Parshat Chukat

June 22nd, 2018

In Parshat Chukat the Torah moves to near the end of the journey in the wilderness and after Aaron dies Moshe is left alone with Bnei Yisrael. The battles and moving around through the various nations appear to tire Bnei Yisrael who end up complaining bitterly against Hashem and Moshe that they are fed up of eating manna for so many years. Our sages explain that as they neared Israel the younger generation, in particular, began to taste real produce from Edom and Moab and realised they needed more substantial food, in their new situation moving from spiritual guidance in the wilderness to the new life of working on the land when they settle down in the holy land.

Hashem is not happy about their manner of complaining or perhaps their attitude and sends some nasty snakes which bite and kill quite a number of people. The people come to Moshe realising that they have not handled themselves properly and Moshe prays to Hashem who tells him to make a bronze serpent and those bitten will be able to look up to the serpent and will be cured.

Our sages puzzled by this seemingly use of an image to cure the bites and so the Mishna in Rosh Hashana tell us “do you think it is the snake that kills or saves, not so! when Bnei Yisrael look to the heaven and put their faith in Hashem’s protection then they are cured.” This incident and the Talmudic response raises perhaps as many questions as it answers – why in particular a bronze snake and is the cure for sickness to just look to heaven Hashem or should one also go to see a doctor.

Ibn Ezra says there are heavenly ways that we can never understand, just like the opening of the parsha with the statute of the Red Heifer. Rav S R Hirsch takes a more practical view of the situation, Bnei Yisrael had been till now under heavenly guidance and they want to move to managing their own lives. In this situation they had to understand that the wilderness is a dangerous place and there are snakes and other dangers. Hashem is prepared to give them the freedom of handling their own lives but they must be aware of the dangers, nevertheless Hashem is still ever present and controls even the actions of the snakes. Interestingly the bronze snake was kept till the times of King Hizkiyahu who realized that it had become a form of idol and he destroyed it.

The Ramban is of the opinion that Hashem wants Bnei Yisrael  to be aware that he is the source of the power of healing and just as a snake bite can kill it is within in Hashem’s power to use the same element of nature to provide the miracle of healing. Perhaps there is a hint here of the power of the way modern medicine has developed in that the antidote sometimes comes from the same source as the cause of the disease. In his commentary elsewhere in Behukotai he does not put too much faith in doctors. However, there are those who hold differently and we know that the Rambam was a very capable doctor and the Rashba says very clearly in one of his responsa that one should not just trust in heaven but seek medical advice.

It is wonderful to think that Israel, our little country, is not just the start up nation in terms of computers and high-tech but also many new ideas and projects in the world of medical science. A couple of years ago I was at a presentation of several new ideas and the one which was perhaps most interesting was an air bag belt to be worn by older or unstable people. It is worn as a belt and when feeling a sudden jolt will open up to soften the fall. Look up the Israeli Hip-Hope and others.