With much fondness, I still recall childhood memories filled with fascination about magic shows and even some awe for the magicians. Part of me wanted to believe that prestidigitation wasn't just about tricks and illusions, that one could invoke just the right formula and manipulate the environment to conform to one's will, wishes, and desires.
Much later I came to realize that my childish fantasies had a substantial pedigree. For instance, they are reflected in some of our "magic words." Hocus-pocus, for instance, is a corrupted borrowing from the Latin Mass that translates, "Behold, this is the body," a reference to the transformation of bread into corpus, "body." Similarly, abracadabra is based on the Aramaic (the language of the Talmud) for "I [like God] created according to my speech or word," which is clearly an allusion to the Creation story that reads: "And God said, 'Let there be....'"
While this may strike one as little more than historical curiosity, it does have a connection to one segment of this week's extraordinarily rich Torah portion. For even as Shofetim, like so much of Deuteronomy, includes a range of concerns, the parashah includes the following verses: "Let no one be found among you...who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Adonai...." (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
The Torah couldn't be any clearer in its condemnation of such practices. Therefore, the great medieval sage Maimonides elaborates: "Whoever puts a Chumash or tefilin in a cradle in order to put a baby to sleep denies the Torah, for he turns sacred objects intended to quicken the soul into magic and amulets."
The phrase "quicken the soul" is compelling as an alternative to magic, especially at this time of the year, because Shofetim is always read during the Hebrew month of Elul, the time immediately preceding the High Holy Days. Tradition urges us to use this period as a time for preparation. In many synagogues, the shofar is sounded during services. Its purpose is to serve as a spiritual alarm clock, urging people to wakeup and get ready for a rendezvous with the sacred. This is the time to begin a cheshbon hanefesh, an "inventory of the soul"--an invitation to which we should be ready to respond as we consider what things, rituals, experiences, and people matter to us, as well as what quickens our souls.
Since congregations soon will be filled with our High Holy Day prayers, I would like to pose a question: How can we make prayer an instrument that lifts our awareness and quicken our souls? For while the child in us may hope for a magical transformation, we do not believe that our petitions are meant simply to urge or nudge the universe to go off its course for us. That, after all, would be treading in the realm of magic. Instead, may our experience reflect what the late Rabbi Morris Adler taught: "One who rises from prayer a better person, that person's prayer is answered."