The Jewish people’s desert trek was a forerunner and metaphor of the existential state of exile, which is followed by the redemption and entry into the Promised Land. The Torah here describes the stages through which both the people as a whole can descend into their collective exile and we as individuals can descend into our own personal exiles:

...the truth is that nothing can really oppose holiness.

The first error lies in overestimating the power of the secular, mundane world and underestimating the power of holiness. True, the Divine soul, the observant Jewish community, and the Jewish people in general often seem to be at a disadvantage in every way, but the truth is that nothing can really oppose holiness. Deluding ourselves into thinking that anything can is the first psychological descent into the mentality of exile.

Exaggerating the power of the unrectified world leads us to granting it dominion over the "religious" aspects of life as well. We become so afraid of the world’s power—we consider the desert so awesome—that we are scared to appear too religious, even in private.

This leads us to replace our natural religious fervor with enthusiasm for worldly pursuits. This is symbolized by the snake, whose venom is hot. Eventually, our enthusiasm for worldly things will consume our religious fervor altogether; this is symbolized by the burning sting of the serpent.

...devotion to worldly pursuits leaves us jaded...

But sooner or later, devotion to worldly pursuits leaves us jaded and our enthusiasm for them spent. This leaves us cold and deadened to any kind of stimulation, just as the scorpion’s venom is cold.

When G‑d tries to arouse us from this state with a thirst for true life, we will not be able to recognize what we are thirsting for. We will "thirst" but remain "parched."

The way to avoid all of this, then, is not to begin this process altogether, by making the mistake of overestimating the weight of the world around us. By fostering our awareness of the power of holiness within us, we can avoid the pitfalls of exile and live up to our true destiny.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 2, pp. 372-375
© 2001 Chabad of California/