INSIGHT
5770 - #14

Va’era

A REALITY OF ‘MAGIC’

            Recently, I was reviewing the famous story of Eliyahu at Mount Carmel1 and found myself inherently troubled by the response of Jezebel. Of course, it is expected that a reader should be disturbed by the actions of this evil woman but what bothered me was the problem it presented regarding the whole episode. Eliyahu performs this miracle as substantive proof for God, and in fact those who saw this miracle proclaim this truth that Hashem is God,2 yet Jezebel’s response, when told by her husband Achav of what happened,3 is to send a messenger to threaten Eliyahu, that just as he killed the priests of Ba’al, he will be killed by the same time tomorrow. And even stranger, it would seem, Eliyahu flees in fear of his life.4 Overall, there just seems to be a weakness in this message of the miracle.

            Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Shemot 7:22 provides one possible approach that could be applied in an attempt to understand this perplexity. Rav Yaakov wonders about the absence, in our times, of the obvious supernatural arts or phenomena that are described in history such as the deeds performed by the sorcerers of Egypt. He contends that in a world of prophecy, of supernatural events occurring in the name of God, there must be, in order to maintain free choice, a countervailing force of open magic which can explain away any argument in favour of the Divine.5 Simply, if God’s Presence was totally obvious, it would be impossible for a person to sin. As such, in order to enable someone to sin, a person must be allowed a possibility to explain what he/she is experiencing in such a way that could deny the Divine and/or Divine teaching. If Moshe was going to perform miracles, a power of magic had to exist in order to maintain any semblance of free choice. Similarly, in the world of Jezebel, she had to have a way to explain the events at Har Carmel in a manner that could enable her to deny the miracle’s message; this was, as such, also a time of occult magic. Thus, Rav Yaakov concludes, in our times, without prophecy and obvious miracles, there is no need for open magic.

            I am, though, uneasy with this answer. Both in Egypt and at Har Carmel, the very objective of the miracle(s) was to prove God. In showing that there is, in fact, another way to explain these events, this very proof is challenged. Was the objective of Eliyahu at Mount Carmel to perform an act that could be understood as miraculous but could also be explained in another manner thus creating a challenge of free choice or was it to perform an act that would clearly demonstrate the existence of the God of Torah and call upon the people to meet their responsibilities as Jews? Even in regard to Egypt, whereby we say the miracles eventually were of such a nature that they could not be explained in any other way except in that they were miraculous,6 do we contend that witnessing such occurrences destroyed free choice? While it is true that it is maintained that Pharaoh eventually lost his free choice and God caused him to continue saying no, is the Chumash not subsequently filled with stories of individuals who experienced the miracles of Egypt, and the Reed Sea, yet continued, it would seem, to experience free choice as evidenced by their problematic behaviour in the desert. Free choice may not only exist in the question of how one understands reality – and, as such, God must leave the lessons and proofs from reality somewhat incomplete – but also in how one responds to reality even though hearing its message loud and clear.7 The question for me thus continues. Let us further assume that the message of Har Carmel was clear: what was Jezebel thinking?

            The fact is, though, that I am not even sure if I am even able to arrive at answer. The further problem with any attempt to understand the events at Mount Carmel and, even, the events in Egypt, especially the early ones, is that they occurred in a realm that was vastly different then our own. It is too simple to say that this was just a world of magic, of the open manifestation of the supernatural. Magic did not just occur; it was part of the reality. Even using the word ‘magic’ may yield incorrect perceptions. To us, the terms magic and supernatural imply something beyond the natural. In the world of the Tanach, what we would term magic and supernatural were actually part of, let us say, the natural. In our world, what we term the natural are the rules that govern existence by which we are bound and through which we can affect our lives. To us, magic and the supernatural are terms that we apply to events that defy these rules. In the world of the Tanach, though, they seem to be other rules that also govern reality.

            T.B. Sanhedrin 67b, building upon the difference in the word belateihem7 and belahateihem,8 both similarly translated as incantations, maintains that there are actually two forms of what we may term generically as magic. Both work within different rules. Ntziv, Shemot 7:11 seems to define three, although the third one he is describing may be simply a form of the magic of today, namely mind tricks, but nonetheless following rules. We further see the rules that governed magic in the above noted gemara's statement that this form of magic could not work on matter as small as dust. Interestingly, Torah Temima, Shemot 7:11, note 2 points out how the other form of magic, applied by the Egyptian sorcerers to turn staffs into snakes, could not work on water. There were rules and it was within this realm that the episodes of our Tanach took place. It is a realm that is different than are our; and this presents a challenge to our understanding. As such, this may impede me from ever understanding Jezebel, Har Carmel and, even, Egypt. Nevertheless, it is my duty to attempt to do so – and to try and gain whatever I can from my study – but the recognition that we are discussing a world, a times, a realm, which is no longer existent must be part of our consciousness.

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 Melachim I 18:19 -19:4.

2 With the famous statement of Hashem hu haElokim that is now proclaimed universally at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

3 The fact that Jezebel did not herself witness the miracle could be advanced as a possible explanation for her words; however this response does not truly solve this mystery. The fact that Achav, who saw the miracle, is passive in the face of his wife and that the miracle’s impact on seemingly everyone was only very temporary also seems strange.

4 The classic explanation for Eliyahu’s actions is the statement of ein somchin al hanes one should not rely upon miracles. Yet would not the murder of Eliyahu – i.e. that he was not even miraculously saved – have tainted the very impact of the miracle on Har Carmel? Recognition of this mixture of natural and supernatural, I believe, only furthers the ideas that will be expressed within this Insight.

5 See, also, David Zolty, Understanding the Biblical World of Idolatry, Prophecy & Sacrifice, Nishma Journal 10 which identifies a similar connection between prophecy and idolatry albeit in a different context.

6 See, for example, Rashi, Shemot 8:15.

6 The fact that a lack of absolute belief, as in the case of the tinnok shenishba, is considered a defense within Halacha, I have always seen as a further argument that rather than fostering bechira, free choice, the absence of absolute proof is actually an argument for clemency.

7 See, for example, Shemot 7:22.

8 See Shemot 7:11.                  
Nishma 2010

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