“How to Market G-d!”

(updated and revised from Chukat-Balak 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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, Aaron, has just passed away at Mt. Hor. Additionally, the nation has recently been instructed to take a roundabout detour, rather than take the much shorter route by passing through the land of Edom. Even though 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 them.

The Israelites fear that, since they are now being told to travel in a direction away from the Promised Land, they, like their ancestors, would be denied entry into Eretz Yisrael, and would also perish in the wilderness. The rigors of so many years of travel have 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 Moses saying (Numbers 21:5): לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר, כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל, “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 maintained that the people’s complaint about food and water, was really about the manna and the miraculous well water that had followed the nation in the wilderness. The people argued that these “heavenly” foods, might have been appropriate for the wilderness, but are surely inappropriate for the agricultural environment they would encounter once they enter 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. Consequently, 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, 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’ 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 that these seemingly “supernatural” rituals, which smack of magic and voodoo, appear to be truly out of character with Judaism!

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 does Judaism attract the attention of its “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 toward 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 have been used by outreach organizations to attract alienated and marginally-affiliated 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 not only useless, but destructive.

We need to always keep in mind the immortal words of the Psalmist 19:8, תּוֹרַת השׁם תְּמִימָה, which declare that the purity of G-d’s Torah is really the essential element of Judaism. We must not get distracted by the marketing gimmicks that 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.