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What Quickens Our Souls?

  • What Quickens Our Souls?

    Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
D'var Torah By: 

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."

Challenging God
Davar Acher By: 
Joel F. Block

A number of years ago I was watching a television commercial that showed a father and son sitting together watching the sun set over the ocean. As the sun dipped further and further into the ocean, the son edged closer to his father. Not a word was spoken. It was a scene of incredible serenity and beauty. As the sun completely disappeared, the boy looked up at his father with love and said, "Do it again, Daddy."

According to Bruno Bettelheim, a child's need to understand the way the world works causes him or her to assume both the extraordinary power of others (whether animate or inanimate) and the power of magic.

This week's Torah portion, Shofetim, contains the following injunction: "Let no one be found among you an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who cast spells...." (Deuteronomy 18:10-11) This text passage seems to be saying that magic is a sin against God.

In the dictionary, magic is defined as "the use of charms, spells, and rituals in seeking or pretending to cause or control events or govern certain natural or supernatural forces." This definition provides us with the reason for the above injunction. The use of magic is seen as a direct challenge to the authority of God. Those who practiced magical arts were trying to elevate themselves to a position of equality with God.

And yet, there are many instances in the Bible that seem to be "magical," for example, the story of Balaam, Jonah's adventures, the manna in the desert, just to name a few. According to Bettleheim, these were the fairy tales for Jewish children as long as their parents believed in the stories' efficacy. How are these stories different from other fairy tales?

They are different because they originate from God and are not the result of human creation.

The dictionary offers another definition of magic: "any mysterious, seemingly inexplicable, or extraordinary power or quality (e.g., the magic of love)." If we use this definition, we find that many of the events in the Bible are magical. But the magic originates with God. Each of us can think of many instances of magical moments in our life. But as Jews, we know that the magic is a feeling and not a power.

When our Torah portion speaks of sorcerers, etc., it is referring specifically to the use of magic for evil purposes. Because of this, Judaism has always looked askance at magic. Nevertheless, an element of superstitious beliefs and practices exists among Jews. Some even go so far as to equate certain aspects of mysticism with magic. However, the belief in magic does not have a strong influence in Judaism.

Besides the biblical injunction, is there any permissible belief in magic for Jews? How does our modern understanding of magic help us address the biblical injunction? Is all belief in magic a challenge to God? How can we share with our children the "magic of the world" and still teach them about the ultimate power of God? Where should we look to find our own "magical" moments that enhance our understanding and belief in God?

Reference Materials: 

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164