‘The Deathly Hallows’ Parashat Shemot 5781

“Deathly Hallows” are featured in the seventh installment of the Harry Potter book series by JK Rowling. They are a trio of objects fabled to have been made by Death. Anyone who possess all three hallows is supposed to become the “Master of Death”. – Urban Dictionary

G-d appears to Moshe at the burning bush and tells him that the time has arrived for the Jewish People to leave Egypt and, to this end, he has been chosen as G-d’s emissary. Moshe is less than willing and he argues with G-d [Shemot 4:1]: “They will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, ‘G-d has not appeared to you.’” In response, G-d gives Moshe a trio of miracles to perform: His staff will turn into a snake and back into a staff again, his hand will become leprous and then it will be healed, and he will pour blood from the Nile River onto the ground where it will magically turn into blood.

This entire interchange is riddled with holes. First, G-d has already promised Moshe [Shemot 3:18] “They will listen to your voice”. Moshe’s assertion that they will not listen to him seems to be a brazen lack of belief in G-d’s promise. Then again, how can G-d promise that the Jewish People would believe Moshe? Does that not impinge upon their freedom of choice? Another set of problems concerns the trio of signs that G-d gives to Moshe. First, G-d tells Moshe that if the Jewish people are unconvinced, then he should perform the first sign. Then G-d shows Moshe the second sign, telling him [Shemot 4:8] “If they do not believe you and they do not heed the voice of the first sign, they will believe the voice of the [second] sign”. In case they still resist, G-d gives Moshe the pièce de résistance [Shemot 4:9]: “If they do not believe either of these two signs and they do not heed your voice, take of the water of the Nile and spill it upon the dry land, and… it will become blood”. If the third sign is so convincing, why doesn’t just G-d skip the first two signs? One answer could be that Moshe’s performance of three miracles, regardless of the order, would be enough to sway the Jewish People[1]. If so, then why doesn’t he perform all three at one go? Further, the miracles Moshe performs are so, well, ordinary. A few chapters later, Pharaoh’s magicians perform two of them. Is this the best G-d can do? Indeed, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, who lived in Spain and in Egypt in the twelfth century, writes in his monumental Yad Chazakah [Yesodei HaTorah 8:1] “The Jews did not believe in Moshe because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery[2].” What, then, was the use of Moshe performing any miracles at all?

Finally, when G-d commands Moshe to tell the Jewish People [Shemot 3:16] “I have taken note (pakod pakadti) of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt”, Rashi, the most eminent of the Medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, comments, “As soon as you say this expression [“pakod pakadti”] to them, they will hearken to your voice, for this password was transmitted to them from Jacob and from Joseph, that with this expression they will be redeemed”. This is precisely what happened. The Torah tells us [Shemot 4:30-31] “[Moshe] performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people were convinced when they heard that G-d had taken note (pakad) of the Israelites”. It was not the miracles that swayed them, it was the secret administrator password. What, then, was the purpose of the whole exercise?

To understand what is happening, we must take a deep dive into the concept of “belief”[3]. The first person whom the Torah attests “believed” was Abraham. When G-d promises Abraham [Bereishit 15:1] “your reward is very great”, Abraham asks what is the use of a reward if he has no children. When G-d responds by promising Abraham that he will one day father an heir, we are told [Bereishit 15:6] “[Abraham] believed in G-d”. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century, notes that Abraham believed “b’Hashem” – “in G-d” – and not “l’Hashem” – “to G-d”. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the difference between the two types of belief is the same as the difference between “I believe [to] you” and “I believe in you”. While the statement “I believe you” means “I think you are telling the truth”, the statement “I believe in you” runs much deeper. The belief in something, teaches Rabbi Hirsch, is profound, to the extent that the person or concept that is believed in becomes the new yardstick for truth: Anything that contradicts this belief is considered patently false. Abraham did not merely believe G-d’s promise that he would father a nation, he believed “b’Hashem” – in G-d – such that any evidence that flew in the face of G-d’s promise, even being childless at the advanced age of one-hundred, was disregarded.

In Moshe’s negotiations with G-d at the burning bush, the word “believe” is mentioned no less than eight times[4] and each time but once, it appears as “believe (ya’aminu li)” and not “believe in (ya’aminu bi)”. The purpose of the trio of miracles was not to induce meaningful belief. As the Rambam stated, any kind of belief spurred by a miracle will be shallow and short-lived. In fact, I suggest that this was precisely G-d’s message to Moshe: Do not think you will get them to believe in you by acting like David Copperfield. To this end, something else entirely is required.

Belief in a concept has important real-world ramifications. Without belief, we would have never reached the moon – not belief in President Kennedy or in NASA, but belief in Euclid and in Kurt Gödel. Gödel, an Austrian mathematician who lived in the previous century, gave the world the “Incompleteness Theorem”. In layman’s terms, the Incompleteness Theorem states that any system that is complex enough to be useful will contain axioms that cannot be proven from within the system. Consider Euclidian geography. We learned in primary school that the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees. In high school, we learned how to prove this. This proof, as well as many other geometric proofs, is based on the assumption that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. How do we know this is true? Perhaps someday someone will discover a squiggle connecting two points that is actually shorter than a straight line? The truth is that we don’t know – we believe. How did the NASA engineers know that if Apollo followed its trajectory, it would eventually enter lunar orbit? Ask a NASA engineer and he’d have told you, “Do the math”. Ask Carl Gödel and he’d have told you “Because that is what we believe in”. Our belief in geometric axioms is so profound that we regularly bet our lives on it.

How does one acquire belief in a concept? Most geometric axioms are intuitive. Of course the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Even a child can see that. But how does an Egyptian slave attain the visceral belief that G-d, against all odds, will one day free him from his bondage? How do the Jewish People, after two thousand years of expulsions, pogroms, and holocaust, retain the firm belief that G-d will one day restore us to our land, our language, and our sovereignty? The answer is found in the Rashi quoted above: “This password was transmitted to them from Jacob and from Joseph”. The Hebrew translation of the word “transmission” is “mesorah”. “Mesorah” is often translated as “tradition” but it encapsulates much more. Dr Moshe Koppel compares mesorah to a first language: Israeli parents do not need to give their child Hebrew lessons. The words that they speak, he, too, will speak. The rituals that they perform, he, too, will perform. And their deepest beliefs will become his beliefs. We absorbed these things from our parents and our children absorb them from us. As long as we have our mesorah, we don’t need any magic tricks.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] In Jewish Law, an action performed three times is called a “chazakah” and it is considered a new normal.

[2] According to the Rambam, the revelation at Sinai was proof of Moshe’s power of prophecy, as that particular miracle was impossible to perform via “magic or sorcery”.

[3] For further background, see “Ohev Yisrael”, the commentary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, on these verses. He brilliantly discusses the tension between belief and confirmation bias.

[4] Included are instances of “listen to the voice” (lishmo’a l’kol) which also refers to belief.

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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