The sedra of Chukas is full of action: parah adumah, the death of Miriam, mei merivah, the death of Aharon Hakohen, war with Amalek, the serpents killing the complainers against the mahn; many cryptic pesukim concerning wells of water, and brooks; the wars with Sichon and Og… What part of the sedra shall we delve into?
Let’s examine the incident of the serpents. Bnei Yisrael were forced to make another huge detour in the desert, this time around Edom, and they therefore expressed fear that they would find their end in the desert as their fathers did in the aftermath of the spies. They made the mahn the object of their complaining: “All we have to eat is this insubstantial bread!” HaShem sent fiery serpents against the nation, and many people perished from their bite (the meforshim explain why this was a fitting punishment for the people). The nation came to Moshe Rabbeinu asking what they could do to remove the terrible decree. Whereupon Moshe, after consultation with HaShem, constructed a serpent of copper and placed it on a pole; and when a serpent then bit someone, the bit person looked intensely at the copper serpent, and lived! (The Gemara explains why and how this worked.)
The Ramban has the following take on the story:
It appears to me that the secret of the matter (why a copper serpent was the agent of healing here) is that it is the ways of the Torah that all acts of a miraculous nature are miracles within miracles… HaShem always removes harm by means of that which causes harm and heals sickness by means of that which sickens… As we find that Moshe Rabbeinu sweetened the waters at Marah through a poisonous or bitter tree thrown into the water… Now, it is known in the practice of medicine that those who have been bitten by poisonous animals are actually endangered by subsequently seeing the animals themselves or their images… This is written up in medical books… this is a medical reality. Doctors, and everyone, try to avoid having the patient even contemplate the animal at all… And the doctors have long experimented with one who is bitten by a rabid dog…
The Ramban then mentions various experimentations, leading up to the conclusion that
This is amongst the amazing forces of the psyche [apparently that the animal which has bitten him will kill him]. Given all this, it would have been appropriate that Jews who had been bitten by a serpent not see a serpent, nor remember it nor think about it… Instead, HaShem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to make for them the image of a serpent which, according to the natural order, should kill them if they look at it… The overall idea is that HaShem commanded that they should be cured through the harmful animal itself… so they made its physical likeness and made it in a way reminiscent of its name; and when the afflicted person stared intently at the copper serpent which looked completely like the harmful animal, he/she would live! This was meant to teach them that it is HaShem, and only HaShem, who brings death and gives life.
What seems clear from Ramban is that when HaShem performs a nes, a miracle, He “intensifies” the nes by making it even more miraculous that it “had” to be, in order to make even more clear that HaShem is the only G-d, Who controls all.
Strange then, that we find in Parshas Noach a diametrically opposite idea. In Bereishis (6:19), Ramban states, “And Noach was told to make the ark large, to minimize the miracle, as it were; because that is the pattern of all nissim in the Torah or in Nach, to have the person do as much as is possible, and to then have HaShem miraculously ‘do the rest.’ ”
And again (ibid 10:1) Ramban says, in explanation of why Noach’s children did not have their own children until after the Flood, “And the reason we find that ‘And they begat children after the flood,’ even though they were certainly capable and worthy of having children beforehand, was that this was HaShem’s doing in order to minimize the miracle of the saving of Noach and his family from the Flood.”
Why then, in our case of the copper serpent, does Ramban say that, on the contrary, there was a specific effort to maximize the miracle — a nes within a nes?
The answer is found in Devarim (20:8) where Ramban explains the necessity for preparing for war by arranging the regular “normal” preparations:
The Torah issues commands to comply and be in consonance with the natural order and performs concealed miracles for those who fear Him, for it is not His desire to change the natural functioning of the world, except when there is no other method of rescue possible, or sometimes to make His name known to His enemies, as happened at the splitting of the Yam Suf and similar events.
And so we now have two kinds of nissim. One in which the purpose is the salvation arising from the nes; if there is no apparent derech hateva way to effect the salvation, HaShem will do it with a nes. In that case, though, HaShem will minimize the nes, so as to change the natural order as little as possible. But then there are nissim whose purpose is to publicize the power, the might, the very existence of HaShem; those nissim are done with a maximum of publicity and in the most miraculous way possible, including a nes within a nes, all to actually advertise HaShem’s omnipotence.
The miracle in the time of Noach was for the purpose of saving him and ultimately re-populating the world. Thus, the less “miraculous” the nes, the better. The copper serpent, apparently, was a nes of the krias Yam Suf variety, to show that HaShem is the one who “brings death and gives life.” Thus, it happened as a nes within a nes.
To be continued…