November 22, 2018

Do You Believe

For a small donation, you can now e-mail your prayers to a site in Jerusalem where they will be placed into the Kotel, the Western Wall, on your behalf.

With a powerful computer, scholars in Israel have revealed the secret codes embedded in the text of the Torah — codes predicting the Holocaust, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, as well as calamities yet to come.

A local religious group touts the healing benefits of scanning pages of mystical texts, regardless of whether one can read the words or understand their meaning. Just having a set of the text in my home, an adherent urges, will bring blessings to my family.

How seductive is magic? Hidden knowledge, secret powers, special access to the inner workings of the universe — who can resist? It is an addiction that plays upon a deep sense of powerlessness and frustration with a complex world. I doubt my ability to navigate this world, so I turn to signs, omens and secret incantations to bring success and happiness. I doubt the presence of God in a world of AIDS, drive-by shootings and moral lunacy, so I look to secret codes for reassurance and guidance. But at what cost?

In turning to secrets and signs, do I not surrender the power of my intelligence, my judgment, my reason? Do I not surrender my capacity to imagine and create a better life, a better world?

This week’s Torah portion, which is about the lure of magic, breaks the narrative flow describing the desert journey of the Israelites and takes us to Moab, one of the nations in Israel’s path.

The king of Moab, terrified by the advancing Israelites, realizes that his only chance is to enlist the power of a well-known wizard, Balaam, to render them vulnerable. There ensues a remarkable negotiation. The king believes in the power of magic to destroy his enemies, and in his ability to buy this power. He believes in the multitiered cosmology of paganism. On the lowest level , human beings — pitifully weak and vulnerable. Above, rule the gods, who control the forces of nature. But above the gods, there is another level — the mysterious forces of ultimate fate. The only chance human beings have of shaping their own destiny is to employ secrets of these upper powers to manipulate the gods, forcing them to do human bidding.

This is the essence of magic — the manipulation of the forces of destiny through secret knowledge, spells and rites. So the king sends a bribe, contracting the wizard to curse Israel. But this is no ordinary wizard. In fact, he is no wizard at all. Balaam is a true prophet, who continually insists that he is only a conduit for the one, sole power in the universe — the God of history. This God works His will in history and will not be manipulated or bought.

In this remarkable exchange between the king and the wizard, the Torah has placed the contest between magic and monotheism. Magic is a form of slavery, confirming a sense of human powerlessness in the face of mysterious forces of destiny.

The God of the history takes us out of bondage, empowering human beings to shape our own destiny, to seek the Promised Land, with His gifts of intelligence, conscience and imagination.

When, at last, a final, huge bribe persuades the wizard to accompany the king, he stands over the Israelite camp, and out of his mouth come, not curses, but blessings: “Ma tovu ohalecha ya’akov” — “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”

God will neither be bought nor manipulated. God is not amenable to secrets. But God has shown us the way to turn curses into blessings whenever we are prepared to listen.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.