Do You Believe In Magic?
Parashat Ḥukkat, 5776
Temple Beth Tikvah, Madison, CT
I Cemetery Superstitions
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my cousin Adam. We are the same age, and we lived in the same city. This inevitably led to lots of time in the car together, often in the rear-facing seats of my Aunt Barbara’s Mercury Sable station wagon. Driving backwards! What kid could ask for anything more? We had all sorts of conversations and games to pass the time while looking out the rear windshield. Now I only remember one of them: we would hold our breath while driving by a cemetery. It’s not unusual for children to develop superstitions around a cemetery, but how remarkable it is that after all of those hours in the Mercury Sable, it’s this one ritual of magical thinking that I remember so clearly, this one example of supernatural belief.
II Magic in Parashat Ḥukkat
Our parasha this week, Ḥukkat, contains some magical moments that are truly bizarre. While we may be accustomed to supernatural stories in the Bible, from a talking snake in Genesis to the talking donkey in next week’s parasha, two rituals in this week’s Torah portion stretch credulity to the point of alienating the reader. It’s one thing to tell a story, especially a story about “a long time ago,” and to add some fantastical flare. It’s another to legislate a practice – something that, in theory, could be done today as well – that exists entirely in the realm of superstition.
In chapter 21, the parasha describes an irate people in the desert, again challenging the authority of Moses and God. After nearly forty years, you too would be a few steps past “are we there yet?” God sends śārāp̱ serpents against the people, and the people repent. What happens next separates this “rebellious Israelites” story from the others in the book of Numbers. God tells Moses, “make a śārāp̱ figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses makes a copper serpent, and the magic actually works!
To understand this story, it helps to know a little about anthropology. Scottish theorist James Frazer describes something he calls “sympathetic magic” in his magnum opus, The Golden Bough. It centers around the idea that “like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause.” From this principal, “the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it.” A voodoo doll is a an example of this: a doll that looks like a person can magically affect that person because of its connection through similar appearance. Regarding illness, Frazer cites a Hindu practice of curing jaundice by covering the person in a yellow paste and washing it off. It takes yellow to cure yellow. So our copper snake functions similarly: it takes a snake to cure a snake bite. To add to the homeopathic nature of the snake, it is a něḥaš něḥōšet – a copper serpent, where even the word for copper, něḥōšet, sounds strikingly similar to the word for snake, nāḥāš.
Chapter 19 outlines another magical moment of our parasha – what one modern rabbi deems “the most enigmatic mitzvah of the Torah” – the ritual for purifying a person who has been near a dead body. It is a complex, even convoluted ritual. It involves a cow. Not just any cow, but a red one, which has not worked a day in its life. While the exact details are complex, the person to be purified is covered in the ash that resulted from burning up the red heifer and other red substances. Quickly teasing apart the symbolism, ash often represents death, as we read in Genesis: “ תשוב עפר ואל – to dust you will return.” Red branches and red yarn and red blood of a red cow are just the opposite; to the Torah, red blood is the quintessence of life. When mixed together, these two substances representing life and death purify someone who has, through a dead body, touched the boundary between life and death. In Frazer’s terms, we have another case of “sympathetic magic.”
III Our Enlightened Ancients
Is this satisfying? Perhaps for a moment, it suffices to simply make sense of the Torah. But ultimately we demand the Torah to be more than an ancient puzzle to be solved. Reasonably enough, a serpent sculpture that can heal a snake bite and a quasi-exorcism seem utterly incompatible with our enlightened modern lives. If that’s how you feel, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Our sages, thousands of years ago, and even the Bible itself, are ill at ease with these superstitious, magical rituals.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses prohibits all sorts of magic: “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the LORD….” Addressing our parasha, the book of Kings describes Hezekiah destroying the very serpent Moses crafted in the desert. Later generations were similarly uncomfortable with the magic of Moses’s standard. The Mishnah asks incredulously, “Does the serpent kill or give life?” Obviously not! The great modern Reform Rabbi Gunther Plaut agrees with the skepticism of our sages, commenting, “The Israelites were subject to the superstitions of their time, and it would take centuries to make significant progress in this regard.”
This aversion to magical practices in our parasha isn’t limited to the serpent figurine. The great medieval French exegete, Rashi, shows outright embarrassment over the red heifer ritual.
לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין אל ישראל, לומר מה המצוה הזאת, ומה טעם יש בה, לפיכך כתב בה חקה, גזרה היא מלפני, אין לך רשות להרהר אחריה.
“Since the heavenly accuser and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying ‘what is this commandment, and what could be the reasons for this!?’ Therefore it is called a law and not a commandment. It is a decree before me, and you are not permitted to question it.” 
It seems that everyone is uncomfortable with magic. Not only is it unenlightened superstition to us moderns, but medieval Rashi and even ancient Hezekiah, in 700 BCE, were embarrassed by it. To all of them, superstition is an obstacle to be overcome. And yet, I can’t help but think about the back of my aunt’s Mercury Sable. Is it really so strange that our parasha dabbles in magical thinking about life and death? I did, then, as a child.
IV The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion’s heart-wrenching memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, paints an honest self-portrait of her encounter with grief. When her husband dies, she slowly discovers that she has within her the very type of magical, irrational thinking that we moderns so vehemently disavow. Decisions that would have been simple before she was enveloped in grief, like donating her husband’s clothes, or organs, suddenly become difficult. She writes, “How could he come back if they took his organs? How could he come back if he has no shoes?” Of course she understands the finality of death. It is remarkable that she has the courage, despite that understanding, to share this magical thinking with us through her memoir.
How many of us are absolutely sure in our rational, enlightened, non-magical existence? Didion’s memoir allows us the opportunity to reconsider our certainty that we have overcome that which we call “superstition.” Are we afraid that we risk losing our 21st century selves if we admit that, sometimes, we might not be purely rational agents after all?
With Didion’s help, we can better understand our parasha and ourselves. It is easy to label the serpent staff that magically heals snake bites as superstition, and to call the purification ritual for contact with a corpse “primitive,” but perhaps there is a better name for this: human. Our humanity allows us to live in a paradox: to hope for a different outcome even while we simultaneously acknowledge the finality of death. It protects us as we search for a new way of living in the world, guarding us until we can find our footing again. Is Joan Didion’s magical thinking wrong? Is it backwards? Of course not – it’s human. It is the result of a love for her husband overflowing, as it searches for a new way to love.
When Joan Didion encounters death, she transforms; the experience had a profound effect on the way she encountered the world. Our ancestors in the Torah noticed how profound an encounter with death could be. When Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes that “the boundaries between life and death are crucial and no individual who has had contact with the world of death can be part of life,” it is easy to imagine that she too is writing a memoir like Didion’s, but in fact, that quote is about the ritual of the red heifer in our parasha. Our parasha teaches us that, without any physical change, these experiences utterly transform us. It tells us that Joan Didion’s magical thinking isn’t wrong; it is natural.
V The Mi Shebeirach Conundrum
The tension between magical thinking and the modern world is not limited to life-altering experiences; it comes to a head every week in the modern sanctuary. Put simply, if we don’t believe in magic, why do we pray? When we say the Mi Shebeirach prayer, does it “work”? If I say a Mi Shebeirach, does someone recover, even a little? An age so opposed to magical thinking tells us that answer should be “of course not.” Our bodies heal us, and doctors heal us, and medicine heals us; even our positive expectations heal us. This exposes one of the challenges of being a Jew in the modern world, as we ask, “then why pray?”
One answer, often shared by my teacher Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, is that prayer is reflexive. In fact, the verb to pray, l’hitpalel, is grammatically reflexive. When we pray, there is an effect, and the universe does in fact change. This is true because our prayers change us. Saying Mi Shebeirach – sending “good thoughts and wishes” – is transformative. When offered the rational alternative of cold indifference, we instead choose to affirm our humanity, and to care, and to hope.
Our parasha gives us the opportunity to reflect on magical thinking. Is an ancient purification ritual involving a red heifer “wrong,” or is it a profound insight into our very real and complex relationship with death? If we don’t believe a copper snake can heal the victim of a bite, perhaps it is still a reminder of what is missing when we limit ourselves to pure rationality. If we don’t believe that saying Mi Shebeirach can magically heal our loved ones, there must still be a compelling reason to say it on Friday night. It can’t be nostalgia – saying Mi Shebeirach on Friday night is an innovation of the last 40 years! Our siddur says it best in this meditation before the Amidah:
Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city.
But prayer can water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
rebuild a weakened will.
We say Mi Shebeirach because there is something more to healing than biology. Our parasha is keenly aware of this, what it means to be human. Especially in this modern world, this part of ourselves is something to celebrate. Even if you don’t believe in magic.
 Num 21:8.
 James Frazer, The Golden Bough, vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1920), 52.
 Frazer, The Golden Bough, 79.
 Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989), 174.
 Steven Kushner, “Holy Cow,” http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/chukat/holy-cow.
 Gen 3:19.
 Baruch Levine, Numbers 1-20, AB 4 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 471.
 Deut 18:10-12.
 Second Kings 18:4-5.
 Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8.
 W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2006), 1038.
 Rashi on Num 19:1, my translation.
 Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Knopf, 2006), 46.
 Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, “Pollution, Purificaiton, and Purgation” in Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism (Philadelphia: JPS, 2006), 330.
 Mishkan T’filah, ed. Elyse Frishman (New York: CCAR, 2007), 165, adapted from Abraham Joshua Heschel.