Congratulations! You have asked the precise question asked by the Talmud . It explains the Torah is hinting that although water was not in it, snakes and scorpions were in it!
Besides the obviously elusive comment of the Talmud to explain the verse, there’s a further question: This discussion in the Talmud falls right smack in the middle of the discussion of the laws of lighting the Chanukah candles. The Rabbis of the Talmud depart their discussion of these laws for a moment, randomly explain this verse, then resume their discussion. Very strange!
Furthermore, this verse appears in the Torah portion which is always read on the Shabbat the week Chanukah falls out. Are we seeing a hidden link to Chanukah?
The explanation goes to the very crux of the Chanukah holiday. In my youth I heard the explanation of the above verse from my mentor, the late Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik ob’m. There’s a concept in physics, “nature abhors a vacuum”. No space in the physical world really remains empty. This is true in the spiritual realm as well. One cannot be bereft of spirituality and remain wholesome. If one does not fill him or herself with positive spiritual energy, the opposite will take its place.
This is the meaning of the cryptic statement of the Rabbis: “water was not there, but snakes and scorpions were there”. Water refers to the Torah, which is the water we drink, quenches our spiritual thirst and slakes our tired souls. If we do not fill “the pit”, ourselves, with “water”, then other, negative influences will creep in, the “snakes and scorpions” of foreign ideals and cultures.
The battle fought by the Maccabees, although it was a physical fight, it was primarily a spiritual combat. The Greeks were attempting, quite successfully, to inculcate their culture and values into the Jewish people.
One of their most vehemently enforced decrees was the complete cessation of Torah study. They realized as long as the Jews’ minds were filled with the wellsprings of Torah, there was no room to force in their “snakes and scorpions”. The Maccabees fought valiantly to preserve the holiness of the Torah, the Jewish mind and soul.
The Maccabees were rewarded by finding one remaining flask of pure oil amongst the many flasks contaminated by the Greeks. That pure oil was used to light the menorah, its light signifies the light of the Torah which illuminates the Jewish people. That was the greatest miracle of all; despite the decrees of the world’s mightiest power, the Jews were able to preserve the holiness of the Torah with its teachings and messages intact.
This is the hint of the verse you mentioned. This lesson was taught by the Talmud in the midst of the laws of Chanukah to bring out the deeper message contained in those laws. It appears in the portion read before Chanukah to get prepare us and get us in the proper mindset of what Chanukah represents throughout the generations, the preservation of the teachings of Torah in the face of persecution by foreign cultures. More so to keep that fire burning when we are surrounded by the kindness of our hosts, beckoning us through their sweetness and acceptance to assimilate into their culture.
As Chanukah ebbs away, we capture its spirit throughout the rest of the year by intensifying our commitment of what it stands for: the study of Torah! Just like the candles ascend daily in the number we light, we all need to add more study and learning to whatever we have done in the past to ensure the message of Chanukah is a lasting one!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried