In our parsha (Chukat), we find the Jews in the desert on their way to the holy Land, when all of a sudden they complain to Moses that they have no food and water. “Why have you taken us out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There is no bread and no water, and we are sick of this unwholesome (manna) bread” (Numbers 21:5).  As punishment, God sent them venomous snakes that bit and killed a number of them.  They realized their mistake and went to Moshe to ask for forgiveness and to remove the snakes.  This he did, whereupon Rashi commented: “From here we learn that if one asks for forgiveness, we shouldn’t be cruel and refuse to forgive him.”

There is a big question to be asked here: If we want to learn to grant forgiveness, there is a much earlier and more obvious place in the Torah to learn from.  In parshat Lech lecha (Gen 20:17), Abraham goes down to Grar with his wife Sarah, whom the Phillistine king, Avimelech, takes into captivity.  He and his court were struck with a sickness, and Avimelech had a dream in which God told him to return Sarah to Abraham.  He did so, and asked Abraham to pray on his behalf so that he and his court will be healed.  Abraham prayed to God, and Avimelech was healed.  This is a much earlier place in the Torah, it would seem, to derive that if one asks for forgiveness, we should grant it.  Why then, does Rashi point to our parsha, much later in the Torah, as the source for this learning?

In answer, we can discern three levels of forgiveness:

1) We may forgive the person’s deed, the result of which is that he won’t be punished.

2) We may forgive the person himself. In that case, we not only absolve him from punishment, but we return him to the former relationship that he enjoyed with us.

3) We not only forgive the person, but we completely uproot his whole misdeed. It becomes as if it never happened.

In the case of Avimelech, it was clear that all Avimelech desired was to be free of the punishing sickness that he suffered.  And Abraham had no desire or need to establish or maintain a significant relationship with Avimelech.  So, in this case, only the first kind of forgiveness mattered – that Abraham should forgive Avimelech so that he would not be punished.  However, Rashi did not point to this event as the place to derive forgiveness, because it was not the deepest form of forgiveness.  For that, he turned to our parsha.

In our parsha, Moshe did not wish to merely absolve the Jews from any punishment.  He wished to see them return to a full relationship with God and with him as their leader.  Therefore, he did not merely pray to ameliorate their punishment; he made a copper snake for them.  If the only purpose was to annul their punishment, he could have told them to make the snake themselves, or to pray to God themselves.  But by making the snake himself, Moshe indicated that their entire situation was important to him, and not only their punishment.  By making the snake and having them look at it in order to be cured, he not only annulled their punishment, but he indicated to them that he was on their side and that their true well being depended upon their connection with him and with the One above!

For more detail and information, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 28, page 138

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