The greatest fault of our people is that we are stiff-necked. The greatest asset of our people is that we are stiff-necked!
There was a plague in the desert which was caused by the complaining and bickering of the Jewish people. They were kvetching about the food, the heat, and the constant moving that had to be done.
After everything Hashem did for the Jewish people, all this complaining made G-d angry. So he sent them a plague of poisonous snakes.
Can you imagine the horror? Every step they took, they had to make sure there was no snake in the sand. They went to sleep in fear, not knowing if they would get bitten in the middle of the night. If some precious water was left out, they couldn’t drink it — maybe a snake had injected some venom into the water. Many became sick, many died.
Moshe prayed to Hashem. Hashem instructed Moshe to make a nachash nechoshes, a copper snake, and put it on a flag pole. It sounds like a play on words! “Nachash” means snake, and “nechoshes” means copper. Everyone would look up at the copper snake and would be saved.
Incidentally, a modern version of this symbol is the caduceus (kerykeion in Greek), which is a staff with two snakes wrapped around it. This is a medical symbol associated with the Greek god Hermes. Of course its real origin is in our Parsha! But what was the meaning of the copper snake?
Copper and snake are actually opposites. Copper is the hardest and most inflexible material to be found in the desert. Copper is a symbol of inflexibility. The snake on the other hand has an extremely flexible backbone! A snake can curl into a little ball and is the ultimate in flexibility.
The Jewish people had a problem. Freedom was something new to them. Although it was a dramatic change for the better, it was still a change, and the Jewish people were having a difficult time dealing with it. Any change, even a change for the better was a problem!
The greatest asset of our people is that we are stiff-necked, and in our stubbornness we don’t welcome change. It is because of this stubbornness that we have been able to survive more challenges than any other nation on earth. Yet, paradoxically, inflexibility is also the greatest fault of our people. We are a stiffed-neck people!
If we are going to make it through the deserts of life and history we have to be stiff-necked. At the same time, we have to be flexible. Golus is not for those that get stuck. If we want to be free from Golus we can’t allow ourselves to get stuck! The Geula is not for those that get stuck.
I often look around me and see people that are amazingly talented and gifted, and yet don’t seem to be getting anywhere! None of their dreams seem to be realized. Most of them have the potential to do very great things, but for whatever reason, they cannot. They are stuck, and it’s frightening to see.
On the other hand, if we were not so stubborn, we would be a forgotten species. It was our stiff neck that made us resist missionaries, persecution and torture throughout the ages, to survive as Jews.
Hashem said to Moshe: Teach the people the secret of the nachash nechoshes! Teach them to have the firmness of copper, while maintaining the flexibility of a snake. Teach them the secret of survival as a Jew.
Dedicated by my close friends, Dr. Murray and Phylis Kuhr in memory of Sylvia Kuhr, Shaina Masha bas Chaim Shmuel. May her neshama have an aliya.
By Rabbi Yaacov Haber
My New Book