In parashat Chukkat, God sends snakes to punish the people of Israel for murmuring against God and Moses (Numbers 21:5-6). The snake-bitten Israelites repent, admitting their errors, and ask Moses to remove the snakes. Instead of removing the snakes, God commands Moses to build a bronze snake on an ensign; anyone who is bitten is healed by looking at the bronze snake. If this feels a bit like idolatry to you, you’re not off-base--whether or not it is not in Moses’ time, interaction with the snake definitely turns into idolatry in later generations. When Hezekiah takes over the kingship of Judah, he destroys the bronze snake alongside all sorts of idolatrous accessories (2 Kings 18:4). The book of Kings tell us that people would sacrifice to the bronze snake and even gave it a name, “up until that day.” The people had been worshiping this snake for a long time--maybe even from the time it was originally built.
Our Talmud (Chullin 6b-7a), distressed by the idea of this bronze snake remaining as a stumbling block for those inclined to idolatry for hundreds of years, asks how none of the previous kings who rid the Israelites of idolatry destroyed the snake. It answers that Hezekiah’s ancestors left the snake around so that Hezekiah, by destroying the snake, would have a place to distinguish himself as king. The previous leaders of the nation allowed the people to commit idolatry so some grandson in the future could achieve glory as a leader. Idolatry represents the worst direction for the nation of Israel, so a king leaving a possible idolatrous object for the sake of glorifying his lineage seems selfish and antithetical to the entire Torah. A king who leaves open the possibility of idolatry prioritizes his family’s power over God’s power.
The Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631) explains that it was not intentional on the part of previous kings--instead, they missed the implications of their inaction. Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839) expands this, suggesting that some previous leaders were actually successful in convincing the nation not to worship the bronze snake; since it also served to remind the people of the miracles in the desert, they figured there was no need to destroy it. They knew it was a risk, but they also knew it was useful, and they lacked the wisdom to understand that, in this case, the risk was not worth the reward. However, Hezekiah saw more deeply, and realized that this snake would continue to be a future problem.To him, destroying a potential source of idolatry was worth sacrificing the reminder it served of God’s past miracles. Rabbi Sofer attributes Hezekiah’s insight, as well as the previous kings’ lack thereof, to God, explaining that God prevented the previous kings from understanding that this snake needed to be destroyed. In this view, God hides wisdom even from great people until the right person comes along: a person with both the ability and the proper situation to act upon this wisdom.
Two messages result from this interpretation. First, we should not expect ourselves to have the wisdom to make make all of the right choices. No matter how wise and how good our intentions, we will stumble and make decisions with awful future consequences. We must continuously evaluate our wise choices of the past to ensure they continue to be wise in the present and in the future. We must accept that our wisdom is imperfect and continually search and pray to God for more wisdom. However, we should also recognize that each of us does have some wisdom that our predecessors and colleagues do not. The difficult part--and this is where Hezekiah shows his maturity--is figuring out where we have more wisdom than others, and where our wisdom might be lacking. We must search for the wisdom God has uniquely given to us and find how we can use that to improve the world. In doing so, we distinguish ourselves. May we all merit to reach this point.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein