1) Ramban writes (Shmos end of ch 15) that the Hashem is “mamtik mar b’mar.” Lemons are bitter so we add sugar to make lemonade; Hashem makes the lemonade sweet by using the bitter items themselves. When Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim and came to Marah, a place with bitter undrinkable water, Hashem showed Moshe how he could sweeten the waters by using a bitter tree. Normally, as Ramban on our parsha writes, a person bitten by a snake would not be able to tolerate even the sight of a snake, but Hashem arranged things so that looking at the nechash he’nechoshes would cure the bite. I would argue that we take advantage of this same miracle in our lives. The very same germs that cause all kinds of diseases can be injected into a person to protect them from those same illnesses – vaccination.
Yet that’s not how the Mishna in Rosh haShana (3:8) seems to present how things work. The Mishna rhetorically asks, “Is it the snake [the nachash he’nechoshes] that kills or cures”? Of course not. Rather, looking up at the snake caused people to direct their eyes toward heaven and remind themselves that they need to accept ol malchus shamayim – that’s what cured people.
M’mah nafshach: if the cure came through looking to shamayim, i.e. through tefilah, then why did Moshe need to make this precise tool of the nechash nechoshes? Why not just point toward the sky? But if the nachash he’nechoshes really had the power to cure, then why do Chazal tell us that it was looking heavenward that did the trick?
The Mishna in Pesachim writes that King Chizkiyahu did away with the “Book of Cures.” Rambam quotes that some explain that this was a book of medicine that Chizkiyahu chose to hide because people relied on it for cures instead of trusting in G-d. Rambam rejects this as ridiculous. Going to a doctor or taking medicine does not prove a lack of trust in G-d any more than eating when one is hungry does. Ramban, on the other hand, writes in Parshas Bechukosai that when the nation will reach a high enough spiritual level there will be no need for doctors. True bitachon means relying on G-d alone.
Sefas Emes (5636) answers our question regarding the nachash ha’nechoshes by trying to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to this machlokes. The nachash, the tree that made the water drinkable, vaccines, all really do work, and Hashem wants us to use these tools. You can’t just point to the sky and hope for a miracle. The Rambam is right -- we live in a world of teva and Hashem wants us to play by its rules. That being said, what Chazal in the Mishna are telling us is that we also have to realize that this is not the ideal. We need to look up to heaven and at least dream of a time and place where we are not constrained by the rules of teva. Ramban is right not in a practical sense, but in an ideal sense.
2) “Rosheich alay k’Karmel v’dalas roseich k‘argaman…” (Shir haShirim 7:6) The Midrash reads this pasuk as describing the beauty in G-d’s eyes of even the worst members of Klal Yisrael. “Rosheich” is read by the Midrash as “reishech,” from the word “rash,” meaning poor person – not poor financially, but poor in good deeds; “dalas” is taken by the Midrash as a hint to the word “dal,” another synonym for a person who is wanting. The Midrash writes that the poorest miscreant in Klal Yisrael is as valuable in G-d's eyes as Eliyahu haNavi who davened for rain and was answered; the poorest no-goodnik is as great as David haMelech and Daniel.
Three years ago I posed the question of how this makes sense. It’s like saying that since I can swing a bat I am as good a baseball player as Derek Jeter. Obviously, it’s not true. So what do Chazal mean?
Back then I outlines two approaches: 1) Shiurei Da’as: the distance between man and G-d is infinite. When you travel down an infinite road, it’s true the person who has progressed 2 miles has gone much further than the person who has gone 2 yards, but relative to the road as a whole, both are in about the same position; 2) my own thought: l’fum tza’ara agra. G-d measures our achievement on a scale relative to our abilities, not as an absolute.
Fast forward three years and I found the Netziv in the Harchev Davar on this week’s parsha addresses this same Midrash and suggests that the Midrash is equating the avodah of Joe-ordinary with Dovid, Daniel, and Eliyahu only with respect to the power of tefilah. The need for tefilah is built into the teva of the world. Parshas Braishis tells us that Hashem wanted to bring rain for the plants to grow, but he waited until Adam was there to daven for it. Hashem wants it to rain, he wants the plants to grow, he wants teva to operate as it should. All that stands in the way is for someone -- like you or me -- giving the word. The bar of what is required, at least in ensuring that our needs are met b'derech ha'teva, is so low that no matter who you are, you can accomplish what needs to be done.
This is why, says the Netziv, the Midrash uses the example of Eliyahu davening for rain. Hashem had already promised to lift the drought before Eliyahu davened. His words didn’t cause the rain to fall – they were just necessary as a trigger to bring about what Hashem already said would happen. David’s tehillim, Daniel’s daily tefilah – these were the same prayers that you and I say, not extraordinary requests for extraordinary things.
Chazal see the end of the pasuk in Shir haShirim, melech asur b'rehatim, as a reference to Moshe Rabeinu's sin at Mei Meriva. Hashem wanted Moshe to speak -- to daven, and show that the needs of the people could be met not through the supernatural, but through tefilah, which is part of the natural way the world works. This lesson was necessary as a prelude to life in Eretz Yisrael -- a life of farming, working, etc., a very different existence that life in the midbar. This hanhaga was not the midah/character of Moshe, and therefore, he did not meet Hashem's expectations.
I don't think I captured the Netziv's point as well as I could have, so please see it inside if you can. It's well worth it.