D’var Torah: Shoftim

By Ayala Wasser - 17 August 2020

Growing up, I remember thinking of two distinct times in a year where I felt my surroundings were “magical”: family trips to Disneyland or my three weeks every summer at my Jewish summer camp. Being around friends and community at camp was nothing short of pure magical bliss. Many friends and colleagues of mine also refer to their years at summer camp as magical, where our best selves grew and memories lasted through the year.
Even though we thinking of our times as camp as periods of magic and bliss, our Torah portion this week actually tells us that magic is forbidden–

ט) כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ בָּ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹֽא־תִלְמַ֣ד לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹ֖ת הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָהֵֽם׃ (י) לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֽוֹ־וּבִתּ֖וֹ בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעוֹנֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃ (יא) וְחֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר וְשֹׁאֵ֥ל אוֹב֙ וְיִדְּעֹנִ֔י וְדֹרֵ֖שׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִֽים׃

(9) When you come into the land which Adonai your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, (11) or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. (Deuteronomy 18:9-11).

Admittedly, I have never experienced any spells, enchantments, or divination while at camp but this left me wondering whether feelings of magic, or experiencing “magical” experiences would be considered within the realm of these clear prohibitions. In the next verses, we learn God’s purpose in forbidding the Jewish people to use magic. In order to be in close relationship with God, God commands the Jewish people to follow God’s own way rather than the way of idolaters, which God saw as using forms of magic described in the above verses.

Instead, God wanted the magic of the Jewish people to manifest through building relationships and developing leaders. Whereas idolaters used traditional forms of magic (divination, enchantment, witches) to come together as a community, God commands the Jewish people to build a more metaphorical type of magic- magic that happens when following the same unique sets of rules in which leaders arise to execute and help others follow the rules. This is similar to the type of magic we experience at camp. We build circumstances to create a safe haven for our children to become leaders, try out new things, and build long-lasting friendships. Then, we remember camp as a magical place.

The type of community God envisions, staying away from the magic of idolaters, but building a magic unique to the Jewish people, is one that held the Israelites through the desert and into Israel. So too, we are still able to feel the unique magic of camp this summer while we are not physically there. A magical feeling built around shared values, leadership, and Jewish communal life that radiates not only physically at camp, but also on Zoom.

In the sixth book of Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore says to Harry Potter, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” While the magic of camp looked different this year, it seems to line up with God’s idea of a magical Jewish community, and also with Dumbledore’s idea of magic as he describes it in his last minutes of life to Harry. May we remember the purpose of God’s prohibition on sorts of magic, in order to strengthen our relationships with each other, even virtually. Shabbat Shalom,

Lilli Shvartsmann is a rabbinical student entering her second year at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Originally hailing from Los Angeles, Lilli moved to NYC three years ago, first serving as a fellow in the Avodah Service Corps then at Yeshivat Hadar. She has spent her summers as a staff member on USY on Wheels and a shiur teacher at Ramah Nyack. When she’s not learning Torah, Lilli can most likely be found trying out the latest delicious recipes, eating ice cream or buried deep in a good book. We are so excited that Lilli joined our RSA summer team this summer, with a specific focus on tzevet engagement and learning!

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