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Miracles and Magic

Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )

by Yehuda Appel

Over the centuries, many religious adherents have tried to prove that they possess the "true" religion by performing miracles. However, Maimonides states: When one is willing to give credence to a religion because of reports of miracles, that is entering into dangerous territory - for one never knows whether the "miracles" may in fact be optical illusion or sleight of hand.

While there is clearly no lack of miracles in Jewish tradition, Judaism rejects the notion that our belief is based on these miracles. The theological bedrock of our religion is, as Martin Buber notes, a claim unparalleled in history: that God spoke in a national revelation to the entire Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. The foundation of Judaism is built upon a verifiable historical event, not an account of miraculous acts.

But a question remains: How does Judaism respond to the reported miracles of other peoples and faiths? This question is at the heart of this week's Torah portion, Va'eira. In the Parsha, Moses approaches Pharaoh and asks that the Jewish people be given a short respite from their labors so that they can go into the desert and worship God. To bolster the strength of the request in the eyes of Pharaoh, God tells Moses to have his brother Aaron throw a staff down in front of the Egyptian leader and it will turn into a snake.

Aaron does this, but Pharaoh is unimpressed and his own sages accomplish the same task! Though Aaron's staff eventually swallows up all the Egyptian staffs, Pharaoh remains unmoved.

There are various opinions as to how the Egyptian sages accomplished their actions. Maimonides categorically rejects the possibility that there is any power to magic. In his view, any instance of sorcery is sheer nonsense to which no rational person should give any credence. He says that the accounts of astrological "forces" are fabrications, invented to control the masses and extract from them money and allegiance.

Others, however, disagree. Nachmanides, whose commentary is full of Jewish mysticism, maintains that the Egyptians were able to perform supernatural acts. He says that they possessed knowledge of the spiritual realm and were able to manipulate negative forces - in particular, the "forces of destruction" - for their own purposes. God created these forces in order to give man the free will to choose to engage the "good" forces or the "evil."

An interesting intermediate position is brought by the Abarbanel (15th century Spain). He notes that, on the one hand, various Biblical verses indicate that only God can perform supernatural acts. On the other hand, the Torah clearly seems to state that the Egyptians performed magic through incantations and sorcery. Abarbanel's conclusion is that the Egyptians did in fact perform sleight of hand, but only with the help of these spiritual forces.

I would like to suggest an alternative explanation to the Egyptians' actions (and to the wider phenomena of miracles performed by people of various faiths):

In creating His world, God placed within it an incredibly powerful force called "faith." This means that if you put enough people in a room, who share a strong enough belief in something, these people just may be able to bring about a miracle.

Based on this approach, the success of one's actions does not attest to the truth of their beliefs, but rather to the strength of their faith. Belief stands as a force in and of itself. In religion, just as in human psychology, what you believe can have a great impact on reality.


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