VA’ERA (Exodus, 6:2-9:35) — “Abracadabra = MC²”

Show me a sign!” challenged the Pharaoh. “I’ve never heard of this G-d of yours! And I have no intention of releasing the Israelites!” (Exodus, 7:9, 5:2) 

Moses was prepared. He took his staff and threw it to the floor. The staff miraculously turned into a snake. Surely, this man was for real. 

The Pharaoh laughed in his face. “Do you think you can impress me with simple magic? Anything you can do, my magicians can do better!” 

Sure enough, the Egyptian sorcerers made their own sticks into snakes. “Are you trying to sell straw in Ofarayim?!” (The Egyptian equivalent of bringing coal to Newcastle or rabbis to Monsey. :-)) This was Egypt, the magic capital of the world! (From Midrash Rabbah, 9) 

Unimpressed by Moses’ “miracles,” the Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to leave. It was time to begin the Ten Plagues. The Nile turned to blood. The Egyptian sorcerers took water and turned it to blood. The Pharaoh refused to listen to Moses.

Egypt was overrun with frogs. The sorcerers produced more frogs, but couldn’t get rid of Moses’ frogs. The Pharaoh temporarily relented and agreed to release the slaves, but later changed his mind. 

For the third plague, Aaron turned the dust into lice that attacked all the Egyptians. The sorcerers tried to duplicate that plague, but couldn’t. They threw in the towel. They now saw that Moses was not using magic. Magic, it seems, has no influence on microscopic matter. They had no choice but to admit that “… it is the finger of G-d” (8:15), not sorcery, that gave Moses his power. 

The sorcerers never again challenged Moses. They had met their match. (Midrash Rabbah, 10:7)

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Do we believe in magic?! 

Isn’t G-d the only source of supernatural power? Do we believe in Merlin and witches and goblins and sorcerers? 

There are actually two schools of thought among the classical commentaries. Rashi and others take the position that the Egyptians had the power to manipulate nature. There is a “Koach Hatum’ah,” a type of Black Magic, which G-d allows to exist in the world. The Torah mentions, for example, that it is possible for a false prophet to perform miracles. We are warned to ignore a miracle worker who tells us to violate the Commandments. (Deuteronomy, 13:2-4) 

The other school of thought is that of Maimonides.  He states (Hil. Avodah Zarah, 11:16) that the magic of the ancients was phony. It was all a show! Egyptians were simply masters of illusion. 

DISCLAIMER: There is no shortage of websites devoted to the occult and its supposed relationship with Judaism. There are many so-called experts in Kabbalah — “Jewish Mysticism,” who use a lot of Hebrew phrases and sound very scholarly in spouting gibberish. In one respect, I have something in common with these “experts.” I don’t know what they’re talking about, and neither do they!  

There is definitely a concept of the supernatural in Judaism. However, one who has not mastered all of Jewish Law and the Talmud should not dabble in that which he cannot hope to understand. A responsible and ACCURATE study of this topic is beyond the scope of this humble writer. 

In consideration of the above, I will limit my comments to the view of the second school of thought.

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I have on my computer desktop a picture that I took of my son at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.   (And now you have it too! —  He’s on the lower left hand side, next to the flag pole, holding an umbrella.)  Now, there is nothing extraordinary about a father taking a picture of his son. The unusual part is that I took that picture while sitting in my office in Monsey, New York. (See http://www.aish.com/wallcam

Magic! Can you imagine, from thousands of miles away, he was able to hear me tell him where to stand! Without “seeing” him, I was able to reproduce his image on a “magic” computer connected to a “magic” camera via the “magic” of the Internet!  And now, I have “magically” sent it to you!  

What we don’t understand, we call magic. Imagine if someone had told Magellan that John Glenn would circumnavigate the globe in a couple of hours. He would have dismissed it as sorcery. What if someone had told William Shakespeare that people could watch his plays on a little glass screen called a television? He would have called it the work of the Devil!! (And he just might have been right!  :-)) 

Only recently has modern science come to appreciate the knowledge of medicine and herbs possessed by “primitive” cultures. We know today that the ancient Egyptians were master mathematicians and architects. They accomplished feats that could be considered superhuman. 

Is it so far-fetched to assume that Pharaoh had a team of showmen who were geniuses at illusion? Or, perhaps they were scientists who were experts in a type of “spontaneous generation” that today’s “experts” haven’t “discovered” yet. (“Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.”) 

Whatever it was that they were doing, they recognized that what Moses brought to the table was neither science nor sleight of hand. It was “the finger of G-d,” and they were powerless to compete.

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We are still left with one question. O.K., the Egyptians didn’t defy nature. They were experts, either in a science that is beyond us, or in fraud. But what made them so sure that they were seeing “the finger of G-d?” Couldn’t it be that Moses was just a better scientist or fraud than they were?!! 

I look at it this way. The ancient Egyptians, for all their math and scientific wizardry, are gone. The ancient Canaanites and Philistines are gone. The great Babylonians are gone. The lands of the four above-mentioned nations are inhabited by children of Abraham! 

Greeks? Romans? Phoenicians? Gone. Kaput. Forgotten. The Thousand-Year Reich? History. 

Oh, there is one nation from back then who is still around. Remember Israel, poor, persecuted Israel? Enslaved, exiled, Inquisitioned, Pogromed, and Holocausted Israel? Yeah, they’re still here! 

Some may call it chance, some may call it magic. As for myself, if that’s not the finger of G-d, I don’t know what is! 

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz 

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links. 

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 From the Archives  

“Abracadabra = MC2” (2010) 

“Show me a sign!” challenged the Pharaoh … Moses was prepared. He took his staff and threw it to the floor. The staff miraculously turned into a snake. Surely, this man was for real. 

The Pharaoh laughed in his face. “Do you think you can impress me with simple magic? Anything you can do, my magicians can do better!” 

Sure enough, the Egyptian sorcerers made their own sticks into snakes. “Are you trying to sell straw in Ofarayim?!” (The Egyptian equivalent of bringing coal to Newcastle or rabbis to Monsey. 🙂 ) This was Egypt, the magic capital of the world! … 

Do we believe in magic?!… 

Read more

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THIS is your Life!” (2009) 

Slaves aren’t real people.  They are chattel; they are property.  They can be bought and sold and bartered like animals…

Pharaoh felt the same way about his Israelites.  They were his possessions, to be utilized in the efficient production of bricks for his ambitious building projects.  He was free to do with them as he wanted. He could even kill their children and use their blood for medicinal purposes.  No one was going to take away his Jews… 

Well, almost no one.  Two Levites by the names of Moses and Aaron were making trouble.  The G-d of Israel, they explained, wanted Pharaoh to release the slaves.  Pharaoh had no interest in complying. 

 “Who is G-d that I should listen to His voice to release Israel?  I don’t know G-d, nor will I let Israel go!”  (Exodus, 5:1-2) 

How could chattel have a G-d??  These sub-human life forms known as Hebrews couldn’t have a G-d!  Why should the great Pharaoh follow the dictates of someone who represents the fictional G-d of a primitive cult? 

Pharaoh obviously needed some convincing… 

Read more

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“Let the Pharaoh GO!” (2008) 

…Pharaoh took this god thing pretty seriously.  He even went to great efforts to convince his subjects that he was super-human.  Yes, they fed him the finest foods.  He had the most comfortable royal furniture.  This man who would be a god was a very material fellow.  Every creature comfort known to man was, no doubt, available in the palace.  With one exception… 

Can you picture the scene? 

“Good morning, Your Majesty!”

“Oh, Moses!  Is that you again?  What are you doing here?” 

“I need to speak with you, your Majesty.  Right away.” 

“Not now, Moses.  Come see me at the palace later.” 

“No, Your Majesty.  I really need to speak with you now…” 

“Uhm, not right now, Moses.  I’m kinda busy at the moment…” 

“Oh I’ll be quick, Your Majesty.  I just have to speak with you for a couple of minutes…” 

“FOR A COUPLE OF MINUTES??!! I DON’T HAVE A COUPLE OF MINUTES!!!  PLEASE MOSES, GO AWAY!  NOW!  PLEASE!  … 

Read more

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 “Answering the Call of Puti” (2007) 

In listing the family lines of Moses and Aaron, the Torah tells us: 

Elazar, the son of Aaron, took one of the daughters of Putiel as a wife, and she bore to him Pinchas…  (Exodus, 6:25) 

Who was this Putiel?  It’s not at all clear.  Some commentaries say he was a well-known person in his day.  It seems from other commentaries that he didn’t exist at all; that he was a “composite.” 

The Talmud (Sotah 43a) indicates that the name “Putiel” is a reference to Joseph…As well, it is a reference to Moses’ father-in-law Jethro… 

What’s with the nicknames?  Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us the man’s name?!!… 

Read more

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“Frog Beaters” (2006) 

Sometimes smart people do things that aren’t so smart. 

…  Our Sages tell us that the Plague of Frogs was a compound miracle.  The swarms of frogs started out with one big frog.  The Egyptians tried to kill it.  Every time they hit a frog, it produced more frogs.  Soon the entire country was inundated with frogs. 

Now let me ask you a simple question.  If a big frog walked into your house, you might try to kill it.  That I understand.  But tell me, if every time you hit it, it produced more frogs, what would you immediately stop doing? 

If the Egyptians saw that their efforts to get rid of the frogs were backfiring, why did they keep hitting the frogs?!… 

Yes, sometimes smart people do things that aren’t so smart… 

Read more.  

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“Sorry, PETA, Pig’s Feet Aren’t Kosher!” (2005) 

… Moses knew where Pharaoh was coming from.  He was an Egyptian king with Egyptian values.   He despised everything Moses stood for.  The very thought of an Israelite slaughtering a lamb in service of G-d was an anathema to everything he stood for.  But he was willing to compromise.  For now.  If keeping his slaves from leaving Egypt meant tolerating Jews eating lamb chops, he was willing to make the tradeoff.  For now. 

Sounds a little like PETA… 

Read more

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“Life Begins … Today!” (2004) 

… In the middle of a discussion of Moses’ “marching orders,” the Torah makes a statement that seems a bit incongruous: 

Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron was eighty-three years old, when they spoke with the Pharaoh.  (Exodus, 7:7) 

…  These men were in their eighties.  They were old!  What were they doing running around back and forth to the palace?  Couldn’t G-d find some younger men to take on this demanding task? … 

Read more.  

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“I Opened the Door…Where’s Eliyahu??” (2002) 

He comes to visit every year.  We pour a cup of wine in his honor, and then welcome his arrival through our open door. 

I refer, of course, to Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, our annual Seder guest… Actually, at the risk of bursting a very popular balloon … Elijah does NOT join us at each Seder… 

Read more.  

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“Not So Loud, the Bread Can Hear You!” (2001) 

…Imagine the scene.  The Shabbos table is set.  Everyone is hungry, and waiting to say Kiddush and begin the meal.  Dad lifts the cup to say Kiddush… then he sees it…the Challah cover is missing. Dad gets annoyed: “Of all the…what’s the matter with you?!!” he bellows.  “Can’t you remember a simple thing like a Challah cover?!!!!!”… 

Read more.  

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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