Shabbat-Table Talks: Perashat Shoftim
By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Value: Rejecting superstitions.
There are people in our society for whom superstitions and fortune telling prevail over rational thinking. It is worthwhile educating our children to be on the guard for superstitious ways of thinking. The Torah expressly forbids trying to know the future and doing any kinds of magical practices to affect it. Most of us do not engage in these practices, however, they appear in popular culture and sometimes even under the guise of Judaism. It is important to make our children aware that these practices are against our Torah values.
Context: The Canaanite inhabitants of the Promised Land engaged in many behaviors that were antithetical to Torah. Some of those behaviors included the use of sorcery to know the future. Moshe warned Bne Yisrael to not be interested in such behavior.
Text: Devarim 18:9-15
When you come into the land that the Hashem your God gives you, you shall not learn to do the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire. Or that uses divination, or an observer of the omens, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Hashem your God drives them out from before you.
You shall be wholeheartedly perfect with the Lord your God.
Analysis: These verses contain a long list of kinds of sorcerers. Although we cannot identify all of them today, what the Torah is objecting to is the magical way of thinking; the belief that by performing the appropriate ritual behavior, the future will turn out as desired. Such thinking has even led some people to sacrifice their children in times of great anxiety. The Torah forbids it because it goes against the ethical and spiritual foundations of the Torah. God is not affected by such behavior because God cannot be manipulated.
People who are anxious or uncertain about their future might resort to all kinds of irrational means of relieving their uncertainty. They might even try communicating with the dead. Necromancy was practiced in Biblical times and is still practiced today. The Torah forbids any kind of attempts to contact the dead or any kind of prayers to the dead. The first book of Samuel (chapter 28) describes how a distraught King Saul, fearing an imminent military defeat, sought the assistance of a necromancer to raise the dead prophet, Shemuel. The sorceress is able to contact the prophet, who complains about being disturbed and then converses with King Saul. The Torah’s message is not necessarily that these practices don’t work. The message is that even if one thinks that they work, they are prohibited. Additionally, these practices were often associated with idol worship. [In Torah practice we never pray to the dead. At times we pray to Hashem to have compassion upon the souls of those who have died. This differs markedly from addressing the dead in prayer.]
Discussion: Why do you think that the Torah does not want a person to go to a fortuneteller? (The Torah does not want people to rely on non-Torah ways of knowing about the future. Rather we should follow God wholeheartedly and not stray to these foreign ways.)
Rashi commented on the last verse quoted above:
Walk continually with God in perfect [commitment], put your hope in Him and do not seek out the future. Rather, accept in perfect [commitment] anything that occurs to you. Then you will be His nation and portion.
We accept whatever the future brings upon us with belief in God. We beseech only Him and use only the methods allowed by the Torah to “overturn” the evil decree. As our wise sages have taught us, “Three things annul the [harsh] decree, prayer, charity, and repentance.” (Bereshit Rabbah chapter 44). Resorting to other means might be a way of skirting the real issues. If we are anxious about the future our sages have shown us the way. We must pray to Hashem, give of our possessions to the needy and we must investigate our actions and repent. Especially by repenting, the person sees what in his past behavior might have led to his current dilemma. A person who goes through this process grows spiritually because of his anxiety and becomes a better person. Contrast this spiritual behavior with those who thrust at us red strings, hands, rabbit’s feet and other amulets.
This might be a good time to discuss the problematic themes in some popular children’s books. Books whose prominent figures are sorcerers and ghosts proffer a worldview that is occultist and antithetical to Torah. They should be explained as imaginary and as having no basis in reality. Problems are not solved through magic but through real steps to improve the situation. These include thinking about the problem, improving oneself, and of course praying for Hashem’s guidance.
There is another problem with resorting to fortune-tellers and others who use magical means of dealing with life’s problems. There are unscrupulous people who would prey upon the vulnerable sufferer. There have been those who even donned Rabbinic disguises to mislead, defraud and abuse people. These scoundrels feign contact with dead spirits by using hidden amplifiers and microphones.
We should teach our children the problem with relying on success stories. Every fortune-teller has his or her success stories. These could be things that happened to work out the way they called it. Or that gullible people (who very much want to believe that someone they know has this power) have accepted the fortune-teller’s reinterpretation of his original prediction. We should be very wary of such “success” stories. Even if they are true, we should realize that we are not getting a full and honest record. We are just getting the successes and not the failures.
Happy are those who follow the Torah and who keep far from these things.
If you would like to dedicate Shabbat Table Talks in honor or in memory of a loved one, or to subscribe to Shabbat Table Talks, send an email to email@example.com.
Shabbat Table Talks is a publication of the Sephardic Orthodox Union.