And Moses made a serpent of copper and placed it on a pole. And it happened that if the serpent bit a man, he would look at the serpent of copper and live. (Num. 21:9)

Note: As a punishment for complaining against G‑d and Moses, the Israelites were punished by an attack of fiery serpents. Many Israelites died. The survivors came to Moses and asked him to pray for them, which he did. G‑d then told him to make a fiery serpent and place it on a pole and that anyone who was bitten could look at it and be healed. And so it was.

The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 29a) comments on this event: "When the people of Israel gazed heavenward, subjugating their hearts to their Father in Heaven [then they were healed; if not, they died. In other words, the Israelites were not healed by gazing upon the serpent; they were healed by gazing heavenward toward their Father in heaven. In the words of the Mishna: "Does a serpent cause death or life?"] The harlot hopes that the prince will not listen to her, for then she…will be beloved to the king…

What, then, is the need for the serpent at all? The verse should have said "and if the serpent had bitten [a man he should] gaze heavenward?"

Furthermore, what is this concept of gazing upward? In fact we are told the contrary (Yevamot 105b): During prayer "the eyes should be trained downward, and the heart, upward."

Satan Means Well

The explanation of the matter is as follows:

The severe energies of judgment are sweetened at their source. And the source and vitality of all negativity and judgment, Heaven forbid, is goodness, as in the Zohar's metaphor of the harlot and the prince. The harlot hopes that the prince will not listen to her, for then she will derive great pleasure since she will be beloved to the king [who hired her to tempt the prince in the first place, and demonstrate his son's virtue]. But if she does succeed in seducing the prince, the will of the king would not be fulfilled at all.

This is what our sages meant by, "The intentions of Satan and Penina were for the sake of Heaven."

This statement of Rabbi Levi (Bava Batra 16a) refers to Satan's treatment of Job and to Penina's harassment of Hannah, her barren co-wife. When Satan saw that G‑d was partial to Job, he said to himself, "G‑d forbid that He should forget the mercy of Abraham" (i.e. the mercy shown to Israel in the merit of Abraham). He therefore set out to demonstrate Job's imperfection. (Interestingly, the Talmud adds that when one of the sages taught this teaching in the town of Papunia, Satan came and kissed his foot in appreciation.) Similarly, Penina vexed Hannah repeatedly to make her fret over her childlessness; her intention was to motivate Hannah to beseech G‑d for a child (which she ultimately did and bore a son who would become known as Samuel the Prophet. See I Samuel 1:6). The root of evil…is goodness…

The explanation of the matter is that the root of evil - that which gives it life - is goodness. As the Zohar says, "Can there be a servant who rebels against his master?" (See Samuel I 25:10) Now in truth there are many servants who wish to rebel. But this is true only of servants of flesh and blood, whose life-force is distinct from their masters. But in regard to the [celestial] servants of G‑d who receive their life-force from Him - how can such a servant stand in opposition to the very source of his life? To explain this paradox, the Zohar offers the metaphor of the harlot and the prince.

This is what gives life to all evil. Their root above is goodness. Yet when it descends below through the chain of worlds it becomes true and absolute evil, both in worldly and heavenly matters [i.e. physical suffering and spiritual debilitation].

So when a person suffers some misfortune, Heaven forbid, he should not judge by the sight of his eyes and consider it evil. Rather, he should realize that in truth its source is goodness, since from G‑d, nothing evil can emerge, only absolute goodness. But this goodness is not apparent because it does not descend to the lower world and remains above. (See Book of Beinonim chapter 26 and Iggeret Hakodesh chapter 11, Lishaskilcha Bina.)

Similarly, our sages comment (see Bereishit Rabba 9:9; Zohar I:14a) on the words "tov meod", meaning "very good". "Tov" ("good") refers to the Angel of Life; "meod' ("very") refers to the Angel of Death, who is very good in the sense of infinite goodness without limit and boundary. But this goodness is not revealed or grasped on the physical plane -and because of its infinity finds expression in what appears to us as misfortune.

This idea is expressed in the words "Ya-H [the divine name] has stricken me" (Psalms 118:18). This name is the beginning of the Tetragramaton [Y-H-V-H], i.e. the beginning of its revelation. This represents that fact that it has not yet reached a state of revelation and its goodness is not perceptible. [Thus it appears as if I am being stricken with evil by G‑d, when in fact this "evil" only appears so because its source of goodness, Y-H, is not revealed].

This is also the idea of Nachum Ish Gam Zu, who when confronted with apparent calamity, would say "gam zu l'tovah" ("this too is for the good"). (Taanit 21a, et al) He would meditate upon the truth that the root of evil is goodness. He would thereby elevate the event to its root, to the place of nothingness (the concept of "ayin"), and there he was able to effect changes as in the statement of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, "He who tells oil to burn [can tell vinegar to burn]."

[Note …the place of nothingness: the nebulous place of undefined reality. This is related to the level of "circles".]

[Taanit 25a: One Friday evening at twilight, Rabbi Chanina noticed that his daughter was sad. He said to her, "My daughter, why are you said?" She replied, "I mistook a container of vinegar for a container of oil and used it to light the Shabbat light." He said to her, "My daughter, what does it bother you? He who tells oil to burn can tell vinegar to burn." The lamp miraculously continued to burn for all of the Shabbat.]

Soul Descent

Similarly in the matter of the descent of the soul into this world. We know that its primary purpose is to cleave to its Creator with love and awe. This bonding occurs primarily during prayer. The body forces the soul to partake in bodily pleasures…

Now, before its descent into this world and after it leaves the body, the soul certainly experiences this bond in a far more internal way. But while it is in this world, it is impeded by the body. Because of its coarseness, the body forces the soul to partake in bodily pleasures despite the fact that the soul had no desire in this. This is because its source is a part of G‑d, and its desire is to cleave to its Creator in ever greater measure.

This is the idea of the prayer of a soul clothed in a body. Within the body, the soul suffers. Its desire is to cleave to its Creator and the body does not permit it. This is similar to the exile of the Divine Presence, which is forced to give life even to the wicked; so too the soul is forced to give life to the body.

The soul's intention is not for itself but rather to raise the body from the earth. It must refine the body, like silver in the hand of the silversmith. Whatever possesses a greater degree of mixture must be refined and heated by a greater fire. So too the soul must refine the body from the evil inclination and bring it to its source as in the metaphor of the prince and the harlot. When the admixture of evil is abundant, the soul must separate the evil through a large and strong fire of prayer. Each descending generation must pray with greater fire…

That is why there was no need for fiery prayer in the First Temple era, since the level of evil was low. Indeed in the First Temple era, they would not pray at all. (See Megilla 17b) In the Second Temple, however, they began instituting prayer, albeit brief, in accordance with the need for fire and the mixture of evil within them.

We need to pray more and more with great fire. Each descending generation must pray with greater fire. The abundance of negativity that has entered us and which increases with each generation must be separated through a strong fire in prayer. One must refine the evil that is within and bring it to its source. This is achieved by realizing that its life-force comes for the Holy One blessed is He, since without Him it could not exist. It follows that there is essentially no evil at all.

Nachum Ish Gam Zu

Similarly in regard to the sufferings of this world, when one thinks of the above idea, all perpetrators of iniquity are scattered, as occurred with Nachum Ish Gam Zu. Indeed all the tzadikim were like this. The distinction of Nachum Ish Gam Zu was his ability to change manifest reality so that it would appear good in actuality - even in the physical sense. The serpent is not separate from divinity…

He is therefore called "gam zu", meaning "also this", meaning that he was able to bring the goodness to manifest reality; the word "zu", meaning "this", is associated with the "revealed world", "Alma d'itgalya". By contrast, the other tzadikim would be unable to draw the matter down to the manifest level; the goodness would remain unapparent.

This is the idea of the copper serpent, which was to be placed on the pole and raised high so that the people would gaze upward. This was meant to emphasize that the serpent is not separate from divinity. Such an assumption would mean that it is actual evil and that it remains evil.

Rather, the Israelites should see the serpent as it is raised upward to its root and realize that it is not detached from Him, indeed its life-force is from Him. If so, no evil descends from Above. It was therefore made of copper since it changes into many colors through the "nothingness".

[Translated and adapted by Yosef Marcus]