Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why Did Moshe Use a Copper Snake

In this week's parsha, Chukas, Bnei Yisroel complain about their "rotten bread" and G-D sends a plague of venomous snakes. After many people in Israel died from the snakes' bites they came to Moshe and begged him to pray to G-D in order that the plague should end. However, G-D said that Moshe needed to make a snake and put it on a pole and whoever was bitten should look at it and they would live. This whole episode can be seen in Bamidbar 21:5-9. The intriguing part about this story is that although G-D only asked Moshe to make a snake and put it on a pole, Moshe made a COPPER snake and put it on a pole. In Chapter 21:8-9:

ח. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שָׂרָף וְשִׂים אֹתוֹ עַל נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי:

8. The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.

ט. וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵהוּ עַל הַנֵּס וְהָיָה אִם נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת אִישׁ וְהִבִּיט אֶל נְחַשׁ הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וָחָי:

9. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.

Also, G-D commanded Moshe to make a
שָׂרָף (Saraph) and Moshe made a נְחַשׁ (Nachash). What is the significance of this difference and does it have anything to do with the fact that Moshe made the serpent out of copper and thereby the verse says נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת?

The Ramban in Bamidbar 21:9 answers this question by giving an idea similar to homeopathic medicine, that G-D made it that the thing that causes the sickness can also heal it and that is why Moshe uses this similar language. Also, G-D wanted to show that He is the one that causes life and death and that is why He used that which caused the sickness to also cure that sickness, to show that it is all up to G-D.

The Maharal on Rashi verse 8 acknowledges the position of the Ramban, that the copper snake had a real medicinal activity, however, he disagrees and says that the medicinal properties of the copper snake were complete miracles without a reason. There was nothing scientific about it, it was a miracle plain and simple. What really cured the Jewish people, according to the Maharal, was the fact that the Jews would pray harder once they saw the snake on the pole and they looked heavenward.

The Maharal on Rashi in verse 9 explains why Moshe used a copper snake (
נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת) instead of a snake(שָׂרָף). Rashi said:

נחש נחשת: לא נאמר לו לעשותו של נחשת, אלא אמר משה הקב"ה קוראו נחש, ואני אעשנו של נחושת, לשון נופל על לשון:

a copper snake: He was not told to make it of copper, but Moses said,"The Holy One, blessed is He, called it a snake (נָחָשׁ), so I will make it of copper, (נְחשֶׁת), one term similar to the other term. — [Mid. Gen. Rabbah 19:31:8]

The Maharal uses a very well established idea found throughout his writings and the writings of others, like Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. The reason Moshe felt it was appropriate to make the snake out of copper was because of the similarities of the words
נָחָשׁ (snake) and נְחשֶׁת (copper). The Maharal explains that the essence of an object is described by its name in lashon hakodesh (Hebrew). Therefore, since these two words are spelled so similarly they are connected on a very deep level. An example of this is the word הב (give) and the word אהבה (love). These two words are interconnected in the following way, אהבה has at its core the word הב because love is really expressed by the fact that the person that loves someone wants to give the person that is the object of their love everything. This is a big idea found throughout the Maharal, words that are similar are related on a deep level.

This idea, as mentioned previously, is also found throughout the writings of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. He points out that the root
נחשׁ can represent several things: Foretell, using hidden tricks, snake, metal chain, copper and bottom. So what can we learn from these different meanings of the root נחשׁ, what was Moshe trying to teach us by using a copper snake?

I think that Moshe was trying to add his own message to this cure that G-D was handing over to the Jewish people. Moshe was telling the Jewish people that they should use the experience from the desert to foretell what was to come in the future. When the Jews challenge G-D and do not have faith in Him then that leads them to plague and death. The snake was on a tall poll in the sight of everyone showing them that there is no hidden trick here and that this cure is straight from G-D. Ultimately, if one did not look up to the snake and pray to G-D for salvation they would end up at the bottom, a bad place.

G-D commanded Moshe to make a snake for everyone to look up and realize that G-D is behind the plague. They then would realize that they must pray to G-D and the would know He is in charge of everything. However, Moshe added the copper aspect of the snake to teach the Jewish people that not only must we realize that this plague is from G-D and that we must learn a lesson from this situation, also we must see that it is not a trick and if you fail to realize these things then you will not succeed in anything. Let us never forget this message that Moshe sent to the Jewish people and hopefully we will all be successful.

Another explanation that I just realized, thanks to the commentors D and Anon, can go like this:

The terms
נחשׁ (snake) and נְחשֶׁת (copper) are interconnected in the following manner. נחשׁ means snake, however, it is also used to refer to the evil inclination (Bava Basra 16a and many other places). Therefore, copper was used as the remedy for the evil inclination because of its ability to tame and overcome the evil inclination. Where do we see this? Rashi (Shemos 38:8):

from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions: Heb. בְּמַרְאֹתהַצֹבְאֹת Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [the women] would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5). This is [the meaning of] what is בְּמַרְאֹתהַצֹבְאֹת [lit., the mirrors of those who set up legions]. From these [the mirrors], the washstand was made, because its purpose was to make peace between a man and his wife. [How so?] By giving a drink from the water that was in it [the washstand] to [a woman] whose husband had warned her [not to stay in private with a certain man] and she secluded herself [with him anyway. The water would test her and either destroy her or prove her innocence. See Num. 5:11-31]. You should know that they were actually mirrors, because it is said: “The copper of the waving was seventy talents… From that he made…” (Exod. 38:29, 30), but the washstand and its base were not mentioned there [among the things produced from the seventy talents. Thus,] you have learned that the copper of the washstand was not of the copper of the waving. So did Rabbi Tanchuma expound [on the matter] (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9; Num. Rabbah 9:14). And so did Onkelos render: בְּמֶחְזְיַתנְשַׁיָא [“the mirrors of the women”], which is the Aramaic translation of מַרְאוֹת, mirrors in French. So we find in Isaiah (3:23) וְהַגִּלְיֹנִים (sic), which we render: וּמַחְזְיָתָא, and the mirrors.

So we see that the women used COPPER mirrors to channel the evil inclination to be used for something good. Therefore, Moshe was telling Bnei Yisroel that we need to channel the evil inclination, represented by snakes, into something good, represented by the copper. Thereby we can see the connection between נחשׁ and נְחשֶׁת. The נחשׁ (evil inclination) can be used to create something very good נְחשֶׁת (representing good deeds) if we channel it in the correct way.


Anonymous said...

Ok,I understand the Ahvah Hav wordplay concept how does it apply to Nachoshes and Nachash? Meaning the more you HAv the more you have AHAVAH but where is it in Nachash and Nachoshes?

Anonymous said...

For more of the same:

D said...

Actually, I read this truly fascinating article by Menachem Krakowski that discusses the concepts of Adam, Eve, and the snake in the first few chapters of Berashis. In his explanation, the entire story of eating from the aitz hada'as was a metaphor. The snake symbolizes our materialistic inclinations.

This has implications throughout tanach, and especially here, when you think about why the Jews were being plagued to begin with.

The article is called "Reclaiming the Self: Adam's Sin and the Human Psyche", and Esther Wein had a speech about it in Toronto, where she explained this entire thing. It's a lot more in depth than I was able to mention.

E-Man said...

Dave- That is an interesting idea. However, I still don't like the metaphorical explanation of the Adam and Eve story, call me old fashioned. I am pretty sure that is how Rav Slifkin explains it, but I am still hesitant. however, it seems like an interesting idea, any links you could provide?

Anon- Sorry if I was unclear at explaining the connection between Nachas and Nechoshes. I now see that you copy pasted that sites answer from the Maharal.

Remember, the Maharal was a mystic, non-rationalist, so he would sometimes say that something has a deep spiritual meaning without explaining what that means. Throughout his books the Maharal never actually explains the connection between Nachash and Nechoshes, to my knowledge.

I tried to bring in Rav Hirsch here because he actually explains the connection between Nachash and Nechoshes. Rav Hirsch tells us that the root Nachash is used throughout the Bible. It is found in Genesis 44;5, 30:27 and Leviticus 19:26. In those places Rav Hirsch tells us that Nachash means foretelling. In Numbers 23:23 and genesis 24:14 Rav Hirsch says it refers to using hidden tricks. In Genesis 3:1 is means snake. In Jeremiah 39:7 it means a metal chain. In Numbers 21:9 (our case) and Exodus 25:3 it means copper. and in Ezekiel 16:36 it means bottom.

All of these different meanings help us understand what the deeper connection that Moshe was trying to tell us was. Because this connection was from Moshe, Moshe was trying to teach us something here.

So I brought in a practical idea that we can connect to, Moshe was telling us that not only must we look up at heaven and pray, but we must realize these other things I say in the post.

The point of Nachash and Nachoshes coming from the same root and being interconnected can not be explained as simply as hav and ahava, but we can still learn what Moshe was trying to teach us. The person who said the Maharal's idea was not practical was wrong and that is what I showed in the post.

Anon- If you are looking for someone to tell you the connection between Nachash and Nachoshes like the connection between Hav and Ahava, i do not think there is one. However, the point of the connection can come to teach us Moshes message, and I think that is the important idea. What we can learn from this connection is much more "practical" then any spiritual explanation.

I mean, if I told you something about the ten spheres and how Nachash connects the ninth and tenth sphere which is made from Nachoshes, or something to that effect would that really mean anything to you? Or if I told you that really copper has some ancient snake venom in it. Does that mean anything to you?

E-Man said...

Anon- Here is an idea that you might appreciate.

Nachas refers to the snake that tempted Adam and eve. Now the Midrashim and chazal all over tell us that the Nachash represents our current Yeitzer Hora (evil inclination). However, before the sin that Adam committed the evil inclination was an external source, the snake. It was much easier to deal with because of this.

The idea of copper represents material wealth. So Nachash refers to our evil inclination and Nechoshes refers to material wealth. So Just like Hav and Ahava, you need to give to love. So too, you need to let your evil inclination get the better of you in order to be obsessed with materialistic wealth. Is that the idea you were looking for here?

E-Man said...

Ok anon- I added to the end of the post an explanation that connects Nachas and nechoshes like hav and ahava. I hope you like it and if not then i am sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, By the way it was Me who Posted to that site.

E-Man said...

Anon- Sorry if I offended you, I was just confused as to how best to explain the Maharal to you, that is all. I mean, I am no expert, but I have learned a lot of Maharal and can offer ideas into his work, that is all. Again, I apologize if you were offended. Also, I hope the explanation helped for whatever you were trying to figure out and if not then i am sorry. Have a great shabbos.

Anonymous said...

if anyone would like to locate the article that D mentioned, you can find it at:

E-Man said...

Thanks Anon.

Also, D I am sorry I called you Dave, I was having a convo with a guy named Dave so I guess it just transferred over.