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Parashat Hukkat

November 5, 2014

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah contains a somewhat strange description of what happened to the Children of Israel after they complained to God and Moses about their current precarious state. God’s response was to send poisonous serpents as a plague among the people. The people then come to Moses, admitted their fault, and God proceeded to tell Moses the cure, a serpent made of bronze.

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:4-9, trans. NSRV)

What was it about these serpents that cured the Children of Israel? Did it have some sort of magical effect on those who were stricken? The following mishnah from Masekhet Rosh Hashanah attempted to explain the power behind the bronze serpent.

“Now it happened that when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand fall, Amalek prevailed.” (Ex. 17:11) Now do Moses’s hands make war or stop it? But the purpose is to say this to you: So long as the Israelites would set their eyes upward and submit their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would grow stronger. And if not, they fell. Similarly, you may say the following: “Make yourself a fiery serpent and set it on a standard, and it shall come to pass that every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Num. 21:8) Now does that serpent [on the standard] kill or give life? [Obviously not.] But: So long as the Israelites would set their eyes upward and submit to their Father in heaven, they would be healed. And if not, they would whither away…(Mishnah Rosh Hashannah 3:8, trans. Jacob Neusner)

This mishnah illustrates how some rabbis from Late Antiquity understood certain parts of the Torah that challenged them. How do we interpret difficult Biblical texts? What are the limits of our own Biblical interpretations? Do we still believe in miraculous intervention by God in our lives and in history?


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.