This week’s Torah portion is Vaera. In it Moses goes before Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go free. It is rarely noted that Moses is 80 years old when he first appears before Pharaoh. It is interesting that both Abraham and Moses achieved greatness during their older, retirement years. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that achievements are not of youth and strength and vigor, but of age and wisdom. It is only after years of toil and learning that one can really achieve something of historical weight.
We also read of the first six plagues—namely blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague and boils. This is preceded by what might be called dueling magic tricks. Moses and Aaron compete with the Egyptian magicians, each performing magic tricks to impress Pharaoh. There is the Bible’s age old favorite of turning a staff into a snake. And this of course raises the question of magic and miracles.
The first answer is that it is called a miracle if it is our side. If it is the other guy then it is magic, or even worse, sorcery. If to our benefit, then it is God’s miracle. If to theirs then there are only two possible choices. It is only an apparent benefit. It only looks like a good thing. Or it is not a miracle but magic. Thus miracles are really only a matter of perspective. Perhaps if we look at something differently it will be seen as a miracle. This is one lesson we can draw from the portion. Look at the world differently and you will see many more miracles. With such eyes even every sunrise can be seen as a miracle.
Finally there is the question about staffs and snakes. How can a staff turn into a snake?
Do we believe in magic? Do we believe in superstitions?
The simple answer is Jews do believe in such things, but Judaism does not. There are so many bendles and hamsas and they are indeed becoming even more popular. Before I share my views I must offer a measure of full disclosure. Although I oppose such superstitions as too easy of answers, and Judaism certainly opposes such simple paths, I admit that before my children were born, I placed bendles everywhere. They were on their cribs and even sewn into some of their clothes and tied to their backpacks. Although I did not believe in such superstitions I certainly was not going to test the theory on my kids!
I also still recall what Ari’s kindergarten teacher taught him years ago. Here is that whole story. I was on my way to Israel during the worst days of the intifada. I was about to leave on a solidarity mission. I ended up being there when the Moment Café was bombed and other such horrible acts occured. Ari was understandably nervous. His teacher comforted him with the words your dad can’t be harmed if he is performing a mitzvah. And so his entire class collected money so that I could serve as their shaliach in giving tzedakah. If they helped to make sure that I was busy performing a mitzvah I would then be protected.
There is this custom of giving tzedakah to someone traveling, especially to Israel. The traveler is then offered extra protection. The theory is that they are in the midst of performing a mitzvah and so can’t be harmed. The rabbis counsel, “Tzedakah tatzil mimavet—tzedakah saves from death.” Ari’s class would make sure that this theory was given life on my journey. I refrained from debating this theology at that moment. It gave Ari comfort and so I supported it. Even if a superstition, it provided comfort, and so why should I debate it?
I think this is why there are a great many superstitions surrounding death and mourning. There is the most common custom of covering mirrors. Most likely its origin is that people used to believe that spirits lived in mirrors. But really it just adds comfort to follow the tradition’s to do list. It is also explained that at such times one should not be thinking about how one looks. Still it is the comfort we seek.
And that in the final analysis is my view about such superstitions and trinkets. They can give you an extra measure of comfort. They can grant you an extra dose of confidence. But they can’t be the only answer. There is no such thing as a protective bubble. There is no such thing as an easy, simple answer or path.
Tzedakah cannot save us from physical death. No one can be rescued from that. Tzedakah, and mitzvot, and good deeds, can save us from a death of the spirit. That is always in our own hands. The protective bubble while tempting is not in our hands. We can only control how we live our lives.
Tzedakah tatzil mimavet—tzedakah saves us from death is not a theological statement. It is instead a command. Work hard so that tzedakah can save you from a spiritual death.