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Torah Commentary
Naso (May 18, 2013)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

AMULETS, SUPERSTITION AND WITCHCRAFT — perhaps the enduring remnants of the pagan worship of our ancestors — always have been a part of Jewish folk religion. Golems, dybbuks and demons play key roles in the Talmud, the stories of our grandparents and our imaginations today. It still is common practice to change one’s name after surviving an illness or to wear the mezuzah as a good-luck charm, a hamsa to ward off the evil eye or a red string after a visit to the Kabbalah Center.

Nevertheless, the Torah forbids the use of sorcery as an usurpation of Divine authority. Exodus 22:18 explicitly states that “one may not suffer a witch to live.” In a classic biblical tale, King Saul drives out all the mediums and necromancers from the Land of Israel — but then secretly and in disguise visits a witch so that he may seek advice from the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Samuel foretells Saul’s death in battle the following day. (I Samuel 28:3-25) Clearly, the story is meant to show just how unfit for rule Saul was. To bend heavenly spirits to one’s own will, to take direct control over the forces of nature, to utter and bring into existence is to take God’s power for one’s own. (“Abracadabra” has its roots in an Aramaic phrase, literally, “I will create as I speak.”) Only God may create something from nothing.

This week’s Torah reading includes the Priestly Benediction, a blessing that has been part of the synagogue liturgy since ancient times and also is given by parents to their children on the Sabbath eve. Yet, these three sentences have all the characteristics of a magic spell or incantation. The text itself forms a “magic triangle” — a classic formulation for an amulet — as a pattern of 3-5-7 words, 12-14-16 syllables and 15-20-25 consonants. The words offer, not a plea for Divine favor but the assurance of God’s protection and providence. The language is not of prayer or supplication but rather of command: “God will bless you and keep you.”

The power to bestow such a blessing should be exclusively in God’s domain, but in the Bible, the priest is endowed by birthright with this superhuman and supernatural ability. To this day, you may see those who are descended from the priests (often preserved by a family name such as Cohen, Kahn or Kagan) leading the Priestly Blessing from the front of the sanctuary, making with their fingers the sign of the letter shin (for Shaddai, a name of God — and yes, this is where Leonard Nimoy found the idea for Mr. Spock’s “Live long and prosper” greeting). The power of the parental blessing is similarly significant in the Bible, notably in the story of Jacob and Esau. When Isaac blesses Jacob in place of his brother, we get the sense that a son not only can inherit his father’s worldly possessions but also can be assured of a future of wealth and fortune.

How can we reconcile the dissonance between the forbidding of sorcery and divination with the endowment of priests and fathers with supernatural powers? Gunther Plaut, in his commentary on the Bible, notes a long history of discomfort with the possibility that humans, priests or otherwise, might be able to force God’s hand or impose their own desires upon the Divine will. He cites the reading of the Rashbam, who divests these words “of the quality of cause and effect” and sees it rather as an expression of “hope rather than certainty, similar to the blessing which is greeting and prayer: ‘The Lord be with you’ (Ruth 2:4).” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1066) This interpretation may be reflected in the traditional response to this benediction, not “Amen” but Ken Yehi Ratzon, “May it be in accordance with the Divine will.”

Still, I must admit that I find it very appealing to imagine that, as a dad, I could have magical powers. It would be wonderful not to seek God’s blessing for my children but to impart upon them myself the gifts of long life, health and prosperity. But, I must be satisfied by teaching my children to live wisely and to love justice, as well as to hope and to pray that God’s face indeed will shine upon them. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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