Thursday, January 3, 2019
Tuesday, January 1, 2019
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
Rabbi David Walk
Aren't magic tricks terrific? Great magicians amaze me, and then I love trying to figure how they did it. Remarkably, a tremendous number of famous magicians are Jewish. Starting with Harry Houdini (ne Erik Weisz), through David Copperfield (ne David Seth Kotkin), Uri Geller, David Blaine, David (who escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 11) and to the marvelously Max Maven (ne Philip Goldstein). Should we add to that list? In this week's Torah reading the founding presents a number of 'signs' to the Egyptians. How are we to understand 'magic act'?
Generally, we understand role with the first two plagues (blood and frogs) as denoting Moshe's reticence to smack items which had helped him in time of need (the Nile and sand, , 7:19). Is there another explanation? Moshe is presenting himself as a potentate of a people, and those types had assistants to perform their instructions. It's a matter of public honor. When the leader Moshe wants a display of power before Pharoah, he requests to change the staff into a snake (or some other Nile reptile), Pharoah calls upon his court assistants to respond. This formal minuet continues until the fourth plague by which time the Egyptian magicians have withdrawn from the competition. They had always been in over their heads. Remember, 'staff' swallows theirs.
Who were these Egyptian court performers? Three terms are used to describe them: CHACHAMIM (scholars), MECHASHFIM (wizards), and CHARTUMIM (7:11). What are ? Arye Kaplan OBM translated the term 'symbolists', and in a foot-note suggested astrologers. Dr. Robert Alter renders it 'sooth-', and his foot-note adds 'the Egyptian designation for priest-magicians'. In Hebrew, CHARTUMIM isn't only the word for these wizards, it's also the word for Hieroglyphics, which is the Greek word for ancient Egyptian writing. Their magic was an expression of their scholarship, which resulted from their monopoly on literacy.
This brings us to the next problematic word, . This word is variously translated as spells or magic. How the Egyptian practitioners of the occult arts did their 'tricks' is a massive debate amongst Jewish scholars. The battle lines tend to be drawn between those Jewish scholars thought of as mystics (led by ), who believe they actually performed magic, and those thought of as rationalists, of course led by the Maimonides team. The Ibn Ezra explains the term to mean 'flame out', and describes a flash of combustibles which might accompany a magic trick. Others say the word denotes speed, and is closer to what we call leger de main or sleight of hand.
The Torah , Reb Baruch Halevi Epstein, among others, points out that two terms describe the actions of the court magicians, LATEHEM and LAHATEHEM, and suggests that one means tricks the other implies dark forces.
Although, I have trouble believing these men had supernatural powers, the average person 3200 years ago believed it. As Arthur C. Clark once observed, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' It's truly in the eye of the beholder.
This brings us to the $64,000 Question: Why does God need to get involved in a magic contest? And we must eliminate assuming that it was for future special affects in Hollywood films, even though I love them. We must bear in mind as we investigate this question that the Torah is adamantly against any form of magic. In a future article I'll explore why magic is forbidden.
I believe that the answers this question in next week's , when the mitzva of is introduced: And it shall be to you as an OT (sign) upon your hand and as a ZIKARON (remembrance) between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt ( 13:9). Before God can command us to remember something, which happened six times, something concrete must have happened for us to later remember. The OT is the event which will eternally trigger the remembrance.
The heavenly pyrotechnics at Sinai triggered the obligation to remember the epiphany there. The ongoing creation of the cosmos requires us to recall this phenomenon every Shabbat. Amalek's dastardly attack sparked an eternal memory in our national psyche. The sins and punishment for Miriam's gossip and the Jews' worship of the Golden Calf elicits an eternal reminder of Heavenly justice. And all these displays of Divine power from the staff through the plagues to the eventual splitting of the Sea generated a national memory which cannot and must not ever be erased.
The second goes on to state: In truth God has engraved the letters (OTIOT) of the Torah onto every Jewish soul, but we are required to actualize these letters into action (Bo, 1897). Similarly, God performed OTOT (signs, miracles) on our behalf throughout history to act as catalysts for our memories and stimuli for our behavior.
The first 15 chapters of describe a complex series of signs and wonders carefully orchestrated by the Divine Maestro to accomplish many goals. Obviously, the main objective was to free the Jews, but along the way we and our Egyptian captors were taught the power and glory of the Almighty. The scene in the throne room of Pharaoh wasn't meant as a real competition. It was a small first step in the demonstration of the reality that court magicians are puny, at best, and charlatans, at worst.
I still love a good magic show. However, it's critical to always remember that 'there is no power other than God ( 4:35).' The best magicians call themselves 'illusionists', because that's all they do. But that doesn't mean that there isn't magic in the world. I like the way German poet Johanne Goethe put it, 'Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.' Of course, with Divine support, SIYATA D'SHMAYA.
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