This article is an excerpt from our Sefer
Buy me here or on Amazon.com
“Vayaas Moshe Nachash Nechoshes …”
[Likkutei Torah p. 61b]
This Parsha discusses the episode of a snake attack on the Jewish people that led to many deaths and injuries. The Jewish people made harsh complaints against Moshe, severely criticizing him for the arduous journey they had to endure in the desert, and for the lack of proper food and water. Hashem viewed their complaint as contempt of Him and sent snakes to smite the evildoers. The Jews then repented and as a result, Hashem gave Moshe an antidote that would help heal the injured and save them from certain death. The verse states that Moshe created a copper snake on a pole. Those who looked up to the snake were healed, while those who did not perished. In this Mamar, the Alter Rebbe delves into the meaning behind this cure and why the Jewish people were only healed when they looked at the snake. This leads to several discussions on vital matters of Jewish thought and philosophy. It reveals the true meaning of evil and suffering and its relationship with Hashem; how evil and suffering represent Hashem’s will for evil to conclude with a positive outcome. The Mamar goes on to explain how through proper faith a Jew can transform evil into good, and stop suffering and evil from continuing. It elaborates on the purpose of prayer and how the G-dly soul is on a mission to refine the body. This Mamar gives one proper life perspectives that will assist him in dealing with all situations, as well as how to conquer evil and use it to serve G-d.
Explorations of the Mamar:
1. How did the copper snake cure those that were smitten?
2. What is the purpose of the descent of the soul into the body below?
3. Understanding the creation of evil, suffering, and how it originates.
4. The concept of Gam Zu Letova and how the purpose of the bad is really good.
5. Learning the proper perspective on suffering, and how one can transform it into blessing.
6. Understanding the purpose of prayer and why they did not pray in previous generations.
The verse states, “Vayaas Moshe Nachash Nechoshes Al Hanes, Vehayah Im Nashach Hanachash Es Haish, Vehibit El Nachash Hanechoshes Vechaiy/And Moshe made a copper snake on the pole, and those who looked at the snake would be healed.” The Mishnah states that in truth it was not the copper snake that cured those that were bitten, but rather the fact that they looked up towards Heaven and reminded themselves of Hashem. This caused feelings of repentance to enter their hearts, and when they repented they were cured. The question that arises is: why specifically was a copper snake made to achieve this? They should simply have been told to look above at G-d and repent. What significance does a snake on a pole pose towards reaching this goal? Another question is: Why were they required to look up? The laws of prayer seem to contradict this, as they maintain that the eyes are to look below while the heart is to think of the One Above! To understand this matter, we must first introduce the following questions and concepts.
The purpose of the descent of the soul: Love and fear of G-d:
A primary purpose for the soul’s descent below is to cleave to G-d with love and fear. This is accomplished through prayer, in which one reads of matters that ignite these feelings. Yet why should the soul descend at all, if prior to the descent, and after it leaves the body, it has a much greater level of love and fear than it could ever achieve in this world (due to the impediments of the coarse body)? On the contrary, the coarseness of the body forces the soul to also receive pleasure from matters of this world. This is despite the fact that the Neshama does not desire these matters at all and wants only to attach to its Creator; nevertheless, the body’s very existence forces it to benefit from this world.
Turning darkness into light:
The Zohar writes that one who does not turn darkness into light does not have a portion in the world to come. The reason for this is because this is the entire purpose of man’s creation and it is accomplished through prayer, as will be explained. However, prior to this discussion, one must first understand how good can be found even in evil, as this awareness is the hidden component behind a successful transformation of evil into good.
Understanding evil and suffering:
The method of sweetening severities is through their source. This means as follows: All the evil and suffering that occur in this world are rooted in good. It is this good that creates and vivifies them, giving them life and existence. This good is similar to the parable of the harlot and the crown prince written in the Zohar. The Zohar states that a certain king hired a harlot to try to seduce his son, the crown prince, employing various means, to see if his son would withstand temptation and stick to the morals he inherited through the monarchy. The harlot, who was aware of the king’s intent, did not truly desire the prince to stumble and give into his desires. She wanted the prince to overcome his temptations, which would please the king and consequently the king would be satisfied with her as well, as she had a role in causing the king great joy. If, however, she was successful in her seduction, it would not fulfill the king’s hidden desire and would cause him great pain. The goodness that is found in evil works in a similar way to the harlot; its true desire is to fulfill G-d’s will to challenge man below. The reason why even evil is submissive to G-d is because it receives its vitality and life force from G-d. Yet, how can it rebel against Him? This is the inner meaning behind the dictum of the Sages, “The Satan and Penina intended their actions for the sake of Heaven,” for in truth they desired that good would come out of their actions, which would fulfill the King’s intent for their mission. Nevertheless, this only refers to the source of the evil, its origin, and cause, and it is this origin that is considered the good behind the evil. However, after the evil descends from its sublime level of being a G-dly servant who feels the yolk of his master [thus denying it the ability to rebel], it then transforms into true evil without any good intent or any recognition of its G-d-sent mission. This manifests itself in this world as spiritual and physical suffering. [In the parable, this means as follows: The king hires one harlot with the mission of trying to seduce his son as a mere test to see how his son will react. The harlot, who is close to the king and subjugated before his Majesty, will not have any intent other than the true desire of the king for the crown prince to overcome her seduction. However, she is also told by the king to lead a group of additional harlots to work under her that will also try to seduce the son. These hired harlots, working under the king’s appointed harlot, will be doing their work solely for the sake of seducing the son, and their true desire is to actually seduce him. They do not know, nor do they care to know, of the true purpose behind their mission and how the king in truth does not desire them to be successful. The same applies down here in our world. The evil forces below in this world have truly evil intentions, and are not on a G-dly mission from their perspective. Nevertheless, their origin and current existence is really from a level of good on a mission to fulfill G-d’s will to test the person and have him prevail, hence gratifying both G-d and the origin of the evil.]
Why does the good intent have to take on the form of evil? Why can’t the original harlot hired by the king do the job?
The above parable begs the following question: If the true desire of the king and the root of the evil are good, why is it that the good must transform into complete evil upon its descent below? Why must it be expressed as physical and spiritual suffering? Using the parable, why can’t the original harlot hired by the king perform the act of seducing the son? Why must she outsource the work to another who actually has truly evil intentions? The answer to this is as follows: This world is incapable of handling a large expression of G-d’s undiluted spiritual goodness. The intent of the king with the harlot is for an overly good purpose, as it will give the king more satisfaction than anything else. However, this physical world is not a vessel for this great level of goodness to be expressed in a direct manner, which the evil at its (good) source would be able to convey. It is for this reason that a secondary level of evil is created from the original level, which thereby has only evil intent and is thus able to do the mission given to its origin. This is the meaning of the once cryptic saying of the Sages that “Tov is the angel of life, and Meo’ is the angel of death”, as the angel of death is of greater good than the angel of life. This seemingly contradictory statement can now be understood, as through the angel of death G-d’s will and inner desire is able to be fulfilled by man and cause Him delight.
A certain country does not allow the passage of diamonds and precious stones through its borders. All diamonds and precious stones are confiscated by the police and handed over to the government. A smart fellow thought up the following scheme: He swallowed the stones prior to his departure. The stones caused him immense suffering in his abdomen and bowels. However, once he successfully arrived in the country, he expelled the stones, thereby relieving his suffering and gaining the precious gems. The stones are the good intent of Hashem and the origin of evil, whose whole purpose is to cause G-d delight and bring great reward to the person below. The suffering of the bowels is similar to the expression of evil in this world, as from the perspective of the stomach the stones are a real nuisance and cause true pain. However, in truth, its result will be good.
The proper perspective on suffering:
Based on the above, when a person [G-d forbid] experiences suffering, he should not view it as an end in itself, its sole purpose being for him merely to suffer. Rather, he is to contemplate the root of his suffering and its cause and motive, and how in truth it is rooted in complete good, as from G-d will not come evil. It is just that this level of good can only be implicitly expressed in this world and hence it remains above, while deployed as evil here below.
Nachum Ish Gam Zu -The saying of Gam Zu Letova – Turning evil to good:
Nachum Ish Gam Zu was accustomed to always say the words, “Gam Zu Letova/also this is for the best”. This is because he contemplated how in truth the root of evil is good, and through this he elevated evil to its positive root. Once evil is found back in its source, it is able to be changed. This was similarly accomplished by Rebbe Chanina Ben Dosa, who stated that vinegar can be made to burn like oil.
Prayer – the suffering of the G-dly soul and how this suffering is for its benefit:
The soul in the body goes through tremendous suffering, as its true desire is to cleave to G-d and the body inhibits it from doing so. Similar to the suffering of the Shechina, which is forced to vivify even the Reshaim, the Neshama is forced to enliven the body. The entire purpose of this descent is not for the Neshama itself, but to elevate the body from its state of dust. This is like silver refined by a silversmith. The more waste that the silver contains, the more the silversmith must torch it until all the waste separates. Similarly, the body must be refined from the Yeitzer Hara and brought to its root and source, and the more evil the body contains, the greater the fire of love-filled prayer it requires to refine it.
A man is sent on a mission by a certain government to try to influence a local tribe to become modernized and more involved in society. This tribe refuses to acknowledge any advancement of the modern world and they have locked themselves up within their own enclave. They also have very terrible mannerisms and commit all sorts of crimes and hideous acts, due to their lack of disciplined nature. Their cuisine consists of assorted insects and reptiles that are never consumed by civilized cultures. Nevertheless, they are known as an extremely bright group of people, and if they would only dedicate their minds in the right direction the entire world would benefit. The man that was sent by his government to help influence this tribe has to leave his wife and children behind and disguise himself as one of the tribesmen. He will have to dispose of all of his modern technological gadgets before his departure and will need to make his way up in the society of this tribe in order to gain influence and power amongst them, until he can effectively facilitate their transformation. This will take many years. While the man is there, he will endure loneliness and suffering, being unable to be in contact with his wife, children, parents, and friends for all that time. He will have to eat their putrid foods, follow their evil ways, and act as one of them while throughout this time slowly influencing a change in their behavior. He will also have to fight the temptations of giving up and becoming one of them.
This parable is the story of the Neshama and the body. The Neshama is the civilized man [i.e. only good] sent by the government [G-d] to elevate the body [civilize the evil tribe] from its evil ways and nature. The Neshama will suffer throughout this period, being forced to be invested within the body and act according to ways and mannerisms that it so despises.
The difference in prayer between the First Temple and the Second Temple:
In the times of the First Temple, people did not pray at all [a set prayer]. In the Second Temple however, the Anshei Knesses Hagedola established a short prayer that was recited each day. Eventually, the current long liturgy of our daily prayer was established. This development of prayer throughout the generations is not a matter of coincidence. In the era of the First Temple, the evil was not very strong and hence did not require the fire of prayer to refine it. The people’s actions were dedicated to elevating the evil through the Karbanos, which sufficed. However, as the generations progressed, so did the level of evil. In the Second Temple, the level of evil that existed required a short prayer to purify it. In the current era of exile, the evil is so strong that a very long prayer, with a lot of fiery love for G-d, is required in order to refine it. The same applies in each generation; the lower the generation, the greater the emphasis it must place on prayer. Thus, the time spent in prayer does not signify a holier generation or person. On the contrary, it means that evil has increased and mixed into the good and hence requires more time at prayer to refine it. The refining of the animal soul is accomplished by contemplating how the vitality of the animal soul comes from G-d, as without His life-force it would not be able to live, and the purpose of its existence is like the parable of the harlot, on a mission from G-d. In truth, evil has no existence.
Are we really getting worse and worse in each generation?
Actually, the Jewish people are becoming more and more refined throughout each generation. The reason it appears that we are going lower is because of the greater level of refinement that needs to be done in each later generation. This greater level of refinement calls for greater and heavier struggles. In previous generations, only the external aspects of the soul were refined, and hence G-d gave revealed love and fear of Him to the Jews in those times, which served them as an external motivation to serve Him. However, in today’s generation we are revealing a deeper level, towards which we are not being given the revealed motivations of love and fear, and rather we must conjure them up on our own. [This is similar to a computer game in which each level becomes harder and harder, until one reaches the hardest level with the greatest challenge. To the outsider who walks in on the game while the tenth level is being played, it would appear that the gamer is a terrible player after seeing him struggle to succeed. Little does he know that the player has already succeeded on nine prior levels. Similarly, Hashem makes the challenge greater in each generation, as we proceed to the finish line of building for G-d a Dira Betachtonim. This is also similar to the ruling of the Rambam, that at first we educate a child to serve Hashem with external motivations, such as the reward of a present or sweet. Later, however, we remove the motivations and see how the child will serve without external motivations. Likewise, G-d has concealed our level of love and fear to see how we would serve Him without natural motivations.]
Refining water through a filter versus boiling. When one filters water through a strainer, there is no heat needed to remove the waste particles as the net instantly refines the water from any visible dirt and the like. Nevertheless, damaging substances [i.e. bacteria] that have become absorbed and unified with the water may remain, and no amount of filtering can remove them. It is only through boiling the water, which takes heat and time, that the bacteria will be removed. In previous generations, the coarser evil substances were easier to filter from the soul. In the later generations, we are removing the bacteria.
The above message likewise applies to physical suffering. By realizing that the suffering is really there for a G-dly mission, this will cause all the evil to be dispersed.
The difference between Nachum Ish Gam Zu and all the other Tzaddikim:
All the Tzaddikim had the same perspective as Nachum Ish Gam Zu, and viewed the true root and source of the evil as good. Nevertheless, Nachum Ish Gam Zu was unique in the fact that he was actually able to bring about that even below in this world the bad and suffering could be manifested as a good and positive physical reality, becoming actual good as at its root. That is why he said “Gam Zu”, as the actual, present reality became revealed good. However, with other Tzaddikim, although they shared identical perspectives, the evil still retained its evil expression and was not perceived in accordance to its source.
The purpose of the snake formed by Moshe:
The purpose of the copper snake being placed on the pole was to emphasize that those who were smitten should look at the root of the snake up high. They should contemplate how the snake is not absolute evil and has merely been separated from its source above. This is similar to the analogy of the harlot quoted in the Zohar, as explained above in length. It is for this reason that the snake was also made of copper, as copper can change to a variety of hues, hence emphasizing that the snake could be changed to good.
The above explanation that the root of evil is good is very abstract. What is the good that is being referred to? If a man suffers the loss of a loved one in this world, what good is hidden behind that?
This matter requires a more thorough and organized treatise on the subject. Nevertheless, in short the answer is as follows: The true purpose of suffering is not, G-d forbid, to punish the person but to make him more refined and bring him to repentance. Hence, if one notices the suffering and uses it to come back to G-d, the purpose of the suffering is fulfilled and there is no longer a need for it to occur.
Lessons of the Mamar
1. When a challenge of good versus evil occurs to you, know that the evil in this world is itself working for a level that is on a mission from G-d and hence, even the evil does not desire you to fall prey to it. This will give you strength to overcome the challenge.
2. Contemplate the inner message when you are suffering. Recognize that G-d is expressing a desire for you to be faithful to Him and overcome the challenge.
3. Look at this generation in general, and at an individual in particular, with the right eye; understanding that we are on a higher level of battle than in previous generations and hence the challenges are greater.
4. During prayer, contemplate that the mission of prayer is to ignite your G-dly soul to refine the animal soul and have it burst into flames of passion for G-d, similar to the government agent sent to civilize the tribe in the parable above.
 See Likkutei Torah, Matos p. 170: “This Galus is taking longer, as to refine the finer wastes takes longer than the larger wastes”; See Sefer Hasichos 1992, Parshas Noach: “The Avoda of Bnei Yisrael throughout all generations is now ready to bring the Geula, as it has been completed and finished. The fact that an individual may have some matter that requires Teshuvah is a personal detail. However, on the global level, the Jewish people are now standing ready for the redemption”. See also the Mamar, Ein Hakadosh Baruch Hu Ba Betrunya, 5648, for a thorough overview of the Mesirus Nefesh required in today’s times versus previous times, and how we have a much harder challenge than previous generations. See also Mamar Yud Kisleiv 1941 [Mamarim Melukatim 2 p. 51] that: The Alter Rebbe taught that the humility of Moshe, which surpassed the humility of all other people, was mainly affected by his foreseeing the challenges that the Jews in the time of the footsteps of Moshiach would face and overcome. When he saw the Mesirus Nefesh with which the Jews at that time would serve Hashem in spite of all the concealments and public ridicule, he became humbled in his own service. [Taken from Awaking like a Jew Chapter 1/1]
 See Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah, chapter 10 Halachas 1-5, for the various levels of motivation one may have in serving G-d and how these motivations are refined as the person matures.
 See the letter titled Lehaskilcha Bina in Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh epistle 11; See also Iggeres Hateshuvah, chapter 1[there are two purposes of suffering]; Torah Ohr Mikeitz [2nd Mamar] [“The suffering is not at all a punishment, as every single Jew is deserving of receiving the best of life in this world”].