How to Charm the Snake
וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יוֹסֵף מָה הַמַּעֲשֶׂה הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם הֲלוֹא יְדַעְתֶּם כִּי נַחֵשׁ יְנַחֵשׁ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹנִי
And Yosef said to them, “What is this deed that you have done, is it not obvious to you all that a man like me practices divination?”1
The Ramban defines נִיחוּשׁ as any process that allows one to know the future ahead of time.2
As a young boy, time travel was always a marvel to me. Just to have in one’s hand tomorrow’s newspaper, to know the horse racing results, the stock market gains, the lottery numbers — alas, some things are just not within hand’s reach.
Once, when I was very young, a gypsy woman knocked on our door and asked if she could use the bathroom. In return, she read my mother’s palm. One of the things she told my mother was that her son would become a teacher — little did I know then that I was destined to be a rabbi!
It is known in the Torah that Egypt was the magic capital of the world. They were well versed in being able to read the stars. The heavenly bodies known as mazalosinfluence the world because Hashem channels His energy flow through them, which is why the goyim are called stargazers — because they look into the stars to see what will be. So there is definitely some truth to the art of horoscopes.
One of these arts of divination the Ramban calls Negrormancia/black magic, (hence the word negro), which is a kind of voodoo practice of telling the future by communicating with the dead.
Yosef’s goblet, which was supposedly stolen by the brothers, was no ordinary goblet; Yosef professed that he used it to tell the future.
Lavan’s terafim were also some kind of crystal-ball from which he was able to know the future.
Shlomo HaMelech had knowledge of the chochmas of the chirping of birds, which reveals the future.
So we see many examples in the Torah that this kind of stuff was real. However, one of the rules on entry to the land was not to learn from the goyim, because in Hashem’s eyes, it is an abomination. Rather, we have to be תָּמִים תִּהִיֶה עִם ה’ אֶ-לֹהֶיךָ/pure with Hashem. In other words Hashem does not want us to be lusting after the ways of knowing what will be — rather, what will be will be. Rashi says that we are meant to walk with Hashem בְּתְּמִימִוּת/b’temimus/in purity, not to look into the future, rather to accept with simplicity anything that the future may bring. In doing so, we will be His people and His portion.
And the snake said to Chava, “If you eat from the tree, you will be like G-d, knowing good and bad.”
Divination, as its name depicts, is to be divine, to be like G-d, all-knowing.
Whoever wants to know the future is like someone who, when he first gets a book, turns to the last page to read the outcome. Knowing the future before it happens might seem like the ultimate fulfillment of desire, but really it is cheating the system and cheating oneself. One can’t compare the first time one watched a movie to the second or third time. Not knowing what will be is the excitement of life. If one knows the future, there will be no adrenaline rush, no surprises, no cliff-hangers, just going through the motions. There will be no need for תְּפִילָה, so we will lose our connection to Hashem and to life. The true sense of feeling alive is taking each day as it comes, living each moment, with the complete knowledge that Hashem loves us and that everything’s going to be all right.
In essence, life is a voyage of self-discovery where Hashem is revealing ourselves to ourselves, revealing the power within us after we face and overcome life’s ordeals.
וַיִּקַּח אַהֲרֹן אֶת אֱלִישֶׁבַע בַּת עַמִּינָדָב אֲחוֹת נַחְשׁוֹן לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה
And Aharon took Elisheva, the daughter of Aminadav, the sister of Nachshon, to him as a wife.3
The Gemara in Bava Basra says that one who wants to know how his sons are going to turn out should check out his wife’s brothers, because the majority of the sons are similar to the mother’s brother’s, hence the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”4So too the name נַחְשׁוֹן hints that there is indeed a remote form of נִיחוּשׁ/ knowing the future, which is permissible by the Torah.
וְהַנָּחָשׁ הָיָה עָרוּם מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה
And the snake was cunning from all of the other animals.5
Being that all the animals were created to serve man, the nachash, with his ability to speak, was most suitable to serving man in that he could act as an intermediary between man and all the animals. He in essence was king of the jungle.
If man had not sinned, each one of us would have two snakes to serve us: one that would travel to the north and the other to the south, bringing us precious stones and pearls.6With all our needs taken care of, we would be free to pursue our ikkar tachlis/essential purpose in life to learn Torah and draw closer to Hashem.
To be worthy of this lofty level, Hashem had to test us. The נָחָשׁ, with its ability to speak, was the most qualified for the job.
But instead of rising to the challenge, man fell and the whole creation fell with him. Adam from the adamah/earth would now have to return to the עָפָר/dust in order to rise again. The adamah was cursed in that now it would bring forth weeds and thorns. The נָחָשׁ had his power of speech taken away from him, and with the painful dismemberment of his arms and legs, he was now committed to a life slivering around in the dirt. The overall curse of the נָחָשׁ was his becoming self-sufficient. With the עָפָר being a part of his stable diet, he no longer looked to Hashem for his sustenance. Not having a relationship with Hashem is the biggest curse of all.
You may wonder that if the snake was doing Hashem’s will, why was he punished? The simple answer is that Hashem is teaching a lesson to man that no act goes unpunished.
Due to Adam’s sin, instead of having two snakes serving us, we have two snakes continually testing us, the שָׂטָןinside of us known as the yetzer hara, and the שָׂטָן outside of us known as the prosecuting angel. In the evening prayers, we say וְהָסֵר שָׂטָן מִלְּפָנֵינוּ וּמֵאַחֲרֵינוּ, asking Hashem to remove the שָׂטָן from before us and from behind us. The one before us is the one that can easily be seen, while the one behind us is the one intertwined with our very being, our yetzer hara that is so hard to decipher.
Now, when we sin by listening to the snake inside of us, the snake outside of us comes to bite us, as Chazal say: rather than the snake that bites, it’s the sin that bites (as we see from Yosef HaTzaddik, whom the snakes were powerless to harm).
When the Bnei Yisrael spoke lashon haraabout the manna, Hashem sent snakes to bite them. Who better than the נָחָשׁ, the progenitor of lashon hara, to come and teach them the error of their ways? In order to stop the snakes, Hashem tells Moshe to place a snake on top of a pole, and whoever looks at it will live. This was the נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת/Nachash Nechoshes, which worked to heal the snake bites, a spiritual healing that caused the Bnei Yisrael to look upward, toward the heavens, reconnecting with Hashem.
The snake on the pole is the symbolism used by the medical profession to symbolize healing, which they profess originated from Greek mythology. Little do they realize that it originates from the Nachash Nechoshes that teaches us that the real cause of disease is sin and the real healing is spiritual, i.e., by fixing up the sin and reconnecting to Hashem.
Chazal say that “what is crooked can never be made straight,”7referring to someone who has fallen prey to the advice of the נָחָשׁ. The נָחָשׁ is unable to walk in a straight path, therefore someone who follows his advice is said to be walking the crooked path. If he continues along that path, he can never be made straight. We learn from the Nachash Nechoshes, though, that if one reconnects with Hashem, then his path can indeed be made straight.
In India, there is a phenomenon called snake charming, where a flute can mesmerize the snake to the point where the snake does not bite. However, the original home to the art of snake charming was in fact Egypt, where the imagery of the snake on the head of Pharaoh played a central role. When Moshe and Aharon first went to the house of Pharaoh, they went stick in hand, which, when thrown to the ground, turned into a snake. The entire house of Pharaoh just laughed at them, saying, “You have brought your goods to an overstocked market,”8to which the Egyptians brought in their young children with their own sticks to perform the same trick. Moshe and Aharon replied, “Only by bringing your goods to the competition can you show the superior quality of your goods,” and their stick proceeded to swallow up the competition. Targum Onkelos uses the word לַחַשֵׁיהוֹן to describe the Egyptian magicians, and elsewhere לַחַשׁ refers to a snake charmer, as it says, אִם יִשֹּׁךְ הַנָּחָשׁ בְּלוֹא לָחַשׁ וְאֵין יִתְרוֹן לְבַעַל הַלָּשׁוֹן/if the snake bites because it has not been charmed properly, then what good is the snake charmer?9Rashi says that this refers to the rasha, whose snake continually bites him because he does not possess the tools with which to charm his snake. In order to succeed, we have to know how to charm our snake in order that it doesn’t bite us — a little bit like training a dog!
In essence, Hashem sends the snake in order to test us. Its job is to bring us down, but first it falsely raises us up by telling us how great we are in order to bring us crashing down to earth. The עָפָר/dust is his domain, the עָפָר representing the desire to do nothing, as we see from עֶפְרוֹן who said a lot and did little. The tzaddik is the opposite. He lowers himself in order to rise up, as we see מַשְׁפִּיל גֵאִים וּמַגְבִּיהַ שְׁפָלִים/Hashem lowers the haughty and raises up the lowly. Hashem raised Avraham, who said about himself, “I am just עָפָר וְאֵפֶר/dust and ashes.”
נְחוֹשֶׁת is one of the metals used to build the Mishkan, but it is not in the same league as gold and silver. The Malbim in Parshas Terumah connects נְחוֹשֶׁת to the part of the נָחָשׁ, which in itself embodies earthly existence and materialism, whose very nature is to bite man’s heel, causing him to burn up, and to parch him from all liquids, reducing him to earthly matter. The reddish-brown earth of Eretz Yisrael is very similar in color to that of copper.
The connection between נְחוֹשֶׁת and earth is more apparent in the making of the Mizbei’ach. In Shemos, Hashem instructs Moshe to tell the Bnei Yisrael to build a Mizbei’ach from earth,מִזְבַּח10אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי and then later the instruction is to build a wooden Mizbei’ach coated in נְחוֹשֶׁת.11 In actuality, the Mizbei’ach was filled with earth, cased in wood, and coated with נְחוֹשֶׁת.
So the Mizbei’ach, which is used by man to atone for his sins, is comprised of the elements of נְחוֹשֶׁת, symbolizing the נָחָשׁ, and עָפָר/earth, the domain of the נָחָשׁ, all of which were cursed (Adam, earth, nachash), all coming together to fix up the original sin.12
נְחוֹשֶׁת is also used in body armor. Like snake skin, armor has scales that one is able to sweat through. נְחוֹשֶׁת also has the quality of being able to sweat.13
This usage of the armor made from נְחוֹשֶׁת is contrasted well in the battle between David and Goliath.14David says to Goliath: “You come to me with sword and armor while I come in the name of Hashem.” Instead of protecting Goliath, the נְחוֹשֶׁת makes him sluggish, whereas Hashem gives David speed and agility.
In the book of Daniel, Nevuchadnetzar, just like Pharaoh, has a dream that is impossible to interpret. Hashem causes Daniel to dream the same dream. The dream has four metal monsters, one following the other: gold, silver, copper, and iron. They represent the four exiles of the Jewish Nation, corresponding to Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Edom.
Greece is the third monster represented by נְחוֹשֶׁת. In מָעוֹז צוּר, which we sing on Chanukah, it says about Greece: וּפָרְצוּ חוֹמוֹת מִגְדָלַי/they were the ones to break through the walls, and, similarly, the nachash is פּוֹרֵץ גֶדֶר, known for breaking through boundaries. Just like sin causes the נָחָשׁ to breach our defenses, so too our sins caused the Greeks to breach our walls.
Greece in Hebrew is יון, its very name representing the theology of the nachash to make us like עָפָר/dust in that they take the yud of יון, which symbolizes spirituality; with the vav they bring us down to earth; and with the nun they try and bury our spirituality in the dust itself.15
Chanukah represents the fight and victory against the Greek culture. On every day of Chanukah we read from the Torah the portion from Parshas Naso in which the princes of each tribe brought their dedication to the Chanukas HaMizbei’ach of the Mishkan. Who better than Nachshon ben Aminadav to open the proceedings — the one who testifies to the spiritual character of what we are looking for in our children, rather than the spiritual nemesis of the Greeks?
Hashem brought us into the land on condition that we don’t act like the goyim; not to seek their ways of נִיחוּשׁ/divination to be like G-d, not to be like the נָחָשׁ who is independent of G-d, and not to be like Goliath seeking the outer protection of נְחוֹשֶׁת. Rather, Hashem wants us to be pure, תָּמִים תִּהִיֶה עִם ה’ אֶ-לֹהֶיךָ, and this is symbolized quite aptly with the pure olive oil of the פַּךְ הַשֶׁמֶן. Nothing else will do; there is no middle ground — either one is pure or impure. It all depends on whether one has charmed his snake or is charmed by his snake.
2Ramban to Devarim18:9–12.
4Bava Basra 110a.
8The original coals to Newcastle; see Rashi toShemos7:22.
12See also Midrash Tanchuma11, Parshas Terumah, which connects נחושתto the atonement of brazenness.
15Shiur heard from Rabbi Eytan Feiner, rabbi of the White Shul, Far Rockaway, NY (when he was at Aish HaTorah, Yerushalayim); see also the Maharal, Ner Mitzvah, 2, footnote 74 (in Machon Yerushalayim edition).