Sorcery and Lucky Charms
Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )
Yosef, in the guise of the Viceroy of Egypt, sends back his brothers and commands his son to hide his special silver goblet in the sack of Binyamin. While the brothers are on their way home, Yosef sends his son to confront them and claim that one of them had stolen his goblet. His son describes the goblet as "the one from which my master drinks, and with which he regularly divines (nachesh yenachesh)." He tells the brothers of the importance of this goblet in that it enables Yosef to tell the future.
When the brothers are returned to Yosef, in his role as viceroy, he emphasizes the importance of this goblet and how it enables him to do nichush (divining). Rabbi Yissachar Frand asks why there is so much emphasis on 'nichush'? Why is it so important for Yosef to convey to his brothers his reliance on this form of sorcery?
Rabbi Shimson Raphael Hirsch helps shed light on this question with his explanation of the deeper meaning of the word 'nichush'. He notes that it is connected to the word, nachash, meaning snake. Unlike all other animals, a snake does not walk in a straight line, rather it slithers, taking a crooked path. Normally in life, in order to achieve anything, a person has to go from one point to another point, going through a process involving hard work and effort. This is the law of cause and effect - one works, he makes money, he is good, he is rewarded.
However, there is a way to 'beat the system', to achieve a goal without having to go through the hard work that is normally required. This is the concept of all forms of sorcery, one of which is nichush. In Yosef's case it was a special goblet that enabled him to 'cheat the system' by seeing the future. This is comparable to the path of a snake; because it is crooked, it avoids the straight path of hard work and takes the easy way out. Yosef wanted to convince his brothers that he was an Egyptian. A Jew who follows the Torah knows that the only way to achieve goodness in this world is to be good and to act appropriately. Reward will come to those deserving of it.
Rabbi Frand continues:
"Egyptians don't think like that. They want to receive the goodness without having to work for it. They want to achieve undeserved goodness. When superstition controls one's life, he is liberated from having to work in order to achieve. If it is "in the cards" or "in the stars" - according to this philosophy - one can get things even though he does not deserve them. This allows one to act however he wants."
Yosef, in trying to disguise himself from his brothers, is communicating to them that he swears by this 'non-Jewish' approach to life. Indeed, when he tells them that a man of his position needs his goblet in order to practice nichush, he implicitly insinuates that his great success and rise to his position of power was because of his power of nichush.
Such an idea is foreign to Yaakov's children and should be foreign to anyone raised in a home of Jewish values. We believe that one earns reward by deserving reward. There are no superstitious shortcuts to expect or to rely upon.
However, there can be a tendency even for a Jew to want to rely on 'segulos' (charms) to solve their problems or ease their suffering. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits points out that this is somewhat missing the point. For example, God does not send us difficulties merely so that we can perform some kind of segula even if it is effective in ending the pain. Rather, God wants us to grow from the challenge into a greater people. This does not necessarily mean that all segulos are negative, but one should not forget the purpose of challenges - that God is telling us to grow.
In this vein, when some Torah sages are asked about segulos to help people, they often answer with 'segulos' that are related to increased Torah observance and Torah learning. A young, newly married man once asked a Sage for a segula to increase Shalom Bayit (marital harmony) on Erev Shabbat when there tends to be a lot of stress. The Sage answered that he should take a broom and help clean the house! He was communicating to the young man that the best 'segulos' are those that do not take short-cuts to achieve success, but that involve hard work and improving one's character traits.
1. Bereishis, 44:5.