Chulin 7: The Idolatrous Snake

By: rabbi jay kelman |

Over and over again the Torah warns us not to allow avodah zara, idolatry, in the Land of Israel. Yet, as is often the case, things are not always quite so simple and at times there can be other considerations that outweigh a seemingly clear Torah command.

As we discussed in our last post the nachash hanechoshet, the copper snake, that had saved many lives in the desert, eventually became an object of (idol) worship. Yet Asa and Yehoshaphat, two righteous kings, decided not to destroy it, leaving the task to Chizkiyahu thereby fulfilling the mandate that “place was left by the fathers for [the children] to attain greatness” (Chulin 7a). Yet, considering the abhorrence with which the Torah views idolatry, could they not have left some other area for Chizkiyahu to attain greatness?

Despite, or perhaps because of, the distance that we must keep from idolatry, we can take note of the “positive” aspects of idolatry and acknowledge that ridding ourselves of idolatry may come at a heavy cost.

Avodah zara as its name indicates, is avodah, worship of G-d that is zara, foreign. It is divine worship, even if it is incorrect divine worship. As the Rambam notes (Hilchot Avodah Zara, Chapter 1), idolatry began as an honest mistake by those who, with pure and noble motives, desired to worship the Creator. Unfortunately, over time worshipping an abstract G-d became too difficult for most and their worship became zara, foreign, and hence forbidden.

The avodah zara of the Biblical period was so enticing that idolatry was a common feature of Jewish life. It was the rare king and rare generation that even tried to uproot avodah zara, and it was only the generation of Chizkiyahu that succeeded in ridding the nation of idolatry.

In an illuminating analysis Rav Yonatan Eibeschitz[1] explains that it is due to his success that it was left to Chizkiyhahu to destroy the copper serpent. Despite the fact that it had become an idol, Asa and Yehoshaphat did not want to destroy it, because destroying it would come at a heavy cost. 

While it is true that people worshiped the snake, the snake also served as a reminder of the evil and dangers of lashon hara. The snake was, initially, the most special of all the animals, and like man gifted with the power of speech. Yet all was lost because the snake spoke lashon hara in the Garden of Eden. From the most blessed of animals it became the most cursed of all the animals, “Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life” (Breisheet 3:14).

So too, Rav Yonatan Eibeschitz notes, those who regularly[2] speak lashon hara will face similar consequences as the snake. While keeping the copper snake intact allowed avodah zara to continue “its benefit is very great as it causes many to refrain from speaking lashon hara, a sin equal to all others”. If destroying avodah zara will increase the amount of lashon hara spoken, better to keep the avodah zara.

However, during the time of Chizkiyahu—arguably the most righteous of kings—“they searched from Dan to Beersheba, [i.e. the length and breadth of the land] and did not find an ignoramus. They searched from Gevat to Antipatris and did not find a male child, or a female child, or a man, or a woman who was not expert [even] in the laws of ritual purity and impurity” (Sanhedrin 94b). In such an environment there was very little lashon hara spoken and hence little need for the nachash hanechoshet and hence Chizkiyahu could safely destroy it.

But alas, Chizkiyahu’s revolution was a one-generation anomaly. His son Menashe, who ruled for 55 long years—a reign longer than any other—was perhaps the worst of all kings in Israel (and there were some pretty bad ones) and idolatry returned with a vengeance.

We might therefore suggest that Chizkiyahu destroyed the copper snake in order to prevent its use in his son’s generation. Through ruach hakodesh, Chizkiyahu saw that he was to have an evil son and decided he would not have children. G-d afflicted him with great pain and only when Yishayahu came to visit him and told him “in these secret matters of the Merciful one, why do you concern yourself?” did he have children (Brachot 10a). Yet correctly fearing the worst, he decided to destroy the copper serpent. In a generation so steeped in idolatry no more could be tolerated even at the possible cost of increased lashon hara. Furthermore, in such a generation perhaps seeing the snake would have had little impact of those who spoke lashon hara.

It takes insightful leadership to know which problems should be the ones to address first.

While idolatry may have begun as an honest mistake, and may have had the benefit of causing people to seek the divine, eventually the harm of avodah zara became so severe that it had to be destroyed. Avodah zara was not only a misguided theological approach to G-d, it was license for moral corruption. With no G-d, or many competing gods, there was no one G-d to Whom one is morally answerable [3].

Thus the Sages prayed that the desire for idolatry be eliminated—and their prayers were answered (Sanhedrin 64a). They did so knowing that there was some downside to ridding the Jewish people of idolatry. Alongside the diminished desire for avodah zara came a diminished desire for true avodah, worship of G-d, something we see all around us. But that was a price they felt had to be paid.

Such a price could not be paid when the rabbis, seeing their success at banning idolatry, attempted to rid the desire for sexual sins. Once again their prayers were accepted but while no one sinned, the hens stopped laying eggs. The continuation of society required the allowance of illicit sexual activity.

Such is the nature of the world. Good can exist only if there is a possibility of evil. It is the spiritual corollary of Newton’s third law of motion, that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The greater the evil, the greater the potential for good. As we cannot, and perhaps should not, eradicate all evil let us learn much from it. 

 

[1] I thank Rabbi Jonathan Ziring for this source. I want to take this opportunity to thank him—something I do not do enough of —for reading, commenting and adding so much to these divrei Torah.

[2] Jewish law distinguishes between the act of speaking lashon hara, something our Sages understood everyone does (Bava Batra 165a), and “ba’alei lashon hara”, masters of gossip. It is this latter sin, where one habitually speaks lashon hara, that is equal to all others.

[3] Much later this became the basis of the Meiri redefining idolatry primarily as a moral, and not a theological sin.