LET’S STUDY ONKELOS
A Guide for Rabbis, Teachers and Torah Students to Study and Teach the Parashat Hashavua through the Eyes of its Most Important Translator
By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin
Based on the five-volume, Onkelos on the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), Understanding the Bible Text, by Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner, published by Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem/New York, 2006–2010.
STUDY GUIDE CHUKAT (CHAPTER 19:1–22:1) SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION
The law of the “red heifer,” whose ashes were mixed with fresh water and used for the purification of anyone who came in contact with a corpse, is described; Miriam dies; the Israelites experience a water shortage and complain to Moses; God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water would gush forth; Moses strikes the rock; God tells him that, as a consequence, he will not be permitted to bring the nation into the Promised Land; the Edomites reject Moses’ request to allow the Israelites to pass through their territory; Moses transfers Aaron’s spiritual leadership to Aaron’s son, Eleazar, then Aaron dies; the Israelites complain again to Moses and are punished through poisonous snakes; the people are punished with a plague that stops when Moses places a pole with a copper snake on it before the people; Moses requests Sichon, king of the Amorites, to allow the Israelites to cross their border. He refuses and the Israelites vanquish the Amorites in battle and settle in their territory; the Israelites also defeat Og, king of Bashan, and take possession of his land.
SYMBOLS IN SCRIPTURE AND THE TARGUM
Every culture, ancient and modern, is permeated by symbols, which often convey meanings that are difficult to articulate in words. To cite a number of biblical examples, we suggest reflecting on the symbolic understanding of “the tree of good and evil” and “the tree of life” in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9); the “(rain)bow in the clouds” as a “sign of
the covenant” (Genesis 9:13); the covenant “between the pieces” (Genesis 15:7-21); the “bush (Moses beheld) that was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2); the “ot (sign) upon your hand,” “totaphot between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 9:8), and mezuzot (verse 9). We can also spend time exploring the symbolic meaning of the Tabernacle and its appurtenances, such as the menorah, altars, and sacrifices.
In our parashah, we have two extraordinary symbols, the laws pertaining to the “red heifer” (chapter 19), which has mystified great Jewish thinkers, and the symbol of the fiery snake that Moses commanded the people to forge and mount on a pole so that those who were bitten by the snakes that God incited against the people for grumbling “would see it and live” (Numbers 21:8 pages 192 and 193).1 “Moses made a snake of copper and mounted it on a pole. When a man who was bitten by the serpent looked at the copper snake he lived” (Numbers 21:9).
Let us focus on the snake as a symbol. The following may help us understand this curious episode in a better fashion. First, note that the cause of the event was occasioned by the “grumbling” of the people before the Lord and “quarreling” with Moses, terms used by the targumist (21:5 and 7). Onkelos was clarifying the biblical words “spoke against” used for both the Lord and Moses,” as noted in our commentary (page 193):
The Targums respectfully portray the people treating God, the deity, and Moses, a human, differently, as in Genesis 50:20, Exodus 14:31, 20:16, 23:11, and Numbers 21:7 and 32:22. Thus, while the Israelites only “grumble,” “think,” or “speak” about God’s commands, they more disrespectfully “quarrel” (the term is a targumic addition and is not in the Bible) with Moses, as stated in 20:3. It is interesting to note that while Onkelos makes a distinction between the remonstration of the Israelites against God and Moses by adding a different verb describing their behavior, Tanchuma, in pure midrashic fashion, stresses the “equality” of God and Moses.
God incites fiery snakes (also translated “serpents”) to punish the Israelites. Why snakes? Our commentary (page 193, continuing on page 192) elaborates:
The Targums’ “incite” is more precise than Scripture’s “send.” This change appears in Leviticus 26:22, 25, 33, and Deuteronomy 7:20, 28:48, and 32:24.
This (fiery) is the name of a species of snakes (ibn Ezra). They were so called because they “burn” a person with their poison (Rashi). The definite article “the” introducing the word “hanechashim” identifies these snakes as the ones that attempted to attack the Israelites during their wilderness journey but were “burned” by the cloud of glory hovering over the Israelite camp because of Aaron’s merit. These clouds disappeared after Aaron died, and God now incited snakes against the Israelites (Chazkunee, based on Tanchuma; see commentary on verse 20:29). Why did God select serpents to punish the rebellious Israelites? Pseudo-Jonathan explains that the serpent was a symbol of an improved level of behavior the Israelites should have emulated.
1 All page numbers refer to the Drazin-Wagner Onkelos on the Torah volumes.
Although after inciting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit it was compelled to eat dust, yet unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, it did not complain. Rashi, based on Tanchuma, offers two other reasons: the snake was punished in the Garden of Eden for evil talk and, therefore, was sent to punish the Israelites for their malicious murmurings; the snake, for whom all food tastes alike, was sent to punish the ungrateful Israelites who had manna that miraculously had many tastes.
As to the pole upon which the image of the serpent was placed to which the Israelites were instructed to gaze in order to live, our commentary is instructive (page 192):
Frequently, “neis” means “sign,” but in rabbinic literature, it came to be used for “miracle,” probably because it was seen as a “sign” of God’s involvement in the cosmic drama. Rashi cites its usage as “pole” in Isaiah 30:17, 49:22, and 13:2, but it is also used in this fashion in many other verses. Maharam likens the command to put the emblem on a pole to the father who, after disciplining his son with a rod, places the rod in a high place where the son can see it so that he will refrain from misbehaving in the future.
Rashi notes that two different words are used in Scripture to describe the act that would cure those who were bitten by a snake. Here, the word is “ra’ah,” “sees,” while in verse 9, it is “hibit,” “looked.” Onkelos also translates the Hebrew words differently, “yichzei” and “mistakeil,” respectively. The simple meaning is that the two synonyms are saying the same thing. However, Rashi preferred to see a midrashic lesson in the difference. He states that “seeing” the emblem alone would not cure the one bitten immediately; a stricken person must “look” intentionally with an attempt to understand the symbolic meaning of the emblem. This didactic interpretation is contained in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29a, which states that the curative effectiveness of the emblem rested on the stricken Israelite looking up to heaven and making his heart subservient to God. Ibn Ezra is similar when he criticizes people who suppose that the emblem was a magical item that could attract the curative heavenly powers. Ibn Ezra also states that no one should attempt to search for a reason why God chose a snake to be the emblem since the Torah itself offers no reason. Nevertheless, Nachmanides gave a reason. He, like Rashi, enjoyed midrashic interpretations, and he insisted that the basic teaching of the Torah is that God is performing miracles daily; for example, each blade of grass grows only because of God making that blade grow. Thus, he states that this is a miracle within a miracle: that which generally kills (a poisonous snake) here cures.
Finally, we provide some very interesting background material on this symbol in our appendix (page 404):
The copper snake upon a pole that healed the people who were bitten by poisonous snakes became the symbol of physicians and remains so to the present day. It is called a caduceus. The copper snake was meant to be a symbol for the people to avoid evil and beware of human failure. Pseudo-Jonathan emphasizes that merely looking at the snake was insufficient because the copper snake was not a magical artifice; the onlooker had to decide to change his behavior or he would not be healed.
Yet, human nature being what it is, the people began to ascribe magical, perhaps even divine attributes to the inanimate symbolic snake. About five hundred years later, II Kings 18:4 records that the people still adored and worshipped the reptile rod; and although it had lasted five centuries, King Hezekiah saw that it was necessary to destroy it. Archeologists discovered amulets with snake figures in Canaan. The understanding that the snake protected against illness or was somehow divine existed in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Evidence was found that the Egyptian Pharaoh had an ornamental cobra affixed to this crown to protect him.
ADDITIONAL DISCUSSIONS ON ONKELOS
A simple question may be posed. If God wanted to heal those who were bitten by the snakes, why was it necessary to resort to the symbolism of the snake on a pole to which the Israelites were required to look in order to be healed? Some of the responses found in our commentary explain the rationale and they point to the value of symbolism to provoke thought and convey ideals, standards of proper behavior, in a fashion that will impact to a much greater extent than words.
Another example are the tephilin, placed each and every day, except for the Sabbath and holidays, on the head and on the arm next to the heart to encourage intellectual and emotional commitment to Torah in a more dramatic fashion than simply issuing commands or mandates.
The targumist, as you can see, does not explain at all the purpose or meaning of symbols. He translates and clarifies biblical words and texts, but he does not speculate on their deeper meaning or purpose. Yet, the Targum accomplishes something important. No commentary or Midrash provides the full range of possibilities for understanding Scripture. Each offers a “part of the whole.” Understanding the Torah’s literal meaning is preliminary and paves the way for exegetical interpretations. This is why we believe that the talmudic sages, Maimonides, Shulchan Arukh, and other codes of law required the weekly reading of the Targum rather than commentaries or Midrashim. They were establishing “priorities” for us. Do you agree?
If we reflect carefully about symbols, we may come to the conclusion that all ritual acts enshrine symbolic meanings, whether it is the requirement to eat kosher foods (the need for self-discipline); the Sabbath (a remembrance of creation and the exodus from Egypt, and all the lessons that each entails); the celebration and observance of every holy day in the Jewish calendar year and the extraordinary symbolism of the shofar, the sukkah, matzah, among the many objects whose usage carry significant lessons. If one suggests a ritual that has no symbolic meaning, chances are that the individual did not search deep enough.
But symbols also have a negative side. The problem arises when people attribute magical or mystical or superstitious powers to symbols. To wear a Star of David or a mezuzah as “protection” against mishap, or to perform a rite because it may bring you “good luck,” or to light candles on Friday night and expect that it will bring peace, tranquility, and harmony in your household, without effort on your part, are not acceptable uses of symbols. That is not what Jewish symbolism is all about, regardless of what may be taught in some circles of the Jewish people. Do you agree? Discuss your view and bring your own examples.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. See 20:1 and commentary, “THE ISRAELITES” (page 181). The targumist avoids the anthropomorphic metaphor “(God’s) kiss of death.”
2. See 21:5 and commentaries, “MANNA” and “EASY TO DIGEST” (page 193). An unusual biblical and targumic description of the manna.
3. See 21:27-30 and all commentaries (page 199, continuing on page 198). The targumist clarifies difficult parabolic language.