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Today is September 15, 2019 -

Torah Portion Va’era

It’s Gods’ Power! No, It’s Magic!
No, It’s Just a Trick! Well, What Is It?

After the first plague, when Moses and Aaron turned the Nile water into blood, we read “But the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells…” (Exodus 7:22) I often say that the old, “water into blood trick” was a well known illusion in ancient times, sort of like sawing a person in half is today. (You can even do this at home, at your seder. Just before you recite the plagues, ask some to pour water into your glass. Put a little red food coloring in the bottom of your glass first, and amaze your friends!) Rabbi Harold Kushner has pointed out, “Religion…[is] serving God; magic [is] using God. When Moses turns the water of the Nile into blood, he is obeying God’s command as he does so. When the Pharaoh’s magicians turn water into blood, they’re manipulating the gods to obey their command…to demonstrate the power of clever men over their gods…authentic Jewish religious behavior means trying to discern what God wants us to do, rather than try and get God to do what we want Him to do.” (quoted in Learn Torah with…Parashat Vaera: Volume 1 # 14, 1994) What we call “magic” is simply an illusion done with sleight of hand and/or misdirection. Magic as described by Rabbi Kushner assumes there is a realm of power that a human being can access and using that power he/she is able to bend reality to his/her will. That is similar to superstitions and contrary to a religious outlook. It is true that we pray to God with requests, but we should not believe that just by praying we automatically are able to twist reality to our own will. Yes, I know that religious people sometimes practice their religion as if it is magic. We are all likely to do so. However, I hope we can see in our religious practice, our need to “discern what God wants us to do.” That is not an easy task, and sometimes it can lead to actions that are difficult or uncomfortable, but ultimately spiritual and meaningful, because they are not magic. They are true religion.