Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Va'era
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Aasher Ben Haim

Miracles and Magic in Parshat VaEra

Moses, who dared to request that God change His "Attribute of Judgement" to the "Attribute of Mercy," merited having God change the ways of nature in response to his prayers, and the decree of exile was thus nullified before the appointed time.


Rabbi David Dov Levanon

2 min read
1. To Know Me by My Name
2. Danger: Magic
3. There Is No Other
4. Magic, Nature, and Free Will
5. An Appeal to God's Mercy

To Know Me by My Name
Our Torah portion opens with tidings of redemption (Exodus 6:2,3):
"And God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am YHVH (pronounced "Lord" or "God"). I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty ("El Shaddai"), and I did not allow them to know Me by My name YHVH."

Scripture compares God's revelation to the Forefathers with His revelation here before Moses and Israel. Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) elucidates:
"God said to Moses: I appeared to the Forefathers by the "strength of my hands," by virtue of which I shift the constellations in order to aid My chosen ones; but by My name YHVH, through which all existence came into being, I did not reveal Myself to them. That is, I did not create for them new things by changing nature; therefore, say to the Children of Israel that I am YHVH, and inform them again of this great name through which I perform miracles for them, so that they know that I am God who does all.

In other words, God revealed himself to the Forefathers through nature. This sort of revelation is expressed by the name "Shaddai," which is linguistically indicative of one who "shifts" ("Meshaded") the normal course of nature. In the future, though, He will reveal Himself to Moses and the Children of Israel in a miraculous manner, a revelation of YHVH. This is the name which represents hidden Divine inwardness, and therefore is not read as it is written. It is a lofty name, and hence, revelation of the name YHVH is miraculous.
The question that presents itself is this: Why did the redemption from Egyptian bondage have to be played out in a miraculous manner, causing changes in the course of nature? This question is all the more pressing in light of the fact that the Forefathers have taught us that it is possible to discern the Creator by just observing nature, and to uncover the "God of the Earth" which is hinted at in the name "Almighty" ("Shaddai").

What is the meaning of the word "earth"? The Midrash teaches (Bereshit Rabba 5): "And God named the dry land 'Earth.'" Why was it named earth ("Aretz" in Hebrew)? Because it desired ("Ratzah" - similar to the Hebrew root in the word "Aretz") to perform the will of the Creator. And what is the meaning of the name "Almighty" (Shaddai)? R. Nathan says in the name of R. Acha, and R. Brachya says in the name of R. Yitzchak: [When God said:] "I am the Almighty God," [what He meant was:] "I am He Who told the heavens and earth 'Enough!' ("She-ddai"), for, had I not done so, they would have continued expanding endlessly until this very day."
Therefore, it is possible to learn fear of Heaven by observing the nature of the earth - the earth which "desired to perform the will of the creator." Furthermore, the fact that the Almighty told the Heavens and Earth 'Enough!' tells us that there was "enough" of what had been created in order to teach us about the existence of God.
In the Kabalistic work, the Zohar (Terumah, 161b) it is written that "the Almighty looked into the Torah and created the universe," and if, indeed, the Torah is the scheme of the universe, than it must be possible to learn from the universe about the Torah, i.e. God.

The Gemara teaches:
"Tudus the Roman expounded: What justified Chananya, Misha'el, and Azar'yah in suffering themselves to be thrown into the fiery kiln [since it is written in the Torah, "And he shall live by it (i.e., the Torah) and not die by it]? They drew their justification through a fortiori reasoning. If, concerning the frogs, who were in no way obliged in like manner to sanctify the name of God, it is written (Exodus 7:28): 'And they shall go up and come into your house, and into your sleeping chamber, and upon your bed, and into the house of your servant, and among your people, and into your ovens, and into your kneading dough'; (When is the kneading dough found in the ovens? Surely when it is hot!) and since the frogs did not take heed for their lives but went into the hot ovens, how much more shall we who are in duty bound and are commanded to sanctify God's name, do such a thing!
Ostensibly, it is difficult to understand how we can arrive at such a conclusion based upon the behavior of the frogs; after all, they do not exercise free will which allows them to deviate from what they have been commanded. How, then, can it be said that they were not obligated to sanctify the name of God?
Answer: It would appear that the intention of the Sages is to learn precisely from nature, which unswervingly fulfills God's will. We must learn a fortiori from nature - which is bound to God's scheme - to ourselves, who do possess the freedom to choose good, and regarding whom the expression "bound and commanded" is fitting - i.e., how much more so should we, who exercise free will, do what we have been commanded.
All this, then, brings us back to the question of why God had to reveal Himself in a miraculous manner at this point.

Danger: Magic
It would appear that this need for miracles says something of the great spiritual decline experienced by the Children of Israel while in Egypt. Egypt was thoroughly saturated with sorcery and this caused a weakened level of faith. The land was so full of idolatry that Scripture says: "And Moses said to him (Pharaoh), when I leave the city I will raise up my hands," and the Sages (Shemot Rabbah 12) comment that from here it is clear that Moses did not want to pray within the borders of Egypt because it was infested with idolatry. He could not find a suitable place to pray.
The Sages also teach (Kiddushin 49b): "Ten measures of sorcery descended upon the world and Egypt took nine." This is explicitly stated in the Torah (Exodus 7:11): "Pharaoh summoned his scholars and magicians. The master symbolists were able to do the same thing with their magic tricks." And when Moses wanted to perform a sign and a miracle before Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler responded: "You are bringing straw to Apharim, a town already abundant with straw" [like magic to Egypt, a land already abundant with sorcery.] The Sages furthermore teach (Sanhedrin 67b): "Why are they called sorcerers ("MeKhashfim")? Answer: Because [the word 'MeKhashfim' is made up of the initials of the Hebrew words] 'they defy the Heavenly court' by demonstrating that it is possible to change the laws of nature. Nature reflects the desire of the Almighty Himself. This being the case, Heaven forbid that it should be demonstrated that it is possible to change God's will. It was therefore necessary that there be open and revealed miracles in order to nullify the hidden nature of God in the impurity of Egypt, as Ramban writes (on Exodus 13:17): "It is the great and undeniable miracles which cause man to recognize the hidden miracles which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For, a person does not have a portion in the Torah of Moses unless he believes that our lives are made up entirely of miracles which defy nature and go against the normal order of creation.
In the above-quoted verse, "The master symbolists were able to do the same thing with their magic tricks," the word for "their magic tricks" is "Lahateihem," from the Hebrew root "Lahat." The Sages teach (Sanhedrin 67b): "BeLahateihem" - these are magic tricks, as it is written (Genesis 3:24): "...along with the revolving sword blade ("Lahat").
How are we to understand this comparison between the magic tricks and the revolving sword blade?
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Genesis ) teaches:
"He drove away the man..." (Genesis 3:24) teaches us that God divorced him like a woman; "...and stationed the cherubim at the east ('mikedem') of Eden..." teaches that the cherubim precede ('kodmim' from the same root as 'mikedem') the entire biblical account of the creation; "...along with the revolving sword blade..." refers to Gehenna; " guard the path..." teaches that upright conduct comes before the Tree of Life, and the term "tree" can only mean Torah, as the verse states: "It (the Torah) is a tree of life..."
We have learned that the "revolving sword blade" ("lahat") causes us to be unaware of the location of the path that leads to the Tree of Life, which is the "admirable behavior which antecedes Torah." This, then, is the essence of "magic." It has the effect of causing us not to recognize our Creator via His creation. And like in the first exile of Adam from the Garden of Eden, so the first Exile of Israel in Egypt - the sorcerers with their magic tricks covered up the path to the Tree of Life.

There Is No Other
The rectification of such a situation is to reach a level of faith wherein one recognizes that everything comes from God, and that even magic was created by God for the purpose of assuring man's free will. One who believes this possesses the power to overcome the danger of such magic, as the Gemara teaches us there (Sanhedrin, loc. cit.):
"'There is none besides Him.' R. Chaninah says that [this is true] even regarding magic.
There was a woman who used to collect the dust from under the feet of R. Chaninah [in order to employ it in casting a magic curse upon the scholar]. He said to her: If you succeed, go ahead and do it, for it is written, 'There is none besides Him (i.e., God).'
Can this indeed be true? Did not Rabbi Yochanan teach: The reason that they called sorcerers ("MeKhashfim") is that [the word 'MeKhashfim' is made up of the initials of the Hebrew words] 'they defy the Heavenly court.'?
R. Chaninah is different, for he is a personage with much merit."

According to this, there is a source for Rambam who did not believe in ghosts and magic. He holds like R. Chaninah. The words of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk are well known: Rambam ruled that there are no ghosts, and, by so doing, effectively destroyed them. According to what we have said, then, this resulted from his great conviction that "there is none besides Him."
Similarly, we find in the Gemara (Kiddushin 29):
It happened with R. Yaakov the son of R. Acha b. Yaakov....When Abaye got word that R. Acha was coming, and as there was a demon in the school of Abaye so that when two would enter in the day time they would suffer damage, he said to the Rabbis, "Let none give R. Acha any place to sleep over night. [Hence he will be compelled to spend his night in that school-house], and there were good chances that a miracle would happen to him, [thereby driving out the demon]." R. Acha entered to sleep in the school, and the demon appeared to him in the shape of a seven-headed dragon. Every time R. Acha knelt down to pray, he caused the throwing off of one of those heads, [thus having killed the serpent after he knelt down seven times]. In the morning he said to the Rabbis: "Had not a miracle happened to me you would have exposed me to danger."
Apparently the meaning here is that because he bowed down and nullified himself before God, it was as if he was declaring the fact that "There is none besides Him," and by doing this he succeeded in destroying the demon.

Magic, Nature, and Free Will
We must attempt to grasp why it is that God gave man the ability to perform magic, and change the laws of nature which God Himself so desires.
It would appear that this situation is permitted in order to allow man the freedom to choose. Rambam explains the wonder of man's freedom (Hilkhoth Teshuvah 5:4):
"Do not be astonished and say: How can a person possibly do whatever he like and be in control of his actions? Can anything happen in this world without the agreement and desire of man's Creator? Indeed, the verse states: "God does all according to his desire in Heaven and on Earth." Know that, indeed, everything happens according to His desire, even though we are in control of our own acts. How is this possible? Answer: Just as the Creator desires that fire and air should rise while water and earth drop down...and that creatures of the world should behave in the manner that they do, so He desires that man should be permitted to do according to his desire, and that all of his acts should be up to him, and that there should be nothing which compels him or pulls him. Rather, he, on his own and by applying the understanding which God has granted him, does all that one can do."
And just as the Almighty allows man to do all that he desires, so does God allow man to go against His will and change the decrees of nature via magic. God created both of these options. Man, the root of whose soul is above nature, has the power to alter nature for the sake of Heaven, "and He fulfills the desire of his pious ones" - the Almighty nullifies His own desire in favor of the desire of the righteous. A righteous person decrees, and God fulfills. This too is a reason to allow the impure forces to change nature by way of magic - so that man's free choice not be eradicated.
Where is the line of demarcation drawn between the righteous who serve God and the wicked who worship foreign Gods?
The Sages teach (Bereshit Rabbah 69):
R. Yochanan said: "The wicked exist above their God, as it says (Genesis 41): "And Pharaoh dreamed and behold he was standing above the Nile." But as for the righteous, their God exists above them, as it says: "And, behold, God was above him, and He said, I am God, the Lord of Abraham."
In other words, the wicked make use of their God for their own benefit, to gain what they need. This is what is meant by "and behold he was standing above the Nile," but the righteous want to serve God lovingly for His sake, therefore, "And, behold, God was above him."
The Gemara teaches (Chullin 7a):
"Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was on his way to ransom captives when he came to the Gannai River. He said to it (the river): 'Gannai, part your waters before me and allow me to pass through.' Gannai responded, saying: 'You are in the process of fulfilling the desire of your Maker, and I am also in the process of fulfilling my Maker's desire; you may succeed in your mission, or you may not; I, though, will undoubtedly succeed [therefore I refuse to part on your behalf].' He (Pinchas ben Yair) said: 'If you do not part your waters I will make a decree such that water will forever cease to flow in your midst.' At this he parted his waters."
From the above story, we learn that nature acts in accordance with its Maker's will, and its nullification runs counter to its Maker's will. On the other hand, a righteous individual can decree that it stop and its waters separate. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Liva ben Betzalel, interprets the words "I will decree" in the above excerpt as a response to the words of the river, "You are in the process of fulfilling the desire of your Maker, and I am also in the process of fulfilling my maker's desire; you may succeed in your mission, or you may not; I will undoubtedly succeed," i.e., you are fulfilling his decree without free will, while I do it of my own choice, therefore my possible success outweighs your sure success.
Nature gives in to the righteous individual who overcomes his evil inclination, and, in effect, overcomes his nature. Accordingly, the Sages teach (Shemot Rabbah): "By virtue of Joseph's bones the sea opened up. 'The sea saw and fled' (Psalm 114:3) due to the merit of that which is written: 'and he fled [from Potiphar's wife] and ran outside' (Genesis 39:12)." What the Sages wish to say here is that by the merit of Joseph's overcoming his desire and running out, the sea opened up before him.

An Appeal to God's Mercy
It would appear that, based upon the above, we may shed light upon the answer which God gave to Moses regarding his statement, "Why do you mistreat Your people? (Exodus 5:22). The Sages teach: "Because of this, the Attribute of Judgement wished to besmirch Moses. This is what is written: 'And God spoke ("Vaydaber..." indicating God's Attribute of Justice) to Moses...' But when the Almighty saw that it was because of Israel's suffering that Moses spoke as he did, He rescinded and behaved toward Moses with the Attribute of Mercy. This is what is written: 'And He said to him ("Vayomer..." which indicates God's Attribute of Mercy), I am God.'"
In other words, because Moses wished to nullify the decree of exile, and spoke strongly before God, the Attribute of Justice was awakened against him. But because God discerned that Moses was actually acting for the sake of Heaven and to save the Children of Israel from suffering, He answered Moses' plea. For God's most profound desire is to heed the words of the righteous, and this itself is a kind of revelation of the Divine ineffable name which represents the Attribute of Mercy, which is a revelation of His inner desire, a kind of supernatural phenomenon which appears in the world. This is in essence what God says: "I revealed Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty ("El Shaddai"), and I did not allow them to know Me by My name YHVH."
That is, for the Forefathers God did not alter nature, and did not nullify Heavenly decrees, for they did not dare question the perfection of God's attributes; but Moses, who dared to request that God change His Attribute of Judgement to that of Mercy merited God's changing the ways of nature in response to his prayers, and the decree of exile was thus nullified before the appointed time.
Some of the biblical passages in this article were taken from or based upon Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "The Living Torah." Some of the Talmudic passages were taken or based upon Rabbi S.H. Glick's "En Jacob."

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