literally explode. After all how unnatural it was that there was no natural way of food. What we see is fear and dissatisfaction. This discontent they expressed against God and Moses.

Discontent is linked to jealousy. You are dissatisfied and want something someone else has. Jealousy is a toxic source of evil that destroys friendships, a source that leads to quarrels and wars. It takes us back to Gan Eden to the Serpent.

It was the Serpent in Gan Eden who was jealous and therefore tempted Chava through slander of G-d, to eat the forbidden fruit. It was Chava who listened to this slander and coveted the fruit that did not belong to her. Why should G-d alone have knowledge. In short, a form of jealousy.

Chava did not accept that G-d was in charge of the fruit and that He was the one who could decide what Adam and Chava could or could not eat.

Similarly, the people here did not accept G-d’s guidance either. They wanted to decide for themselves what they would or would not eat.

So we see that jealousy and evil speaking are directly connected and are the source of not wanting to accept G-d’s leadership. The venom of a snake slowly draws into the whole body, and so the unwillingness to accept G-d’s leadership also entered the world and went from bad to worse.

The failure to accept G-d’s leadership caused the protective clouds to lift that had surrounded and protected the people. The poisonous snakes that had always been in the desert were now able to bite and kill the people.

The people saw that they had sinned and repented. To be healed, they had to look up to the snake on the banner. So they had to actively perform an act that showed that they accepted and carried out G-d’s leadership – command.

The biting snakes were a result of their evil speaking and jealousy, as punishment from G-d. But for the purpose of bringing them to repentance.

From this we learn that from our perspective G-d can give us something negative, but from His hands it is positive. We must learn to accept what happens to us in life and examine what we can learn from it and/or it should motivate us to repent of bad behavior.

In short, we must learn to recognize G-d’s leadership, His Kingship, in everything that happens in our lives.

We look up to the serpent, to the bad, but we look beyond, we look up to heaven, to G-d, that will bring us life.

By Angelique Sijbolts


נתיבות שלום and Kehot Chumash – Chukat

With thanks to B. Yaniger for the inspiration

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