Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Prophets and Wizards” Parashat Shoftim 5781

The Torah does not think highly of magic. In fact, the Torah downright forbids it [Devarim 18:10-11]: “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, a charmer, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.” The Torah summarizes these prohibitions in one concise verse [Devarim 18:13]: “You shall be wholehearted (tamim) with G-d”. After banning magic, the Torah rules that the only avenue open to the Jew who wants to know what the future holds is through a prophet appointed by G-d.

What is an “augur”? How is an “augur” different from a “diviner” or a “charmer”? Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that the augur, diviner and sorcerer all predict the future by using assorted methodologies that were popular three thousand years ago. A “charmer”, explains Rashi, uses charms to tame snakes and scorpions, while the last three examples of prohibited magicians perform different flavours of séances. Considering that it is nearly impossible to find a good augur these days, how can we make these commandments more relevant to a person living in the twenty-first century? The most straightforward way would be to replace the Torah’s terms with their modern fortune-telling equivalents, such that it should be forbidden to read tea leaves, tarot cards, or the horoscope in the newspaper.

What is wrong about asking wanting to know what the future holds? Our Sages can be divided into two schools of thought over this issue. One school, led by Rashi, holds that knowing the future is irrelevant, either because a person should be satisfied with whatever the future brings or because the Jewish People are not affected by divination. In this way, a person becomes “wholehearted” with G-d. The second school of thought, led by Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Spain in the sixteenth century, asserts that the Torah is not against divination per se, it is only against using pagan methods of divination. If a person wants to know the score of tomorrow night’s baseball game, he should go see a certified Jewish prophet.

In this lesson, we will put forward a twenty-first century explanation of the Torah’s resistance to divination. Our first stop lies in the commentary of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived during the twelfth century in Spain. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the term “augur (kosem)” is a general term, referring to any person “who issues decrees and declares things will undoubtedly be so”. That is to say, an augur is any person who predicts the future in no uncertain terms. All of the other people in the list are examples of augurs. A similar classification scheme appears in another location the Torah, breaking down prohibited magic into two broad categories [Devarim 13:2]: “If there appears among you a prophet or a dreamer and he gives you a sign or a portent…” Referring back to the explanations of the Ibn Ezra and Rashi, we could say that there exist, for all intents and purposes, two classes of diviners: There are “prophets” who operate by using “signs (ot)” and there are “dreamers” whose use “portents (mofet)”. What are the differences between the two?

One of my favourite podcasts is Stephen Dubner’s “Freakonomics Radio[1]”. Recently I listened to a rebroadcast of an earlier episode called “Two (Totally Opposite) Ways to Save the Planet”. The episode began with an interview of Charles Mann, a journalist who writes about the history of science. The topic was a book that Mann had recently written called “The Wizard and the Prophet”. Mann’s book discusses two diametrically opposed ways of addressing large-scale problems such as overpopulation or climate change. Mann posited that two worldviews for addressing these sorts of problems “have been fighting each other for decades”. He calls them “prophets” and “wizards”. According to Mann, “The prophet sounds the alarm and wants us all to cut back. The wizard urges us to charge forward, confident that technology will solve our problems.” The prophet tells us that given our current trajectory, the world is going to end, while the wizard challenges us to change it. The prophet addresses the problem on small scale from the bottom up while the wizard typically comes up with a large-scale top-down fix. Mann’s book revolves around the example of global starvation, which was a great concern about fifty years ago.

In Mann’s example, the prophet, William Vogt, pleaded passionately for population control. Otherwise, he said, there would simply not be enough food for all. Mann’s wizard, Norman Borlaug, found a way to quadruple the amount of wheat that a plot of land could grow, and by doing so, he saved the lives of about sixty million people, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Dubner looks at the current crisis of climate change. His prophet is Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and now president of the “Mary Robinson Foundation: Climate Justice”. Asserting that climate change is a result of mankind’s gross misuse of fossil fuels, Robinson states, “We have to get out of coal rapidly, period. We have to get out of oil and gas pretty quickly, and be out of all three by 2050 to have that safe world.” Otherwise, temperatures will rise, icecaps will melt and islands and coastal areas will be eradicated. Dubner’s wizard is Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and now CEO of an invention-and-technology firm called Intellectual Ventures.

According to The Economist, Myhrvold has “an unshakeable belief that human ingenuity will sort everything out”. Myhrvold posits, “Technology is not just a bad thing that got us in this terrible situation. Technology is also our salvation”. Myhrvold has a number of ideas by which we could lower the temperature of the earth, for instance, by injecting small particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun’s light. He scoffs at Robinson’s dour prediction: “I am not saying that global warming is a solved problem… Far from it. I think that if we put our heads together, we will come up with ways to cope and maybe eliminate.”

Referring back to the two types of diviners that the Torah forbids, I suggest that Mann and the Torah are referring to the same types of people: the Torah’s prophet and Mann’s prophet are one and the same while the Torah’s “dreamer” wears the same robes as Mann’s wizard. There are a number of ways of addressing a challenge and at least two of them are idolatrous. The prophet is a fatalist. He points to signs that unequivocally indicate that the future is already here “in no uncertain terms”. While the prophet sanctioned by the Torah adjures us to mend our ways, the idolatrous prophet preaches despair. The result is paralysis that stymies growth, both spiritual and physical.

The wizard / dreamer lies on the other end of the spectrum. He has an answer to every problem, preaching unbridled optimism in his own potential. There is no mountain that he cannot climb, no bridge that he cannot build. He is always quick with a portent that something momentous is about to occur. The reason that this wizard is idolatrous is not because failure will lead to calamity. The difference between the idolatrous wizard and the Torah-sanctioned wizard is nearly identical to the difference between the idolatrous prophet and the Torah’s prophet: When G-d is taken out of the equation, when future success or failure is put squarely in man’s hands, one can be certain that idolatry is involved.

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] teaches that the Jewish People have no ‘mazal’”. Rashi explains this to mean that prayer and contrition can change the future. So can a degree from MIT. Just like the prophet must have faith that man can overcome his nature, the wizard must be cognizant that all of his engineering prowess is useless without a dollop of Divine assistance. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, wizardry without prophecy is lame while prophecy without wizardry is blind.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] “Discover the hidden side of everything with Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books. Each week, Freakonomics Radio tells you things you always thought you knew (but didn’t) and things you never thought you wanted to know (but do)… Dubner speaks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, and various other underachievers”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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