Posts Tagged ‘seraph’

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Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Chukkat - Lissten...
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Chukkat: Numbers 19:1-22:1

"And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people…" (Numbers 21:6)

This week’s midrash is quite short, but it depends on understanding the context and a particular word. So let’s start with the context: Numbers 21:4-9, using Robert Alter’s translation. Listen:

And they journeyed on from Hor the mountain by way of the Red Sea to skirt round the land of Edom, and the people grew impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and there is no water, and we loathe the wretched bread." And the Lord sent against the people the viper [fiery] serpents, and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, "We have offended, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He take the serpents away from us." And Moses interceded for the people. And the Lord said to Moses: "Make you a viper and put it on a standard, and so then, whoever is bitten will see it and live." And Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a standard, and so then, if the serpent bit a man, he looked on the serpent of bronze and lived.

The word in question is seraph, which means "fiery" (the plural is seraphim). It is used only three significant times in Tanakh: here, in this story’s retelling in Deuteronomy, and later on several occasions by Isaiah, who describes a type of angel with wings as being a seraph – they are the ones who handle fiery coals (such as Isaiah 6).

Now the question of the midrash becomes clear, and its answer will take on new meaning. So let’s read the midrash, and then dig deeper:

What reason did He see for punishing them by means of serpents? Because the serpent, who was the first to speak slander, had been cursed, and they did not learn a lesson from him. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore, said: ‘Let the serpent, who was the first to introduce slander, come and punish those who speak slander.’ This accords with the text, Whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent shall bite him (Eccl. 10:8).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XIX:22

It’s not hard to see the connection between "fiery" and poisonous snakes: the poison, coursing through the victim’s body, might well indeed feel fiery. But what is this about the serpent introducing slander?

The serpent, in this case, is referring to the serpent in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, who gets Eve to repeat the commandment that Adam passed to her about eating the fruit of the trees at the center of the garden. Adam had (by most midrashic accounts) altered the command, for she reports that they were commanded to neither eat nor touch the fruit, which is an extension of the commandment Adam was given – simply not to eat the fruit.

The Sages refer to this technique as "building a fence around the Law:" by prohibiting something that isn’t strictly prohibited in Torah, but which could lead to that prohibited act, one can be a little more reassured that one will not break the law. Think of the laws forbidding eating chicken and dairy: clearly hens don’t give milk! But because we might not know the source of the meat, we shouldn’t eat any meat with dairy. The prohibition against chickens and dairy is a "fence" around the Law.

It is in this way that the serpent broke through the "fence" of Adam’s words and slandered him, purporting him to be a liar. Even if Adam were lying, it would still be slander – lashon hara, or the evil tongue – to report it in the manner the serpent did.

Think about it for a moment: doesn’t a slandered person feel the fiery rush of shame or anger? Whether the accusation is true or false or, as is most likely, some combination of the two, that burning blush is a sensation not soon to be forgotten. And this is where we are given the gate back to our original Torah reading.

The cure for the fiery tongue that is prescribed is to make tangible reminders for all the people about the deadly harm that slander produces. Our sages equated slander with murder, for in being slandered, one’s name is murdered – how hard it is to revive a sullied name!

So if G!d-forbid we should think about passing along a comment about another which – true or false! – brings them harm or shame, and for which there is no compelling danger to be avoided by the telling, we are told to remind ourselves of the fiery poison of lashon hara and desist.

Evil speech, we are told, kills three: the one about who it is told, the one who tells it, and the one who listens. Let us redouble our efforts to speak sweetly of others – or not at all!