August 29th-30th, 2003
2 Elul, 5763
Revised version of a previous edition from our Archives
Sometimes, I admit, I'm tempted to pay a visit to a fortune teller. Though
I have not done it yet, maybe I will succumb one day if the pressures of
work, or parenting, get to me too much.
Whether I'd want a palm reading, a tarot card session, or a good
astrological profile-- especially now, with Mars so intriguingly close to
planet Earth--I'm not sure. (Hey, speaking of that, maybe itís because
Mars is so nearby that Iíve felt like waging all-out war against my kids
this past week!) Don't know.
I donít really mean to be ironic. Many people believe in astrology,
necromancy, sorcery, omens, black magic and the like. (I myself, for
instance, know for certain that the Boston Red Sox are under some
extremely powerful hex.) Certainly, we see references to such things in
the Torah--including in this weekís portion. Although
Rambam (Maimonidies) denies
that there is any reality to black magic, and that practitioners of these
arts were merely charlatans, many other great Jewish thinkers opposed him
on this subject. They maintain that in ancient times there were those who
had real knowledge of the "occult," and could make (limited) use of
"unholy forces" in the Creation. (In any case, I think we can agree that
most of the modern-day crystal gazers, psychics and horoscope-peddlers are
not experts in anything except conning people out of their money!)
Hereís what the Torah says in this weekís parsha:
"When you come to the Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, you shall
learn to act according to the abominations of those nations. There shall
not be found among you...a diviner, an
astrologer, one who reads omens, a
sorcerer; or an animal charmer, one who inquires of Ov
or Yidoni, or one who consults the dead.
For anyone who does these is an abomination to
Hashem, and because of these abominations, Hashem,
your G-d, banishes them [the nations] from before you." (18, 9-12;
modified from the translation of the Artscroll Chumash, p. 1033)
Rashi quotes from the Midrash (Sifre) to explain the differences between
these various occultists. For example, a "diviner" is, "one who grabs his
staff and says, 'Shall I go, or shall I not go?" An "astrologer" is the
subject of a dispute among the Sages: Rabbi Akiva says he declares which
times are propitious to begin undertakings, while the Rabbis say he,
"captures the eyes (i.e. performs optical illusions)." One who "reads
omens" predicts the future based on the slightest unusual occurrence: "His
bread fell from his mouth, a deer crossed his path, his staff fell from
his hand [and, therefore, some bad thing will happen]." Ov is "a type of
witchcraft...[where] he [the practitioner] speaks from his armpit and
brings up the dead in his armpit." Yidoni involves placing the bone of a
certain animal "into his mouth, and the bone speaks by means of magic."
I couldnít resist giving you a taste of the juicy specifics of these
practices, but have a look at Rashi's complete comments on the passage for
a full catalogue of "abominations!"
Which brings us to an important question. Perhaps we could have guessed
that the Torah would not have a favorable view of these professions
(certainly not for a nice Jewish boy or girl to go into), but why are they
outright "abominations?" What exactly is the problem with an occasional
trip to a fortune-teller, or an occasional recourse to the Ouija ball?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (great 19th century Torah leader in Germany)
explains that one who places his faith in "the realm of dark, unfree,
mysterious powers" will abandon his belief in free will. He will conclude
that the moral worth of his actions have no effect on his life and his
destiny, and will, therefore, become degenerate in his behavior. As Hirsch
bluntly puts it, "The whole moral degeneration of the Canaanite nations
came from these things, which supported and were the mainstay of
immorality." (Commentary on the Torah: Deuteronomy, p. 352)
In other words, why be righteous if the cards say you're doomed anyway?!
Your fate is sealed, bud. Might as well crank up the Stones, take out the
Bud (with a capital "B") and really PARTY!
Okay, so knowing what will happen to us might well be hazardous to our
moral (and physical) health. But how should we proceed in relation to "the
The Torah goes on to tell us: "You shall be wholehearted (tamim) with your
G-d." (verse 13) Rashi explains: "Go with Him in wholeheartedness (or,
simplicity) and depend on Him, and do not seek into the future; but
whatever befalls you, accept it with wholeheartedness..." In other words,
don't brood about what the future will bring at all! (Note: Of course, Iím
not referring to intelligent planning for tomorrow, but of obsessive
desire to uncover oneís "fortune.")
As Hirsch beautifully elaborates, we must accept G-d Himself as
"...the sole Director of our fate and Guide for our deeds; it is He alone
decides our future, and Whose satisfaction is the sole criterion by which
are to decide what to do and what to refrain from doing...And, in fact,
tamim is so completely engrossed in G-d that he lives entirely in the
of doing his duty all the time and leaves the result, with his whole
G-d." (Hirsch, ibid.)
Seeing what will transpire in the future is not important; it is quite
irrelevant to our job on earth, which is to grow continually as human
beings and as Jews. Moreover, the Torah is telling us to abolish all
notions of other guiding forces or determining influences in the universe.
G-d alone is our Guide, and His Law as contained in the Torah is what
should occupy our gaze. As for the role of Prophecy--which did sometimes
include glimpses into the future--, it was bestowed on great men and women
of Israel chiefly for the specific purpose of admonishing the people to
keep the Torah, and inspiring them to do teshuva [repentance]. True
prophecy was given by G-d to inspire the Jewish people to live more
righteous lives now, in the present. (Whatís more, prophesied destruction
could often be averted by repentance.)
There is such a thing as mazal, as "fortune" or, better, "destiny." Think
of it as the collective parameters of our lives that we donít seem to have
control over. However, the Talmud explains that we Jews can rise above the
dictates of mazal. The first of our patriarchs did! The Rabbis explain
that Avram knew from astrology that he was not destined to have children
from Sarai. What he couldn't foresee in the zodiac--in the study of which
our Sages say he was expert--was that G-d would change his name to Avraham
(and hers to Sara), and therefore, his mazal. He would become a new
person, in effect--the father of a great nation. Through his prayer and
his righteous deeds, he transcended his "fortune!"
Interestingly, at that very point in the book of Bereishis when he is
given his new name, "Avraham," Hashem addresses him using the same phrase
we have in our parsha: "...walk before me and be wholehearted (tamim)."
(17, 1) This is the same idea we mentioned above: G-d was commanding
Avraham to abolish any notion of a force apart from G-d that was
determining his life, or the life of the Jewish people.
We have our own modern versions of fortune-tellers for those who don't
like the antiquated kind: genetic determinists. There are those who
believe: "Whatever's in your genes, that's how you'll turn out." Itís
certainly true that genes affect the parameters of one's personalityÖand,
who knows, maybe the stars have an effect on our lives as well. Mazal is
real...but it's not the final, absolute word. Not for the Jewish people,
certainly. There is nothing "in the cards" that--at least in principle--is
unalterable. As we'll be saying on Rosh Hashanah, in a similar vein, "Teshuva,
tefillah and tzedaka [repentance, prayer and charity] remove the evil of
the decree." (Rosh Hashana Machzor) Even IF a fortune teller sees our
future clearly in the crystal ball, we can change it through our prayer,
charity and righteousness!
The bottom line is that we need to focus on our actions, and realize that
they have a decisive influence on our lives. We can bring blessing into
our lives by studying and practicing our Torah to the best of our ability,
wholeheartedly. All the rest we can leave (happily) to G-d.
May we all be inspired to become more tamim this Elul, more wholehearted
in our trust in G-d alone as our Director and Guide. And do call me if you
need help selling your crystal ball.
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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