Why Snakes?

Vatiktzar nefesh ha’am b’derech vayidaber ha’am b’Elokim uv’Moshe (Bamidbar 21:4-5)

After Aharon’s death, the Jewish people became impatient and frustrated with their travels and began to complain against Hashem and Moshe, questioning why they brought them out from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where they were disgusted by the inadequate mann that they were forced to eat daily.

Hashem responded to their improper protests by sending fiery serpents that bit and killed many people. As there were numerous punishments and plagues meted out in the wilderness, why were snakes specifically considered the appropriate response to this sin?

The Targum Yonason ben Uziel explains that the serpents were Hashem’s way of saying that in contrast to the Jewish people who were gifted mann from Heaven every day but repeatedly complained about it, snakes are condemned to eat dust every day of their lives (Bereishis 3:14), but do so without any objections. Therefore, the serpents that willingly eat dust were sent to punish the Jews who criticized the mann.

In his sefer Yalkut Yehudah, Harav Yehudah Jacobowitz provides a deeper insight into the connection between the complaints about the mann and the attacking serpents. The Alshich Hakadosh writes that the objections to the mann were unrelated to its taste, for the mann would taste like virtually any food the eater wished to experience (Yoma 75a).

Rather, their frustration was due to the fact that they could only obtain a one-day supply at a time, and it could never be stockpiled. Thus, they expressed their resentment about a system that required them to go to sleep every night with a completely bare kitchen and anxiety about whether they would find more mann in the morning. They desired an arrangement that would allow them to feel more secure and independent by accumulating mann.

Why did Hashem set up the mann delivery scheme in this manner? The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 260) compares it to a king who granted his son an allowance that would tide him over for an entire year.

For the next year, the king did not see or hear from his son, who felt that he had no need for his father as long as his bank account had sufficient funds. When his supply was depleted at the end of the year, the son returned to his father to restock, but this time, the king only gave him a one-day supply which, as intended, forced his son to visit him on a daily basis and deepened the relationship between them.

Similarly, Hashem wants us to relate to Him as more than an intermittent ATM machine. He desires that we interact with Him on a daily basis, so He created a framework in which we would constantly feel dependent upon Him, with a new supply of mann arriving each morning that cannot be left over for the following day.

Thus, the primary grievance that the Jewish people had against the mann — its daily arrival in precisely measured quantities — was in fact the very reason that Hashem established this system: to keep us connected to Him.

After tempting Chava to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, the serpent was cursed that it would travel on its stomach and eat dust all the days of its life (Bereishis 3:14).

In contrast, man was cursed (Ibid., 3:19), “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” In what way was the serpent’s sentence deemed a punishment, when its diet — dust — can be found wherever it travels, while man must work much harder for his sustenance?

The Kotzker Rebbe explains that this point is precisely the curse. Man is dependent on Hashem to help him succeed in his professional pursuits so that he can provide for his family. Although the requirement to work is itself a punishment, it also contains a hidden blessing, for this arrangement compels us to develop a relationship with Hashem and engage in ongoing dialogue with Him.

The snake, on the other hand, slithers horizontally across the earth. It never goes hungry nor needs to look upward, for it is totally cut off from any connection to Hashem, and therein lies the greatest curse imaginable.

With this introduction, Rav Jacobowitz explains that when the Jewish people began complaining about their daily reliance on Hashem to give them mann, they were specifically punished by snakes. The snakes, whose diet consists of ubiquitous dust, were intended to hint to the Jews that the ability to find food at any time in any place is not considered a blessing, but a curse.

More than any other creature, the serpent understands that being permanently severed from interacting with Hashem is the greatest punishment of all. Therefore, when the Jewish people lamented their empty cupboards, Hashem sent snakes to attack them and symbolically teach them that their desire to have food stored away and always available would cut them off from having a close, personal relationship with Hashem, which is the most valuable blessing of all.

Q: Which two people had x-ray vision in the wilderness?

A: The Torah (19:3) says that the parah adumah shall be given to Elazar the Kohen, who shall take it outside the camp, where it should be shechted before him. Rashi explains that Elazar did not actually slaughter the red heifer, but supervised while somebody else did so. As Tosafos points out that there is no halachic requirement for shechitah to be observed by another person, why was Elazar’s presence required, and what was he watching for?

The Targum Yonason ben Uziel writes that Elazar was checking the cow to ensure that it did not possess any of the 18 fatal physical injuries that would render it treif (see Chullin 3:1). Tosafos writes that Aharon used x-ray vision to determine the contents of barrels in the wilderness without needing to open them up.

Similarly, the Divrei Chaim suggests that because the parah adumah was burned whole, there was no way to physically inspect its organs after it was shechted. Rather than rely on the fact that the majority of healthy animals are not treif, Elazar used x-ray vision to see through the cow’s hide to examine its innards and confirm its kosher status with absolute certainty.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.