Chukat: Dealing With Resentment

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There are times when we are offended by the words or actions of others. We don’t seek revenge, and when asked, we even forgive. But the bitter grudge remains. How can we free our hearts of those negative impulses?

What is Unique About the Story of the Snake?

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that “Moses prayed for the people,” and Rashi comments, “This teaches us that when someone is asked for forgiveness, he should not be so cruel as to refuse.”

This raises a question: In previous Torah portions, we read about several incidents where the Israelites disrespected Moses, and he nevertheless prayed for them and tended to their needs. What is unique about this story that caused Rashi to say, “this teaches us” a new, novel concept: that we should not be so cruel as to refuse forgiveness when requested? We saw Moses act similarly on several occasions before!

This question is bolstered upon reading the source of Rashi’s commentary, in Midrash Tanchuma. The Midrash adds, “Similarly, the verse states: Abraham prayed to G-d, and G-d healed Abimelech and his wife.” Abraham behaved the same way, choosing to forgive as soon as he was asked. Why does Rashi maintain that specifically this story of Moses teaches us this lesson?

Furthermore: The story of Abraham is a better choice for two reasons: a) The kidnapping of Sarah by Abimelech is a greater offense than the gossip spoken against Moses, and nevertheless, Abraham forgave him. b) When Abraham prayed for Abimelech, G-d healed him without any preconditions, but when Moses prayed for the people, there was a process – the bitten person needed to first look at the copper snake.

Why Did He Need to Pay for It?

To explain Rashi’s choice, we need to make the following preface:

In the next verse, G-d tells Moses, “Make yourself a snake…” Why was it important that he make it himself?

The student will remember that earlier in the Torah, when G-d commanded Moses to “make yourself” two silver trumpets, Rashi explained that Moses was commanded to make them with his own resources. Accordingly, when Moses is commanded here to “make yourself” a copper snake, he is to do so with his own resources.

This is perplexing. Moses provided the resources for the trumpets because they were for his own use—to be trumpeted before him as a king. Rashi also writes, “You make them and use them, but no one else.” But why should Moses provide the resources for the copper snake? On the contrary: If its purpose is to heal the people who offended Moses, it should be funded by the community! Why must Moses provide the funding?

How Not to Bear a Grudge

The explanation is as follows:

The very concept of forgiveness—to forgive those who offend you—is not a novel idea of this Torah portion. We learned that from Abraham and Abimelech: After Abimelech begged his forgiveness, Abraham acquiesced and prayed for him. 

The unique factor in our Torah portion is how Moses forgave them. There can be instances where you claim to forgive the offending individual and you are even willing to do favors for him (such as pray for him etc.). However, you still retain a grudge.

The sages of the Talmud famously praise those who “are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond.” However, even if you do not respond to the offence, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of retaining a grudge—while ensuring that it isn’t expressed in any way. 

However, that is a cruel form of forgiveness. You don’t plan on taking revenge, G-d forbid, and you are even prepared to pray for the good of the offender. If so, you may as well erase all grudges from your heart! Instead of hiding your grudge, just get rid of it! Refusing to let go is a form of cruelty. 

This is the lesson of this week’s Torah portion: when you are asked for forgiveness, don’t be so cruel as to refuse. G-d commanded Moses to fashion a copper snake with his own resources to teach us the importance of scrubbing our hearts clean of all grudges. G-d said that Moses should pay for the copper snake to heal those who offended him—to demonstrate that he bore no grudge against the People of Israel. 

Shabbat Chukas 1984
(Toras Menachem vol. 3 pg. 2090)

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