Weekly portion Chukas tells the story of how Jews complained to Moshe that they were going to die from hunger and thirst. G-d punished them for that by sending poisonous snakes, and many people died from the deadly bites. When people realized what they did wrong and begged forgiveness, G-d told Moshe to make copper snake and attach it to his staff. Anyone bitten by the snake had to look intently at the copper snake, and he will remain alive. A question arises, why snakes were used as a punishment, and how could copper statue bring cure. (It is interesting to note that snake on a staff remains the symbol of cure in the whole world.)
Let’s try to understand with the help of the following story:
In Lvov lived one of the greatest leaders of Jewry, rav Yakov Orenstein, author of “Yeshuas Yaakov”. His home was always open to all. The poor and the travelers passing through town could find a meal and a place to sleep. They could even stay there for several days. One poor man continued to live in rav’s house longer than the rest. His wife began to worry why he was staying for so long, but the tsaddik calmed her down and said, that he could stay for as long as he wanted to.
One day there was a secret meeting in rav Orenstein’s house. A Jew was falsely accused and sentenced in jail, and members of the community convened to decide how to help him. It was decided to pay a large amount of money to one of the ministers, who will help the Jew to escape. After everyone left, that poor man entered rav Orentstein’s room and said:
- I heard everything. I know what you are trying to do. If you don’t pay me 10,000 golden, I will tell the police on you.
Rav Orenstein answered thoughtfully:
- Let me think about it.
The poor man said brazenly:
- I give you only until tomorrow morning, not any longer.
Rav Orenstein returned to his room and closed the door. In the morning the beggar was already waiting for him:
- So? Are you going to give me 10,000 golden, or I should go straight to the police?
Rav answered calmly:
- I spent the whole night thinking if my wife and I made any mistakes. Have we transgressed in any way the mitzvah of having guests? I came to the conclusion that we fulfilled the commandment properly, therefore nothing bad can happen to us. You, on the other hand, are showing great ingratitude and lust for what doesn’t belong to you. Whatever harm you want to cause us will fall on your own head.
- You are very stubborn, dear rabbi, - exclaimed the poor man.—We’ll see who is right.
He started down the steps, but slipped and fell, breaking his neck and dying on the spot. Rav Orenstein explained that he met his sad fate because of his ungratefulness.
Jews in the desert were bewailing their fate. They exclaimed that they were disgusted with mann and wanted regular bread. They were disregarding the care that G-d bestowed upon them through all the years of wandering in the desert. They wanted more.
By sending poisonous snakes G-d reminded them what damage the desire for more can bring. In Garden of Eden G-d gave Adam and Chava everything they needed. They could eat from any tree except for the Tree of Knowledge. Tree of Knowledge symbolized the extra, the unnecessary, the “more”. G-d wanted to teach them that having more could cause them harm. The serpent enticed Chava to taste the fruit, convincing her that there is nothing wrong with wanting extra. He was punished measure for measure.
Snakes don’t have sense of taste any more, all food tastes like dust to them. Therefore they have nothing more to wish for, since it’s all the same. Adam and Chava, however, opened the gates of lust for more after they tasted the fruit. Now it became a part of them.
Just like the serpent in the Garden of Eden spoke badly about G-d’s gifts to man, poisonous snakes symbolized ingratitude. In reality mann provided enough nourishment for the Jews, but they wanted to have more than they really needed. That led to numerous deaths. The cure came from copper snake. By itself the statue had no power to overcome the poison. It was G-d who cured those, who decided to glance upward, to Him, to admit their mistake, accept His will with gratitude, and not desire more than what they had.
Source: Ohr HaTorah