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Jewish Journal

Magic or Miracle?

Parashat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)


by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

January 13, 2010 | 3:43 am

If God were to send you on a mission to confront a despot, win the trust of his slaves and lead them in an escape to freedom, you might want a few assurances:

How exactly will this work? Why should anyone listen?

Imagine if, in response to your concerns, God tells you to use a common prop to perform an astounding feat, proving to everyone — including yourself — that God has called you. It begins like this: holding your prop, you say, “Pick a card, any card….”

The equivalent of this scenario happens in this week’s Torah portion, when God instructs Moses and Aaron to cast a staff to the ground in front of Pharaoh. The staff turns into a snake, but Pharaoh is unimpressed. He calls in his magicians, who do the same stunt, practiced by snake charmers to this day.

Why would the One, All-Powerful God give Moses such a common, paltry trick? Aaron’s staff is able to consume the Egyptians’ rods, which is a small victory. But using such a well-known ploy embarrasses and undermines Moses — unless, perhaps, that is the real ploy.

God wants to entice Pharaoh into a conversation and contest. Pharaoh has no reason to bother with Moses unless it is for his own aggrandizement and amusement. The chance to best God’s messenger proves irresistible.

Pharaoh’s magicians match Moses trick for trick — at first. Then Moses brings lice, and the magicians realize that they can’t duplicate the maneuver. “This is the finger of God,” they tell Pharaoh (Exodus 8:15).

Through the contest, the magicians realize the limits of magic and, more importantly, the infinite power of God. Ultimately, even the greatest magicians, like all human beings, will come to the end of their bag-o-tricks. At that point, they turn to God. They cease operating out of magic and acknowledge religion.

Of course, religion incorporates magical elements. Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner goes so far as to argue that there is no real difference between magic and religion. The distinction is based not on results or methods, but on whether the practitioner has legitimacy and authority. If so, the practice is approved as religion. If not, it is dismissed as magic. In Neusner’s words: “What my side does is a miracle; and by the way, it works; what your side does is magic, whether it works or not.”

It’s a clever argument, and a good warning against tribalism and triumphalism. But I do see significant differences between magic and religion, with at least four major distinctions that apply in Vaera.

Secret vs. Seen: In ancient Egypt, a magician who revealed his tricks to a layperson would be killed. Judaism certainly has its esoteric aspects, but the overall emphasis is on making Torah and God accessible. The Wizard of Oz says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Even in a kabbalistic theology that imagines God hidden behind a veil, God and humanity eagerly await the time when the veil can be lifted.

Sure vs. Subject to Change: The nature of a magic trick is that you always know how it will turn out. But even Moses can’t definitively know what will happen. God may bring sudden grace. The people may sin and be punished. Pharaoh may repent. This “not knowing” highlights our free will; it also demands humility.

Showmanship vs. Substance: A magician may have only one underlying method for, let’s say, finding your card. But if he is a good showman, he can parlay that into 100 tricks: finding your card in a box, under water, with his eyes closed, etc. In contrast, a lot of religious practice is outwardly repetitive. From week to week in synagogue, you may see the same people, sitting in the same pews, reciting the same prayers, using the same melodies. The “show” is exactly the same. But what’s underneath the performance — the meaning, the intention — may vary greatly, both among the participants and for each individual over time. Magic is about misdirection, whereas religion is about inner direction, or kavanah.

Self vs. Supreme: Magic is self-directed and often self-aggrandizing: “Look what I can do!” Whether offering a trick for entertainment or an incantation by which a practitioner seeks to tap into and influence the spiritual realm, a magician exercises his will. Judaism includes prayers and mystical practices that seek, in some way, to influence God and even, as it were, to “force God’s hand.” But the overwhelming thrust of Jewish prayer and ritual is to change ourselves. Pirkei Avot put it this way: “Align your will with God’s will.”

If we imagine magic and religion on a continuum, then Vaera is urging us toward the religious end of the spectrum, the side that cedes control. By downplaying the trick and focusing on the miracle of religious faith, we cultivate humility and a connection with something greater than ourselves. We come to know ourselves not as hucksters with one predictable trick, but as witnesses and purveyors of infinite possibility. l


Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom (makom.org), editor of the Lifecycles book series (Jewish Lights Publishing) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her popular essay, “The Five-Minute Miracle,” is available as a free download for all new subscribers at RabbiDebra.com.

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