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Friday, June 26, 2015

Parashat Chukkat 5775

In this week’s parasha, the people murmur against God and Moshe. Consequently, God sends snakes to bite the people. The people repent and ask for help. Their cure is to look at a bronze snake made by Moshe at God’s behest. If this snake feels like idolatry, we learn it was used that way until Chizkiyahu destroyed it along with other idolatrous practices. But how could Moshe build an idol and how could Chizkiyahu destroy something commanded by God? This gives our Rabbis a great opening to discuss dealing with changing times requiring changing practice.

במדבר סיני פרשת חוקת פרק כא
Numbers, Chapter 21
(5) The people spoke against God and Moshe, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is neither bread nor water, and our souls loathe the light bread.
(ה) וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל:
(6) Then Hashem sent venomous snakes within the nation; then they bit the nation and a great many died from Israel.
(ו) וַיְשַׁלַּח יְקֹוָק בָּעָם אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ אֶת־הָעָם וַיָּמָת עַם־רָב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל:
(7) Then the nation came to Moshe and said, “We sinned, for we spoke against Hashem and you. Pray to Hashem and remove the snake from us.” Then Moshe prayed on behalf of the nation.
(ז) וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ כִּי־דִבַּרְנוּ בַיקֹוָק וָבָךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל־יְקֹוָק וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת־הַנָּחָשׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה בְּעַד הָעָם:
(8) Hashem said to Moshe, “Make for yourself a serpent and place it on a pole, and anyone who is bitten and sees it will live.”
(ח) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁה עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שָׂרָף וְשִׂים אֹתוֹ עַל־נֵס וְהָיָה כָּל־הַנָּשׁוּךְ וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ וָחָי:
(9) Moshe made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and it was that if the snake bit a person and he glanced at the bronze snake he would live.
(ט) וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵהוּ עַל־הַנֵּס וְהָיָה אִם־נָשַׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ אֶת־אִישׁ וְהִבִּיט אֶל־נְחַשׁ הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וָחָי:

מלכים ב פרק יח
2 Kings, Chapter 18
(1) It was in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah’s reign on Israel that Chizkiyah son of Ahaz ascended to reign over Judah.
(א) וַיְהִי בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלֹשׁ לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בֶּן־אֵלָה מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל מָלַךְ חִזְקִיָּה בֶן־אָחָז מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה:
(2) He was twenty-five at the beginning of his reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem for twenty-nine years; and his mother’s name was Avi daughter of Zecharyah.
(ב) בֶּן־עֶשְׂרִים וְחָמֵשׁ שָׁנָה הָיָה בְמָלְכוֹ וְעֶשְׂרִים וָתֵשַׁע שָׁנָה מָלַךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ אֲבִי בַּת־זְכַרְיָה:
(3) Then he acted in accordance with the eyes of Hashem like all that his father David did.
(ג) וַיַּעַשׂ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְקֹוָק כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה דָּוִד אָבִיו:
(4) He removed the altars, broke the stone pillars, and cut down the worshipped tree, and ground the bronze serpent that Moshe made, for until those days the Children of Israel would burn incense to it and he called it Nechushtan.
(ד) הוּא הֵסִיר אֶת־הַבָּמוֹת וְשִׁבַּר אֶת־הַמַּצֵּבֹת וְכָרַת אֶת־הָאֲשֵׁרָה וְכִתַּת נְחַשׁ הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה כִּי עַד־הַיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה הָיוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מְקַטְּרִים לוֹ וַיִּקְרָא־לוֹ נְחֻשְׁתָּן:
(5) He trusted in Hashem, God of Israel, and none after him was like him amongst all the kings of Judah and those who came before him.
(ה) בַּיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּטָח וְאַחֲרָיו לֹא־הָיָה כָּמֹהוּ בְּכֹל מַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה וַאֲשֶׁר הָיוּ לְפָנָיו:
Calling the snake “Nechustan” is a pun on the word for snake, נחש and the word for bronze, נחשת.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ו עמוד ב - ז עמוד א
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chulin, 6b-7a
העיד רבי יהושע בן זרוז בן חמיו של רבי מאיר לפני רבי על ר"מ שאכל עלה של ירק בבית שאן, והתיר רבי את בית שאן כולה על ידו.
Rebbi Yehoshua son of Zeruz the son of the father-in-law of Rebbi Meir testified before Rebbi about Rebbi Meir that he ate a vegetable leaf in Beit Shoan, and Rebbi permitted all of Beit Shoan by his hand.

Rebbi Meir is seen eating a vegetable which was untithed. Based on this testimony, Rebbi concludes that Beit Shoan is not part of the land of Israel and therefore one does not need to tither its produce.
חברו עליו אחיו ובית אביו, אמרו לו: מקום שאבותיך ואבות אבותיך נהגו בו איסור, אתה תנהוג בו היתר?
His brothers, and the house of his father came together [to protest] against him. They said to him: the place that your fathers and the fathers of your father acted in prohibition, you will act with permission?

The problem with Rebbi’s conclusion is that it runs counter to the actions of his family for years.
דרש להן מקרא זה: וכתת נחש הנחשת אשר עשה משה כי עד הימים ההמה היו בני ישראל מקטרים לו ויקרא לו נחושתן (מלכים ב יח:ד), אפשר בא אסא ולא ביערו, בא יהושפט ולא ביערו? והלא כל עבודה זרה שבעולם אסא ויהושפט ביערום!

He explained to them the following verse: “He ground up the bronze snake that Moshe made, for up to those days the children of Israel would burn incense to it; and he called it, ‘a thing of copper.”’(2 Kings 18:4) Is it possible that Asa came and did not burn it, that Yehoshafat came and did not burn it? Behold, all the idolatry in the world Asa and Yehoshafat burned!

Asa and Yehoshafat were also successful kings who fought idolatry.
אלא מקום הניחו לו אבותיו להתגדר בו, אף אני מקום הניחו לי אבותי להתגדר בו.
Rather, his fathers left him a place to distinguish himself [l’hitgader]. So too, for me: my fathers left me a place to distinguish myself with.

Based on the destruction of the bronze snake, Rebbi says that there is room for each generation to improve on the previous. He uses nice language though: it was not through a mistake of the previous generation, but done intentionally.
מכאן, לתלמיד חכם שאמר דבר הלכה, שאין מזיחין אותו, ואמרי לה: אין מזניחין אותו, ואמרי לה: אין מזחיחין אותו.
From here, for a sage who says a matter of law, we do not force him to yield [mazihim]. And there are those who say: we do not declare him detestable [maznihim]. And there are those who say: we do not charge him with haughtiness [mazhihim].

We are left with why build the bronze snake at all. Would God really command something which would lead to idolatry? The Daf al HaDaf, quoting Yehonatan Eybeshutz, explains that there was value to the bronze snake despite its opening for idolatrous practice. It was only when that value diminished that Chizkiyahu destroyed it.
דף על הדף חולין דף ו עמוד ב
Daf al HaDaf, Chulin 6b
David Avraham Mandelbaum, 20th Century Israel
In the Y’arot D’vash [Yehonatan Eybeshutz, 18th Century Poland] he explains that in in truth, why did none of the kings until Chizkiyahu ground up the bronze snake such that they were tripped up by it and worshiped it and it was only Chizkiyahu who came and ground it.
ביערות דבש (ח"א דרוש ט"ו) מבאר באמת למה לא כתתו כל המלכים עד חזקיהו את נחש הנחושת, אף שנכשלו בו ועבדוהו, ורק חזקיהו בא וכתתו.
In truth, there was great effectiveness in looking at the bronze snake, for from it those who speak evil learned a lesson. For like the snake which was in greater toil, more clever than the other animals. However, because it spoke evil speech, it fell from its height and was more cursed than the other animals. So too those who speak evil speech will in the future fall. It was found that even though there was damage due to the bronze snake, for there are those who worshiped it, nonetheless its efficacy was great in preventing evil speech, which affected everyone.
דבאמת תועלת גדולה היה בהביטם אל נחש הנחושת, שממנו ילמדו בעלי לשון הרע לקח, שכמו שהנחש הי' בעמלה יתירה, ערום מכל החיות, אמנם ע"י שדיבר לשון הרע, נפל מכל מעלותיו ונעשה ארור מכל החיות, כן בעלי לשון הרע עתידין לפול, נמצא אף שהי' היזק בנחש הנחושת, שהיו כאלה שעבדוהו, מ"מ תועלתו היתה מרובה מאד, למנוע חטא לשון הרע, שהוא כנגד כולם.

However, in the days of Chizkiyahu, the King of Judah, when Torah learning was so great such that every child from Dan to Be’er Sheva was an expert in Torah. And the Torah is cure for the use of language. Therefore, it was not necessary to learn from the bronze snake, and its damage was greater than its effectiveness. Therefore, he came and ground it up.
אמנם בימי חזקיהו מלך יהודה, שנתרבה תלמוד תורה כל כך עד שלא הי' תנוק ותנוקת מדן ועד באר שבע שלא היה בקיא בתורה (סנהדרין צ"ד ע"ב), והתורה הרי היא מרפא לבעלי לשון, לכן לא הוצרך ללימוד מנחש הנחושת, והיתה הזיקו מרובה מתועלתו, ולכן בא הוא וכתת אותו.

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