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Parashat Shemot 5778 — 01/06/2018

Parashat Shemot 5778 — 01/06/2018

Shemot 1:1-6:1

Pharaoh too, summoned his wise men and sorcerers, and they, too – the necromancers of Egypt – did likewise with their incantations. (7:11)
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C Clarke

Is magic real? Can sorcerers really recreate Gd’s miracles? Torah tells us we may not allow a sorcerer to live – does that apply to everyone who does parlor magic? Or are there real sorcerers like in the Harry Potter books?

Rambam generally takes the view that sorcery is merely parlor-magic, sleight of hand and distraction of attention. This is in accord with his rationalist bent, but it seems hard to believe that Torah would be so harsh on parlor magicians, even very great ones. Abarbanel seems to accept Rambam’s approach, and explains the difference between Gd’s miracle and the magicians’ “re-creations” of those miracles as the difference between a change in reality vs. an illusion that vanishes once some attention is put on the subject.

Abarbanel mentions another approach, that of Kabbalah. According to Kabbalah, Gd created all kinds of spiritual beings for specific tasks. Some of those tasks are positive and evolutionary, and others appear to us to be negative and destructive. These beings, sometimes called angels, sometimes demons (sheidim) it seems to me are personifications of various laws of nature that exist on subtle levels and are responsible for the operation of some limited aspect of creation. As our Sages put it: Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow! Grow!” Just as we can manipulate the laws of physical nature, by natural means (e.g. wires and magnets, bending and molding, etc.), so, it appears from Kabbalah, that we can manipulate these subtler laws of nature by means of subtler types of activities. These activities apparently involved incantations or recitations of various texts, a point to which I will return presently.

Just as it is possible to manipulate the physical laws of nature in such a way as to produce both positive and negative effects (e.g. longer life through pharmaceuticals vs. cancer-causing agrochemicals), so too it is apparently possible to manipulate these subtler laws of nature to produce either positive or negative results. The problem is not so much in the technology but in the way the technology is used. Just as fire can warm people on a cold night and cook food, so it can also destroy homes and lives. It has to be controlled properly, and it can only be controlled properly by people who are properly trained in its use.

According to the Kabbalistic approach, what kind of technology did the sorcerers possess? We have analyzed in previous drashes that we believe that underlying all physical creation there is a single, unified field, which can vibrate in different modes, and that these vibrations are measured as the existence and motion of all the fundamental particles of matter and energy and their interactions. This field is therefore the level at which all the laws of physical nature reside. If one could manipulate from this level, one could produce any effect we want. Unfortunately the temporal and spatial scales are too tiny and the energy scales too astronomical to allow human beings practical control over the unified field.

There is another possibility however besides physical control. Our tradition holds that the sounds of the Hebrew language are audible representations of the most fundamental vibrations that make up creation – vibrations of a “unified field” that underlies all of creation, both physical and non-physical. The Zohar tells us that “Gd looked into the Torah and created.” Furthermore, by using various combinations of Hebrew letters – that is, various sequences of sounds – it is reported that our Sages could perform various feats that are considered beyond normal human capabilities. I should point out that other cultures have very similar traditions.

We know, again from physics, that creation is structured in layers – in the case of physical creation we have the level of macroscopic objects, the molecular layer, atomic layer, subatomic layer, fields, all the way to the unified field which transcends all the layers but which expresses itself as all the layers of the physical world. The same is true on the spiritual side. There are layers of creation, all the way to the transcendental basis of creation, which expresses itself as creation by means of its various modes of vibration.

I would like to suggest that depending on a person’s level of consciousness, it might be possible to use specific sequences of sound (“incantations”) to produce specific results. If the consciousness is very crude, nothing much will come of it, because we are not operating anywhere close to the source of creation. If our consciousness is completely refined to the point where all our thoughts and actions stem from the transcendental level, then our control over the subtlest laws of nature is complete – we can produce any result we desire. At the same time, since we are functioning from the transcendent, our desires are completely in accord with Gd’s Will. Having the infinite, any finite agendas we might have pale and fade to nothing in comparison. Someone functioning at this level can indeed control the laws of nature properly – for maximum growth and evolution.

Then we have the Egyptian sorcerers. They certainly must have had some traditions by which they could develop themselves spiritually, but apparently they could only achieve partial values. They could reproduce, in a superficial way, the first few plagues (and they absolutely couldn’t make them go away!). They had a certain ability, by means of their incantations, to manipulate subtler levels of nature, but they were unable to have a broad enough perspective to control these laws properly. Such people are real dangers to themselves and to others. Torah tells us that we may not allow sorcerers to live. I think this analysis gives us some insight into the reason for this commandment. We are better off sticking to the methods of spiritual development we have been given by our tradition to stabilize the transcendent in our lives. In that state, sorcery will be but a useless toy to us.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shemot (Beginning of the Book of Exodus)

When the Children of Israel in Egypt had been reduced to slavery and Pharaoh was murdering the male children, the cries of the Israelites rose to Gd and Gd decided the time for the Exodus had come.

Gd spoke to Moses from a burning bush, a bush that was not consumed by the flames, and told Moses that He will rescue them and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. He tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh to release the Children of Israel for three days to make offerings to their Gd in the desert. Gd also tells Moses that Pharaoh will refuse and that Gd will, with a mighty hand, perform miracles. Then Pharaoh will let the Children of Israel go and they will leave and not go empty handed but with all of the wealth of Egypt.

Moses asked Gd what name shall he tell the Children of Israel when they ask him who sent him.

Gd responds, “Eyeh asher Eyeh”: I Will Be what I Will Be.” But also He says tell them the Gd of their forefathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent you so they will have confidence that He who rescued their forefathers will rescue them.

We can learn from this that Gd the Omnipotent who “Will Be what He Will Be” cannot be interfered with and does answers prayers: He will answer ours but perhaps our troubles are long-standing, like the slavery of the Children of Israel in Egypt. Then perhaps Gd will answer the prayers step-by-step, perhaps by sending us some person with wisdom, such as a business advisor, a teacher, a health professional, to lead us out of our troubles. Some person who has a history of success.

Perhaps He will answer our prayers by giving us some flash of insight, which like the burning bush, continues, does not pass away, gives us confidence it is reliable advice we can act on.

We need to be alert and open for we do not know how Gd will answer our prayers and transform our problems into blessings.

We need to be our own Moses and to continue communicating with Gd – through prayer, through our good lives, through whatever means we have to “love Gd with all our heart and soul” so that through our love we become open to Gd’s Love, Gd’s Blessings, Gd’s restoration to us of our birthright: Oneness with the One, the “I will Be What I will Be.”

Baruch HaShem