CHUKAS (Numbers, 19:1-22:1) — “Tattle-Snakes & Copperheads”

From the earliest Biblical times, the snake has been reviled.  The original snake brought death to the world by convincing Eve to eat from the tree that G-d had forbidden.  The snake, “he who speak with forked tongue,” is the symbol of gossip and falsehood.

When G-d wanted Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, he objected, “… but they won’t believe me … they will say “G-d didn’t appear to you.’ ” (Exodus, 4:1)

G-d responded to Moses’ claim by turning his stick into a snake.  G-d wanted to illustrate to Moses that by describing the Israelites as non-believers, he had slandered them.  Seeing his stick turn into the symbol of slander and deceit, he understood that G-d was displeased with the way he had spoken.

Later on, Moses was almost killed by an angel in the guise of a snake.   (See “Mrs. Moses Goes Home to Father”.)

On his deathbed, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons.  Dan, the forebear of Samson, was described as “…A snake on the highway … that bites a horse’s heels so its rider falls backward.”  (Genesis, 49:17)  The Commentaries interpret this as a reference to Samson killing the Philistines.  (Although Samson is considered a righteous person, and his killing of the Philistines necessary, we still see in this verse that the snake is a source of death and destruction.)


The People of Israel were frustrated.  They had been wandering in the desert for thirty-eight years, and they didn’t see an end in sight.  Aaron had died, (“The Kiss of LIFE”) and their most recent travels had distanced them further from the Land of Israel.  And, they were tired of eating Manna:

The people spoke against G-d and Moses:  “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this desert?  There is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food!”  (Numbers, 21:5)

Although they received all the food and water they needed in a miraculous manner, they lacked the faith and appreciation that they should have showed.  They sinned egregiously by speaking against G-d and Moses.  They had not learned to avoid the sin of the snake — the sin of slander.  It was time for them to learn a deadly lesson:

G-d sent snakes (and) fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people.  A large multitude of the nation died.  The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned.  We have spoken against G-d and against you!  Pray to G-d that he remove from us the serpent.”  Moses prayed for the people.  (Ibid, 6-7)

They had learned the error of their ways.  Many had died.  Many were dying.  They were sorry for speaking that way.  They had apologized.  They had repented.  But was it too late?

G-d said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole.  Anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live.”  Moses made a snake out of copper and placed it on a pole; so it was that anyone who had been bitten would stare at the copper snake and live.  (Ibid, 8-9)


There, you have it.  The people sinned, and G-d began to punish them.  The people repented and Moses prayed for them.  G-d accepted their repentance and provided a miraculous cure.

The symbolism is beautiful.  Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, they sinned with their tongues.  Since they acted like snakes, they were punished with snakes.  After sinning with their mouths they repented with their mouths.  They corrected the wrong by using their mouths properly.  Moses undid the poison of the miraculous punishing-snakes with a miraculous healing-snake.

Great!  Just one question.  What’s the deal with the copper?

Rashi explains that G-d did not tell Moses to make the snake out of copper; that was his own idea.  G-d asked for a snake.  The Hebrew word for snake is “Nachash.”  The Hebrew word for copper is “Nechoshes.”  Since the two words are essentially the same, he made a “N’chash N’choshes — copper snake.”

Does that answer the question?  What is the significance of making the snake out of a material that sounds like the word, “snake”?

I found a beautiful answer to this question in the Commentary of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin.

I translated Verse 6 as “G-d sent snakes (and) fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people.”  I added the “(and)” to the translation based on Rabbi Diskin’s commentary.  He explains that there were two types of snakes.  G-d sent two types of snakes into the camp as a punishment for the TWO sins of “the people spoke against G-d and Moses.”

The first type was a NACHASH — snake.  This generic type of snake was a punishment for speaking against G-d.  The second type, a much more vicious variety, was a SARAPH — fiery serpent.  This fiery serpent, whose venom burnt the victim like fire, was a punishment for speaking against Moses.  G-d is even more defensive of the honor of the righteous than he is of His own honor.  “If you speak against Me, it’s one thing.  But how dare you speak against My beloved servant Moses?!”

After Moses prayed to G-d to forgive the people, G-d told him to “Make for yourself a SARAPH — a fiery serpent, and place it on a pole.”

“Make for yourself a SARAPH”. (Note the term “FOR YOURSELF”; G-d was saying that the fiery serpent was FOR MOSES; i.e., for sinning against Moses.)

G-d was telling Moses, “A NACHASH — a regular snake, is no longer necessary, since I have forgiven them for speaking against Me.  But I haven’t forgiven them for speaking against YOU!  Therefore, they still need a SARAPH to provide a miraculous atonement for sinning against you.”

Moses, however, took the exact opposite approach:

Moses made a snake out of copper and placed it on a pole

Why copper?  Why the play on words?  By making it out of NECHOSHES, copper, Moses was emphasizing that the snake on the pole was a NACHASH, a snake defending G-d’s honor, rather than a SARAF, a fiery serpent defending the honor of Moses.

G-d’s statement to Moses and Moses’ statement to G-d were almost synonymous:  “I have already forgiven them for sinning against me; it is up to you to forgive them for sinning against you!”

In the Talmud, (Avos, 4:1) Ben Zoma asks us: Who is honored? He who gives honor to others.

Conversely, it seems that those who are most concerned about their own honor miss the boat.  Last week we read of Korach, a man who was so caught up in his own honor that he destroyed himself and those around him. (See ”True Blue” and “There’s More to Being Right than Just Not Being Wrong”)  G-d and Moses both show us that it is much more important to worry about the other person’s honor.

Worry about the other guy’s honor, and your own honor will take care of itself.


There is a prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur in which we spell out many of the sins we have committed.  Yom Kippur is a time to make amends for the wrong we have done.  We turn to G-d in repentance and ask Him to forgive us.

G-d is very receptive to our prayers, but there is a caveat:  Regardless of how contrite we are, G-d is only willing to forgive us for those sins that are against Him alone.  Perhaps we have not taken our religious obligations, such as observing the Sabbath and Kosher laws, praying daily, etc., seriously enough, and we resolve to try harder in the future.  If we sincerely resolve to improve, we can look forward to G-d accepting our prayers.

If, however, we have sinned against our fellow man by stealing, gossiping, or insulting them, G-d withholds His forgiveness for those sins until we have cleared things up with the aggrieved party.

He who hurts my child, hurts me.  He who picks on my baby brother will have me to contend with.  When we speak against our fellow man, G-d takes it personally.

Beware of starting up with that 90-pound weakling.  He has a very strong Big Brother.

Have a great Shabbos

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.


From the Archives

Some years the two Torah Portions of Chukas and Balak are read together, and some years they are read on two separate Sabbaths. For your convenience, here are links to both Portions:


“A Sad Shabbos in New York State” (2011)

… While some societies have not condemned these activities the way the Torah does, it was always recognized that the institution of marriage was about a man and a woman. A man doesn’t marry his car. A man doesn’t marry his pet iguana. And a man doesn’t marry a man…

Last Shabbos, we read the story of Korach. Korach didn’t like the way the Commandments were working out…

Last Friday night … the State of New York decided to emulate Korach…

How did this tragedy/travesty in New York happen? It’s really rather simple…

Read more.


“Who’s ‘The MAN’? … YOU’RE ‘The MAN’!” (2010)

… Ezekiel cites the special relationship between G-d and Israel…

The Talmud interprets “…you are Man…”, to mean “You (i.e., Israel) are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ‘MAN.’

What does the Talmud mean by, “You are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ’MAN’”? Certainly it can’t mean to humiliate Gentiles and to consider them less than human! The Talmud is replete with references to the fact that all of humanity was created in G-d’s Image. We share the planet with our fellow Children of G-d.

So what does it mean?…

Read more .


“Tattle-Snakes & Copperheads” (2005)

G-d said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a snake out of copper and placed it on a pole; so it was that anyone who had been bitten would stare at the copper snake and live

The symbolism is beautiful. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, they sinned with their tongues. Since they acted like snakes, they were punished with snakes. After sinning with their mouths they repented with their mouths. They corrected the wrong by using their mouths properly. Moses undid the poison of the miraculous punishing-snakes with a miraculous healing-snake.

Great! Just one question. What’s the deal with the copper?…

Read more.


“The Kiss of LIFE” (2004)

The “Brothers ben-Amram” both died shortly before the Israelites entered the Land of Canaan (Israel) … Our Sages point out a contrast between the nation’s reaction to these deaths. The Children of Israel wept for Moses, while the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron.

The Children (literally, sons) of Israel wept for Moses. The men wept over the loss of their respected judge. The entire House of Israel, men and women, wept over the loss of their beloved peacemaker…

Moses and Aaron had different jobs… the mourning for Aaron was more widespread than for Moses.

Whose approach was better? Who was a better advocate of proper behavior?…

Read more.


“Stone Drunk” (2002)

… The People were thirsty. … Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A great deal of water gushed out, and provided water for the community and their animals.”

G-d was furious: “Since you (and Aaron) didn’t have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them.”

… the people witnessed a great miracle. A rock was struck, and water flowed from it. The Israelites hadn’t seen a miracle like that in 40 years! How is this a lack of faith on Moses’ part? …

Read more.


“The Bigger They Are…” (2001)

Og … organized an army against Israel, and once again, we were forced to fight off an aggressor. … Moses needed some encouragement:

G-d said to Moses, ‘Don’t be afraid of him…”

G-d doesn’t waste words. He told Moses not to be afraid to fight Og. … Moses was afraid that Og would be rewarded for a Mitzvah he had done many years before…

What a Mitzvah!! Og tells Abraham to go save Lot so he can be killed and Og can marry his widow! With friends like Og, who needs enemies?! How could Moses actually suspect that G-d would reward Og for such a deceitful, treacherous act?…

Read more.



“Rocky Road” (2010)

…What’s with this guy?! He’s a sorcerer, the great Midianite prophet! He is “one who knows the mind of the Supreme One.” (Verse 16) How is it so hard for him to see that G-d doesn’t want him to do this?

… it all started with a question. G-d had asked Balaam, “Who are these people?”

“Aha!” thought Balaam. “G-d doesn’t know everything! He needs to ask me who these people are! If I play my cards right, I’ll be able to pull the wool over His eyes and curse His beloved Nation.”…

Read more.


“How Good is YOUR Tent?” (2007)

…Balak, the Moabite king, hired Balaam to curse Israel. Now why, you may ask, would an anti-Semite like Balak need to hire someone to curse Jews? Plenty of people would be happy to do it for free!

Cursing, you see, is a great talent. Some people do it better than others. Balaam was a pro…

Read more.


“Of Television, Toilets, and Idolatry” (2003)

… There was, however, one condition demanded by the Midianites. They insisted that their “clients” pay homage to their idol, “Baal Pe’or.”

… “You don’t have to pray to our idol, or even to bow to it. All you have to do is…

Have you ever heard of anything so bizarre? …

Read more.


“Will the REAL Jackass Please Speak Up?” (2000)

… Balaam still didn’t get it. Three times, Balaam tried to curse the Nation of Israel; three times, they came out as blessings… Fired from his job by Balak, Balaam went home in disgrace.

What was going on in Balaam’s head? How could a great oracle who was “One who knows the mind of the Supreme One,” make such a mistake? How could he be so blind to the fact that G-d didn’t want him to go on this mission? How did this brilliant prophet allow his donkey to make a jackass out of him?!

The answer can be seen from one of Balaam’s communications with Balak…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz. May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel ( and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on June 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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