My weekly halachah column for parashas Hukas:
“And Hashem said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Parashas Chukas, 21:8-9) Centuries later, the serpent was destroyed by King Chizkiyah: “And he did that which was right in the sight of Hashem … and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nechushtan.” (Melachim 2 18:3-4)
The Talmud wonders how King Chizkiyah’s righteous predecessors Asa and Yehoshafat, who had destroyed “all idolatry in the world”, could have failed to destroy the serpent? It answers that “they had left place for him to be great”, and it derives from this a fundamental principle of the legitimacy of religious innovation: the fact that a novel idea was not advanced by the sages of earlier generations, who were admittedly greater scholars than contemporary ones, does not automatically render it unacceptable (Chullin 6b-7a, as explained by Toras Chaim there).
Various commentators explain that Asa and Yehoshafat had had concrete reasons for not destroying the serpent: they may have believed it prohibited to destroy an artifact commissioned by Hashem Himself (Tosafos), or they may have considered such destruction a flouting of Hashem’s will, since He had given the serpent to the people to heal them, and it had retained this power throughout the generations (Chidushei Agados of Maharal). Alternatively, they may have believed that the idolaters had no power to cause it to require destruction, due to the principle that “a man cannot prohibit something that is not his” (Maharal). Nevertheless, King Chizkiyah realized that its destruction was necessary and appropriate, and he did not shy away from his conviction of his duty, despite its novelty.