“And they traveled from Hor Hahor by way of Yam Suf, to encompass the land of Edom, and the peoples’ patience grew short on the way. And the people spoke regarding God and Moses, ‘Why have you taken us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness; for there is no bread and no water, and our souls loathe this light bread [manna]’. And God sent in the people fiery serpents and they bit the people and there died a large people from Israel. And the people came to Moses and they said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against God and you – pray to God and remove the serpents from us’. And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. And God said to Moses, ‘Make for yourself a poisonous serpent and place it on a staff, and it will be: anyone who is bitten, and will look at it, will be healed’. And Moses made a copper serpent and placed it on a pole: and it was that if a serpent bit a man, and he gazed at the copper serpent, he lived.” (Num. 21:4-9)
After all the miracles in Egypt, the Red Sea, Sinai, and others…and the people still view their situation as hopeless. How is this possible? Two verses offer the answer…
"ורם, לבבך; ושכחת את-יהוה אלהיך, המוציאך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים"
“And your hearts will wax haughty, and you will forget God your God who took you out of the land of Egypt form the house of slaves”. (Deut. 8:14)
"ואמרת, בלבבך: כחי ועצם ידי, עשה לי את-החיל הזה"
“And you will say in your heart, ‘My strength and the power of my hands that has rendered this great wealth’.” (Deut. 8:17)
These verses describe the proud and escapist feelings we can indulge upon our success. “Proud”, since we see the second verse embodies man’s ego, which is relentlessly pushing forward. “Escapist”, since the first verse describes our need to escape God’s commands. The Jews didn’t have a real complaint about the Manna. It was miraculous, and offered the flavor of all they imagined. It created no human waste. However, they wished to be free of the Manna, as we read in Numbers 11:5 when the Jews degraded the Manna, “We recall the fish that we ate for ‘free’ [in Egypt]…” Rashi comments, “If straw was not given to the Jews to create bricks, fish was given for ‘free’? Yes, it was free…free from Mitzvos”. The Jews identified Manna – which comes from God – as synonymous with observing all the commands, which too come from God. Their distaste for the Manna is in fact a displaced distaste for the burden of Torah commands. They viewed the commands as restrictive, instead of as their true value: joyful, rewarding, perfecting and offering eternal life. With the combined desires to flee from Torah restrictions, and a need for ego satisfaction, we are bent on denying God, as a means of catering to both. Even after so many miracles, those Jews of the wilderness caved into human frailties. And so do we.
This emotional expression witnessed in the verses above is generated from the denial of God’s abilities, and His very existence. Our distorted sense of what is truly real is rooted in what we sense ‘physically’. This is due to our youth, where our emotions have been granted a head start over our intelligence. “Man’s inclination is evil from youth”. (Gen. 8:21) We become attached to emotional gratification, and constantly seek sustained physical enjoyments. Some of us become so attached; it is almost impossible to fathom any other enjoyment. But with this attachment, we unconsciously convince our emotions – not our minds – that what is “real” is synonymous with what is physical. This becomes an unquestioned “truth”. We then lead lives where God is no longer part of our sense of reality, despite our daily prayers, Sabbath observance, and other ritually performed and rote acts. God knows this danger as witnessed in His warnings above. The Rabbis too recognized this danger, and formulated many blessings as Maimonides taught, “To recall the Creator regularly”. (Laws of Blessings, 1:3)
Prayer & Creation
Our morning prayers (Shacharis) are replete with references to Genesis; starting with our initial prayer of Baruch She-Amar and Barachu. Why? The primary lesson is that all exists and relies on God’s will. The very existence of everything is impossible without God, for nothing can create itself. And even subsequent to creation, all existences require God’s will to be sustained. The reasoning is that since something did not exist until God willed it to be, both its creation “and” its continued existence as well are not dependent on itself. All matter “remains” in existence due to God’s will: “In His goodness He renews each day regularly, the acts of creation”. (“Borachu”, morning daily prayers)
The Talmud teaches, “All man’s needs are decided by God between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur.” (Beitza, 16a) If we accept the Rabbis as authorities, this statement must help us abandon our ego feelings of success.
Jacob wished to regularly demonstrate from Whom he received his sustenance and wealth. He therefore gave a portion of his successes to God.
Malachi 3:10 teaches that we may test God in one area: the giving of charity. We may test God to see if He “opens the storehouses of heaven, emptying out a blessing more than enough”. Furthermore, in his “Guide for the Perplexed”, Maimonides teaches that God’s involvement in our lives is based on our intellectual perfection:
Book III, chap. XVIII
“The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are” like unto the beasts” (Ps. xlix. 21).”
“Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said to Abraham, “I am thy shield” (Gen. xv. 1): to Isaac, “I will be with thee, and I will bless thee” (ibid. xxvi. 3); to Jacob, “I am with thee, and will keep thee” (ibid. xxviii. 15): to [Moses] the chief of the Prophets, “Certainly I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee”(Exod. iii. 12): to Joshua,” As I was with Moses, so I shall be with thee” (Josh. i. 5). It is clear that in all these cases the action of Providence has been proportional to man’s perfection. The following verse describes how Providence protects good and pious men, and abandons fools;” He Will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness: for by strength shall no man prevail” (I Sam. ii. 9). When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them, we must not attribute this to a difference in the properties of their bodies, or in their physical constitution,” for by strength shall no man prevail” : but it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected, and” He will keep the feet of his saints”; but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble.” “Now consider how by this method of reasoning we have arrived at the truth taught by the Prophets, that every person has his individual share of Divine Providence in proportion to his perfection. For philosophical research leads to this conclusion, if we assume, as has been mentioned above, that Divine Providence is in each case proportional to the person’s intellectual development.”
Maimonides teaches that Divine Providence is a reality, and the intensity and level reaching each person is in direct proportion to his or her intellectual perfection. We should then desire to be influenced by God’s goodness, by improving our intellectual perfection at all times. We should “minimize our work and maximize our Torah study” (Maimonides’ Laws of Personalities, 2:14).
Recognizing God’s words in the sources above, and the reasonable truths so pleasing to our minds…we can no longer accept irrational segulas as responsible for our success and goodness in our lives. It is our “intellectual perfection” as Maimonides teaches that entitles us to God’s Providence. We thereby completely dismiss the foolish belief that trinkets, amulets, and all segulas play any role whatsoever. In fact, belief in nonsense renders us as – Maimonides taught – “deficient in that Divine influence, our condition is inferior, and our rank equal to that of irrational beings: and we are like unto the beasts.” Accepting the notion that our fate is not based on our perfection, but rather, on segulas and trinkets…degrades us to the level of beasts, which have no Divine Providence at all. Segulas also deny the Torah Fundamental of Reward and Punishment. For segula proponents feel one may be evil or average, and yet be shielded from God’s intended infertility, poverty or single hood, by baking keys in challas, reciting Tehillim, giving challa with blessings, wearing red bendels, or checking mezuzas. However, God says His Providence will only help them if they introspect, recognize their sins, and repent: “Let us search and examine our ways and return to God”. (Lamentations, 3:40)
"וזכרת, את-יהוה אלהיך--כי הוא הנתן לך כח, לעשות חיל: למען הקים את-בריתו אשר-נשבע לאבתיך, כיום הזה"
“And remember God your God – for it is He who gave you strength to create success, in order to fulfill His treaty that He swore to your forefathers, as this day.” (Deut. 8:18)
Again we see the theme that is so crucial at every moment of our lives: we must be cognizant of “Who” provides our abilities, and our very existence. And we must maintain focus upon “why” He gave us existence: to fulfill His commands, for our “own good” (Deut. 10:13). If we contemplate and become convinced of this truth, we will escape the danger of being Godless humans. We will also merit His intervention, and arrive at a serene life where our worries evaporate…since God can do all.
The sin of those bitten by the fiery serpents was their elevation of the physical world to absolute supremacy over all other considerations. They valued what they perceived sensually as the be all and end all of their Godless human existence. They ignored the very Creator of that physical world. How sublime.
As the rabbis teach, we are not allowed to rely on miracles. We must use our ingenuity to provide for ourselves. But at the same time, we are foolish to assume our fate is exclusively “our own might”. Therefore, we must all first become intellectually convinced in God’s existence by means of proofs; live by His Torah, give charity, and become convinced that He can and will intervene with His astonishing Divine Providence in our lives. If you live the life He has mapped in His Torah, you may truly cast away your worries. You must also cast away your segulas, unless you wish to be cast away by God, as are all dumb beasts.