“How to Market G-d!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week we read the double parashiot, Chukat-Balak. In the first of this week’s parashiot, parashat Chukat, the Israelites, who are soon to complete 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, are rebellious once again. The Israelites are upset by the fact that their beloved High Priest, Aharon, has just passed away at Mt. Hor. Additionally, the nation has recently been instructed to take a roundabout detour from the land of Edom. Despite the fact that the Edomites showed a great lack of appreciation by not allowing the people of Israel to cross through their land, G-d has forbidden Israel to attack the Edomites.

The Israelites fear that, since they are now being told to travel in a direction away from the Promised Land, they, like their ancestors, will be denied entry into Eretz Yisrael, and will also die in the wilderness. The rigors of so many years of travel has taken its toll on the people, and they begin to complain without justification, once again provoking G-d’s anger. The people speak against G-d and and Moses, saying (Numbers 21:5): “V’lamah heh’eh’lee’tah’nu mee’Mitz’rayim, lah’mut bah’midbar, kee ain lechem v’ain mayim, v’naf’shay’nu katza bah’lechem hak’lokel,” Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and we can no longer tolerate this insubstantial food?”

The medieval commentator Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) argues that the people’s complaint concerned the manna and the miraculous well water that had followed the nation in the wilderness. The people argued that these “heavenly” foods might be appropriate for the wilderness but are surely inappropriate for the heavy agricultural work they would encounter once they entered the land of Israel.

G-d perceives this outburst as another in a long litany of rebellious acts and an arrogant display of lack of faith on the part of the people regarding G-d’s ability to properly provide for them. The Al-mighty sends fiery serpents to attack the rebellious hordes, and a large number die. When the Israelites come running to Moses begging for forgiveness, Moses prays. In response, G-d instructs Moses to build a fiery serpent and place it on a tall pole so that those who are bitten will look at the serpent and live. Moses proceeds to make a copper serpent, places it on the pole, and all those who look at the serpent live.

The rabbis of the Talmud, in Tractate Rosh Hashana 29a, ask with regards to both this case of the fiery serpent, and a similar incident at the end of Exodus 17 where Moses’s hands are held aloft during the battle with the Amalekite nation, “Does a copper serpent cause death or life? Do the hands of Moses win battles or lose battles?” In effect, the rabbis are troubled by these unusual actions that seem truly out of character with Judaism, implying that these supernatural rituals smack of magic and Voodoo!

The rabbis respond that it was not so much the serpent or the hands of Moses that heal or prevail in battle, but rather the fact that the serpents and the hands of Moses caused the Israelites to look upwards, resulting in the people subjecting their hearts to their Father in Heaven. It was not the serpent or the hands at all, but rather the faith of the people in G-d that healed the Israelites from the serpents and allowed Israel to prevail in the battle with Amalek.

If that’s the case, why was it necessary to resort to copper serpents and to utilize the hands of Moses in order to direct the people to focus on G-d?

Actually, this question is quite germane today since we face very much the same problem. With all the distractions and the pervasive blandishments of America–obsession with career, wealth, pleasure and entertainment, how and where does G-d fit in? How do we market G-d? How do we get the attention of our “clients” and get them to at least give G-d a chance? Surely, it’s not the serpent or the hands of Moses that are the determining factors! They are but a means to a very important end–a way of persuading the people to look up towards heaven, to focus on G-d. But if the serpent and the hands themselves become the central focus, then we have failed abysmally in our mission.

Many persuasive and resourceful methods are being used today by outreach organizations to attract alienated and marginal Jews to Judaism: Bible codes that presume to prove the Divine authorship of the Torah, Kabbalah and mysticism, and focus on the imminent arrival of Moshiach (Messiah). If these methods are properly utilized to attract unaffiliated Jews, they are a blessing. If these methods become an end in-and-of themselves, then they become a veritable idolatry and will ultimately prove destructive.

We need to keep in mind the words of the Psalmist 19:8, “Torat Hashem t’mee’ma,” the purity of G-d’s Torah is really the essential element of Judaism. We must not get distracted by the marketing gimmicks, which are only ephemeral, and forget that G-d’s words are the essence. Too often we fail to realize that Torah can sell itself–-just studying one or two remarkable verses of the Torah text can result in a significant spiritual epiphany.

Especially with the arrival of summer, with more leisure time for vacations and pleasure, we need to more fully embrace Torah, to make certain that our own portable Torah scroll accompanies us through our summer activities, to make certain that we do not find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness, subject to the venal attacks of serpents who seek to seduce us away from G-d.

May you be blessed.