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Home » Chukat

Chukat Balak: A Crafty Snake

Submitted by on July 3, 2009 – 3:53 pmNo Comment | 2,998 views

The Complaint

After forty years of wandering the desert our ancestors stood poised to enter the Holy Land when G-d instructed Moses to reverse course and reenter the desert. Appalled, our ancestors were reminded of what happened to their forbearers thirty-eight years earlier.

They too had camped on the borders of Israel when they asked to send spies to reconnoiter the land. The spies reported that the land was a virtual fortress, inhabited by fearsome warriors, and concluded that attacking it would spell the end of the Jewish people. Gripped by fear the nation lost heart and demanded a return to Egypt. G-d punished them for their lack of faith and decreed that they wander the desert till their entire generation would pass and their children would enter the land.

This fact, stamped into the consciousness of the next generation, caused them to balk. When they were instructed to backtrack into the desert they complained; they did not want to wait another forty years, they wanted to enter Israel immediately.

G-d was angered by their complaint and dispatched swarms of poisonous snakes. Moses prayed to G-d, who instructed him to fashion a (copper) snake and hang it from a post. Those infected by the snakes would gaze upon the copper snake and would be healed.

This story bears deeper analysis. One wonders why our ancestors were punished for their complaint. Were they not motivated by a desire to enter Israel in contradistinction to their forbearers who sought to flee the Holy Land? Such holy yearnings should have been rewarded rather than punished.

The copper snake presents another anomaly. Why did G-d introduce an antidote when He could simply have decreed that the snakes disappear and that the wounded be healed?

Motivations and Inclinations

This story contains a deep lesson about the subtleties of our evil inclination.

On the face of it our ancestors’ complaint seemed motivated by kosher and even holy desires. Yet if the complaint had indeed come from a holy place it would have emerged in humble prayer rather than querulous complaint. Wrapped up in righteous indignation they were blinded to their lack of respect and justified their irreverent attitude.

Our evil inclination is a crafty fellow. He is often aware that we would not indulge his sinful desires and therefore wraps them in a cloak of righteousness.  Knowing that urging the Jew to disobey G-d is a waste of time he crafts rational arguments that seem motivated by holy causes. He argues that despite the importance of a particular Mitzvah it behooves us to postpone or even neglect it in favor of what he deems a more important Mitzvah. In this case he argued that despite the value of abject obedience to the Divine a Jew should be appalled by this particular commandment as it draws us away from the sanctity of the Holy Land.

It is easy to be blinded by such argumentation and fail to realize its true source. G-d therefore sent venomous snakes.crafty snake innerstream The snake played a crucial role in the first sin of Genesis when the serpent embodied Eve’s evil inclination. The serpent entrapped Eve in a labyrinth of clever argumentation and impressed her with the righteousness of his cause. Yet despite his craftiness Eve was punished because she should have recognized the sin for what it was.

Overrunning the Jewish camp with snakes, the symbol of the evil inclination, served as a potent reminder to our ancestors and serves as a lesson for us. When inclined toward sinfulness we must examine our motivations. We often find novel justifications for our transgressions without which we would not dare to veer from the Torah. Yet despite the brilliance of our arguments we are summoned to subject our agenda to the ultimate test: do they lead us toward or away from obedience to G-d? (1)

It is true that if I walk to Shull on Shabbat my elderly neighbor will not have a ride and will be unable to attend services. Yet I must examine whether this justification is motivated by a holy or sinful agenda. The only way to determine the origin of this argument is to subject it to the ultimate test. What does G-d command me to do? Is it a commandment to drive our neighbors to Shull or is it a commandment to refrain from kindling a fire (in the combustion engine) on Shabbat?

Rather than pitting a self made value against a Divinely ordained Mitzvah our evil inclination often pits one Mitzvah against another. For example, I am unable to attend services on Friday morning because I have to prepare for Shabbat. Indeed, preparation for Shabbat is a mitzvah as are Teffilin and prayer. How does one determine which is the correct Mitzvah?

Here one must consider the timing. The time for prayer is in the morning, but Shabbat does not arrive till evening. I might have many obligations throughout the day that prevent me from preparing for Shabbat, but an honest assessment of this excuse leads to the conclusion that I am reluctant to set aside my other commitments for the sake of Shabbat preparations, while I am prepared to set aside my obligations to G-d. Once again I realize that my agenda is set by my evil inclination.

The antidote

When Moses prayed for a cure to the venomous snakes G-d instructed him to raise a copper snake. Those who will gaze at it, said G-d, not just glance at the snake, but gaze at it, will be immediately cured. This particular snake’s venom did not require a miraculous cure; it merely required that the people recognize it for what it was; a snake. Gaze at it, instructed G-d, realize that the venom that led to your complaint originates with the snake and you will be immediately cured.

The same is true of our own experience. Countering our evil inclination does not require superhuman craftiness. The antidote is simple; all that is required is the identification of our inclination and vigilance against its tactics. Once we identify our own agenda the evil inclination loses its righteous platform. Its sinful agenda is exposed and its arguments are discredited; it can now be easily resisted.

In conclusion: It is not difficult to guard against sinfulness; it merely requires mindfulness.




  1. This lesson does not address sinners who completely dismiss
    the importance of a Mitzvah or those who concoct arguments against the morality
    of G-d’s Mitzvah.