THOUGHT AND ACTION
The brass serpent that Moshe made, in response to the directive from God,1 presents a most baffling scenario. The nation was informed that if one of them was ever bitten by a venomous snake, all he/she would have to do was look upon this brass snake and they would be healed. From an overview of Torah thought, it would seem, however, that the Torah generally views such physical representations in a most negative light.2 There is a clear mandate within Torah that we are to perceive only God as manifesting spiritual and/or supernatural powers. We are continuously called upon to protect this most important principle; yet, the creation of the brass serpent would seem to potentially challenge this. It would seem to be quite possible for individuals, upon seeing a person miraculously cured through viewing this brass image, to bestow spiritual powers upon this graven brass snake. Indeed, that is what actually occurred for, in Melachim II 18:4, we are told that the people did turn Moshe’s brass serpent into some type of idol and Chizkiyahu HaMelech thus destroyed it.3 If the potential for such a mistaken perception was even possible, why was the brass serpent introduced in the first place?
Our first question, though, must be: what was the very value of this brass snake? The mishna in T.B. Rosh Hashana 29a presents the underlying reason for the construction of the brass serpent: when the nation looked upwards to the serpent and thereby humbled their hearts before God, they would become healed. The mishna implies that no one would believe that it is actually a serpent that kills or heals but rather, through this process, one would recognize that it is through one’s deeds – mitzvot, sins and teshuva – that what occurs to someone is determined. Maharsha states that this was obvious given what occurred in the desert. It was due to sin that the snakes came upon the nation and it was through the nation’s teshuva and Moshe’s prayers that the plague of the snakes subsided. Ramban, Bamidbar 21: 9 extends the obviousness of this beyond the experience of the desert. Viewing what caused the damage, such as the image of the animal that bit the harmed person, is generally considered to make the matter worse yet we are told to do the opposite and look at the structure of a serpent. In undertaking this contradictory behaviour, it should be obvious to us that it is thus God alone Who heals and punishes. The point of the serpent was not the action that it initiated – that one would look upon it and be healed – but rather the underlying thoughts that would be tied to such an action. As no one would even contemplate a value in the action alone, the whole point of this behaviour was that it would bring someone to recognize that all is from God. It is with that determination that one becomes healed. It was in furtherance of this teaching that the brass serpent was created for thereby, through looking up to the serpent, one would be thinking of Heaven and achieve this recognition.
The challenge is that in Chizkiyahu’s time, it must have been that people did look solely at the action thereby thinking that it was the brass serpent itself that had this power. It is for this reason that the serpent had to be destroyed. This fact, though, still does show that, notwithstanding the reasons presented for the value in the creation of this brass serpent and the great unlikelihood that people would misconstrue its lesson, the possibility of an incorrect understanding of the serpent still was possible and it actually came to fruition. People did, before Chizkiyahu destroyed it, offer incense before it. Should this concern not have mitigated against the very creation of the serpent? There is indeed value in learning the lesson that all comes from God but the creation of the brass serpent could and did lead to some practice of idolatry. Was the positive lesson learned from this serpent not able to be learned in another manner that would not be so risky? Was the positive lesson that was learned from this serpent worth the evil that it also brought about? In that the serpent was created, the answer is obviously that it was. Our question must be: why?
Torah Temima, Bamidbar 21:8, note 10 argues that the real lesson of the serpent was that it showed that it was the thought and intent of a person that were most important, not necessarily the action. The words of the mishna actually point to this for it was not really the viewing of the snake that healed a person but it was what was in the person’s mind as he/she looked at the serpent that was of the essence. If a person’s thoughts were upon God then this viewing of the serpent would heal. If one, though, only looked at the snake but without this proper perspective, he/she would not be healed. This connects to the famous question of whether the fulfillment of a mitzvah needs proper intent or not.4 The halachic conclusion is actually that, in regard to Biblical commands (mitzvot d’Oraita), proper intent -- that one’s objective in performing a mitzvah is in order to fulfill, through this act, a command of God -- is necessary. It would actually thus seem that the issue that surrounded the brass serpent actually is found in regard to all mitzvot. Obviously, mitzvot involve actions but it is not really the action that is of the essence. It is our kavanah, our intent that is of the essence. An action performed without the recognition that one is thereby fulfilling God’s command simply lacks the value of a mitzvah.5 It is the intent that transforms an action into a mitzvah. The brass serpent powerfully reinforces this.
Torah is action oriented. There is, though, a potential problem with this orientation; a person can potentially focus exclusively on the action, thinking that it is the action that is solely significant, not the thought behind the action. The case of the brass serpent may, in a certain way, remind us of this problem. Here we encounter an act that, with proper intent, imparts an important lesson but without this intent can yield a most negative action. God, still, told Moshe to create the serpent. Chizkiyahu, however, destroyed it when it did lead people astray. Our challenge is, in the performance of all our mitzvot, to have the intent to do God’s Will, for without proper kavanah the result can be most deleterious.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 See Bamidbar 21:8,9.
2 See, for example, Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 2-4 which presents various mitzvot that prohibit the making of idols and images. Note the words in Lo Ta’aseh 4 that outline a concern that, with the making of images, people will assume that these idols have some type of supernatural power. .
3 See, also, T.B. Pesachim 56a that verifies that Chizkiyahu’s action was deemed praiseworthy. At the time of Chizkiyahu, when the brass serpent was being worshiped, it was clearly correct to destroy it. The challenge is, though, that there was always the potential for it to be so worshipped. The question thus is: why was this risk deemed to be worthwhile?
4 See T.B. Rosh Hashana 28a,b.
5 See, most powerfully, Introduction, Sefer Mitzvot HaKatzur where the author (the Chafetz Chaim) states that he wrote this work so that people should be aware, in their normal everyday lives, that they are doing a mitzvah for if they do these good deeds without proper intent to fulfill thereby God’s Will these actions do not count as mitzvot.
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© 2010 NISHMA