By Rav David Silverberg
The Torah in Parashat Chukat tells of the time when God punished Benei Yisrael for their complaints by unleashing poisonous snakes which bit and killed many members of the nation (21:6). In response to Moshe’s prayers, God instructed him to make an image of a “saraf” (a kind of serpent) that snakebite victims would look at and be miraculously cured. The Torah tells that Moshe made an image of a nachash (snake), and the people were then healed when they looked upon the image.
Many commentators addressed the question of why God instructed Moshe to make an image of a “saraf” instead of that of a “nachash,” given that it was “nechashim” (“snakes”) that were killing the people at the time. And, once God did instruct Moshe to make a “saraf,” why did Moshe make a “nachash” instead?
Rabbenu Efrayim, a disciple of Rabbenu Tam, suggested that God chose against mentioning the word “nachash” to Moshe in order to preserve his honor. Many years earlier, right when he was chosen as leader of Benei Yisrael, Moshe made two mistakes for which he was punished with a snake. At the burning bush, when he initially refused to accept the mantle of leadership assigned to him, God momentarily transformed his staff into a snake (Shemot 4:3), and then he was later nearly killed by a snake after failing to circumcise his son (Shemot 4:24-25; see Rashi). God therefore decided to avoid using the word “nachash” in order not to remind Moshe of his past failings. In Rabbenu Efrayim’s words, God changed the word “bishvil kevodo” – for Moshe’s honor. Rabbenu Efrayim explains that Moshe understood this, and realized that God had actually intended that he make a “nachash,” and he acted accordingly.
This creative explanation reminds us that people deserve the right to have their past misdeeds forgotten. Certainly, the sinner himself should keep his past mistakes in his memory in order that he remain humble and ensure not to repeat them. Indeed, Halakha requires confessing each year on Yom Kippur even those transgressions which we had confessed the previous Yom Kippur (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 2:8). This is inferred from King David’s proclamation after his sin with Batsheva, “chatati negdi tamid” – “my sin is in front of me, always” (Tehillim 51:5). Others, however, must allow his wrongdoing to be buried in the past, and even avoid making subtle allusions that might cause him embarrassment and shame for his mistakes. We are to show genuine respect and admiration for people despite the mistakes of their past, recognizing that as human beings, we are all flawed and prone to failure. Just as God, according to Rabbenu Efrayim, went to great lengths to protect Moshe’s honor by avoiding making even the subtlest allusion to his past mistakes, so must we be willing to forget people’s past wrongs, keep them in the past, and give people the honor they rightfully deserve for all the good that they’ve done.
Originally posted on VBM