The great tzaddik, Chacham Eliyahu haKohen haItamari of Izmir (d. 1729), was a famed Kabbalist and dayan who authored more than thirty sefarim, including Sefer Shevet Mussar and Me’il Tzedaka, translated into Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino.

One afternoon, while preparing for davening, the righteous Chacham Eliyahu was unable to find his gartel. While looking around, he noticed a black rope on the floor. With the time of tefillah having arrived, he knelt down, picked up the rope, and tied it around his waist.

After finishing Minchah, Chacham Eliyahu began to untie the rope, when it suddenly uncoiled itself and slithered away. It turned out that the “rope” he had worn was actually a poisonous snake. To express his thanks for this miracle, Chacham Eliyahu entitled his next sefer Eizer Eliyahu, “The Helper of Eliyahu.”

When the author of Imros Taharos, Rebbe Moshe of Kobrin, zt’l, would recount this ma’aseh, he would add the following thought: “Don’t be mistaken as to what is wondrous about this story. That the snake did not bite Chacham Eliyahu and remained still is not surprising, for the Torah tells us, ‘The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth’ (Bereishis 9:2) … No living creature can harm someone whose Tzelem Elokim, Divine image, is fully manifest.

“The truly extraordinary aspect of this story is Chacham Eliyahu’s greatness. In his deveykus to Hashem and incredible kavanah, even before he began davening, he didn’t even notice that the ‘rope’ he was picking up was actually a live snake.”

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Our sidrah describes the irrational claims Klal Yisrael made against Moshe and Hashem in the desert, claiming there was no food to eat, or water to drink. The result was one of the most curious and frightening scenes in Torah:

“Hashem sent nechashim serafim, venomous snakes, upon the people; they bit the people, and many died” (21:6). When the Jews cried out in teshuvah, Hashem instructed Moshe to provide the cure: “Make yourself a seraf, venomous snake, and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live” (v8). Then Moshe fashioned a copper snake and affixed it atop a pole for Klal Yisrael to gaze upon, to be healed, and to live.

Why, specifically, is a snake used as punishment? And why is a snake then used as a cure? Reb Nosson of Breslov, zt’l, explains that all resistance to holiness, all spiritual “failure,” can be traced to the Nachash haKadmoni, the Primordial Snake in Gan Eden.

By following the eitzah, the advice and lure, of the Nachash haKadmoni, and by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Chavah ingested a “forbidden” sense of separation from Hashem. With this primordial cheit, they welcomed and internalized the influence of the Nachash into the inner world of all human beings. The venom of the Nachash is the yetzer ha’ra, the gravitational pull away from G-d and away from our true selves. It is expressed as the poisonous inner voice that tells us how “far away” we are from Hashem: how lowly we are, how we are defined by our failures, that we have no hope to rectify that which we have damaged. As this spiritual syndrome deepens, one begins to criticize himself and everyone around him, driving him ever deeper into fear, darkness, and sadness, and ultimately to sickness and death: “…The day that you eat of it you will surely die” (Bereishis 2:17).

Rav Ofir Erez, a Breslover mashpiah in Yerushalayim, refers to this inner voice as “The Torah of the Snake.” When we recite and elaborate on this false “Torah,” we share in the curse of the Nachash: “M’afar tochal”—you will eat from the dust. You will “eat” and fill yourself with low self-confidence, feelings of baseness and worthlessness, and degraded behavior patterns.

The antidote and tikun of “The Torah of the Snake” is “The Torah of the Tzaddik,” and the template of every tzaddik and master of their yetzer ha’ra is Moshe Rabbeinu. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) gives us a glimpse into this antidote:

“‘When Mohe held up his hands, Israel prevailed’ (Sh’mos 17:1). Did the hands of Moshe wage war? Rather this teaches that as long as Israel would look upwards and subject their hearts to their Father in Heaven they prevailed, and if not, they fell. Similarly, ‘Make for yourself a fiery serpent and mount it on a pole. And if anyone who is bitten shall look at it, he shall live’ (21:8). Did the nachash kill or keep them alive? Rather, when Yisrael would look upwards, u’mshabdin libam l’Avihem shebaShamayim, and subject their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed…”

After so many miracles and countless expressions of Hashem’s love and grace, our unwarranted complaints were a classic example of the yetzer ha’ra, the voice of the Nachash haKadmoni, advising us: “We are disgusted with this rotten bread” (21:6), “We do not have water to drink.” The root of this kefirah, heresy, was that we considered ourselves undeserving of Hashem’s kindness, unworthy of being provided for.

Being struck by fiery serpents, and then raising our eyes Heavenward to gaze upon the snake that Moshe made, reminded us of what lies beneath the surface of every moment of our lives. That is, the bechirah, choice, between tov v’ra, good and evil —what is right and what is wrong, between the refreshment of the yetzer tov, and the venom of the yetzer hara.

Perhaps all of this explains the miracle of Chacham Eliyahu’s “gartel.” As the Mishnah taught, the nachash in itself neither kills nor heals. However, when we believe we are separate from Hashem and look down on ourselves, we internalize the deadly “venom” of the yetzer hara. And when, like Chacham Eliyahu, we gaze upwards, u’mshabdin libam l’Avihem shebaShamayim, and subject our hearts to our Father in Heaven, we gain mastery over our yetzer hara, and are healed.

May we merit to attach ourselves to the true tzaddikim, internalize their words of Torah, and cultivate deep deveykus and kavannah in our lives. The word Mashiach has the same numerical value as Nachash, demonstrating that our redeemer, the tzaddik of all tzaddikim, will provide humanity the ultimate cure of the primordial snake bite. May it be so, soon and in our days. n

Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi, and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife, Ora, and their family.

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