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While still journeying in the desert on their way to the holy Land, the Jews sometimes became a little impatient. On one of those occasions, they complained to Moshe and G-d, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There’s no bread and no water, and we’re sick of this unwholesome (manna) bread” (Numbers 21:5). As punishment, G-d sent them venomous snakes that bit and killed a number of them. They ran to Moshe asking for forgiveness and asking him to intercede with G-d in order to remove the snakes. This he did, and here Rashi comments, “from here we learn that if one asks forgiveness, we shouldn’t be cruel and refuse to forgive him.”

The big question is, there would seem to be a much better place in the Torah to learn that it’s a good idea to forgive. When Abraham encountered a famine in Canaan (Genesis 20:17) and went to live in Grar (present-day Gaza), his wife Sarah was kidnapped by the inhabitants, who brought her to the king, Avimelech. Avimelech proceeded to get sick and have a dream warning him to return Sarah to Abraham. He did so, whereupon Abraham prayed to G-d, who healed Avimelech. Here, it would seem that we have a much earlier source for learning that one should be quick to forgive. In fact, the Midrash Tanhuma, which is the source for Rashi’s explanation in our parsha, also cites the above story of Abraham. Why, then, does Rashi credit our parsha, with its story of the venomous snakes, as the source for this teaching? Why does he not give that credit to Abraham, in the much earlier story, in parshat Va’era (Genesis)?

Furthermore, the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Avimelech is mentioned in the oral Torah, in a mishneh (Baba Kama 92A). There, the topic is the various kinds of damages that one must pay if he damaged another person. The mishneh says that even after receiving the various monetary damages, one need not forgive the damager unless he requests. But if he does request, one must not be cruel and refuse to forgive him, as it says, “and Abraham prayed to G-d and He healed Avimelech.” So we see that not only the written Torah but also the oral Torah credits Abraham with the example to be quick to forgive. That makes it all the more strange that Rashi would cite our parsha and not Abraham in Genesis.

One possible explanation is that Avimelech didn’t request forgiveness; rather, he seemed to be pressing a claim. He said to Abraham, “What have you done to us and what was my sin that you should bring such a transgression upon me and upon my kingdom?” And therefore Rashi didn’t cite Abraham as the source, since here there was no request for forgiveness. But, actually this doesn’t make sense, because in the end it strengthens the question; why not learn from Abraham that even when the transgressor doesn’t request forgiveness we must be quick to forgive?

Another possibility: perhaps Rashi didn’t learn from Abraham and Avimelech because this wasn’t a case that required forgiveness. As Avimelech claimed (Genesis 20:5), “With a pure heart…I did this.” And G-d affirmed this, saying (20:6), “I know that you did this with a pure heart, and I saved you from sinning and didn’t let you touch her.” So, it would seem that Rashi doesn’t cite this case because it simply doesn’t require forgiveness. Nevertheless, when he returned Sarah to Abraham, Avimelech gave them gifts, and Rashi explains that this was in order that “Abraham should be appeased and pray for Avimelech.” From this we see that at least according to Rashi, this was a situation that did require appeasement and forgiveness. We therefore return to the original question, why not learn from this case of Abraham and Avimelech that one must be ready to forgive? Why does Rashi prefer to learn it from our parsha, from Moshe?

The answer lies in the nature of forgiveness.
1. One may forgive the deed, but not the person.

2. One may forgive the person himself.
3. One may not only forgive the person, but totally uproot the deed from his consciousness.

In the first instance, in which one forgives the deed, the purpose is to forgive the person’s punishment. In the second instance, in which one forgives the person, the purpose is to let him know that he not only forgives the punishment, but holds nothing against him personally. And, in the third instance of “wiping the slate clean,” the purpose is to not only forgive the person, but to return to full and normal relations with him, as previously.

In terms of behavior, the difference is as follows;
When we forgive someone’s deed, we get involved in the forgiveness only to the extent that it’s necessary to ameliorate the punishment. When we see that the other is not being punished, we are satisfied. However, when we forgive the other person, and especially when we wish to return to our previous relationship with him, we get involved on a deeper level, worrying more about the welfare of the person. With our forgiveness, we wish to affect him in a positive way, elevating him to a higher level of behavior. We wish to see him return to the kind of person he was before he sinned against us.

And that’s the difference between the story of Abraham in Genesis, and Moshe here in parshat Chukat. When Abraham prayed on behalf of Avimelech, it was only regarding his punishment. The Torah says, “And Abraham prayed to G-d and He healed AvimelechŔ We see that Abraham’s prayer was for the purpose of forgiving the punishment of Avimelech and no more. And indeed, Avimelech was healed immediately. However, in our parsha, it doesn’t just state “And Moshe prayed to G-dŔ (as it does by Abraham), but “And Moshe prayed on behalf of the nation.” To Moshe, the people of the nation mattered. He wished not only to nullify their punishment, but also ameliorate their situation. Therefore, the continuation of the narrative is that G-d told Moshe to “make yourself a venomous snake.” We would think that this action, which came to heal the Jews, should have come from the Jews themselves, since they were the ones who sought forgiveness. Why should Moshe have to create the healing snake? But the point is that G-d wanted Moshe to show the Jews that their situation mattered to him, to Moshe himself. He wanted not only to nullify their punishment, but to let them know that he was on their side.

The point of the copper snake was not only to bring an end to the punishment of the Jews, but also to induce them to “look upward and subjugate their hearts to G-d in the heavens” (Rashi on 21:8). That is, not only should they repent regarding their speech against Moshe and G-d, but they should also subject their hearts and minds to the One Above. And that is also the reason that their healing did not come about immediately (as did Avimelech’s healing via Abraham). Since Moshe’s intention was not only to nullify their punishment and heal them, but also to elevate their spiritual level, it was necessary to get them to “look up” and subject themselves to G-d. In so doing, they would not only become healed but also realize that G-d and Moshe cared about them. They would then (hopefully) return to their former intimate spiritual relationship with Moshe and the One Above. Therefore, Rashi chose to cite this story in the Torah, rather than the story of Abraham and Avimelech. Only the story of Moseh in our parsha teaches the true level of forgiveness, that involves not only forgiving one’s deeds but caring about them as a person (people).

There are more details regarding this explanation of Rashi (including why there are two possible versions of Rashi), as well as Rambam (who mentioned the benefit of forgiveness in three different places in his Mishneh Torah), but as they say elsewhere, “ein kahn m’komo” – this is not the place for it.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz’l, vol.28, p.138.

Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem