Torah from Around the World #361

Recent Issues


Rabbi Fred Morgan

AM, Movement Rabbi,

Union for Progressive Judaism Australia, New Zealand and Asia


Of Magic and Miracle

I’m a fan of magic. It’s remarkable what magicians can do, especially some of the contemporary performers who do their magic anywhere – in a theatre, at a table or on the street. On television I once saw an amazingly clever magician approach some women at a fresh fruit drinks stand in a Latin American city. He took a watch from one of them, made it disappear and then conjured it up inside a coconut chosen at random from the stand! His sleight of hand was so proficient that the women who were standing right there up close were totally flummoxed – as were we, the viewers.

That’s the point of magic, of course – to make things appear other than they really are. Street magic, like the trick with the coconut, is one thing. It’s very entertaining. The magic of political leaders and governments is something else; then it is demagoguery, and it can do great harm. The Bible is replete with demagogues, but the foremost is the Pharaoh of the Exodus story. Pharaoh is the model for demagogues throughout history – bullies and despots who sell their followers a phony bill of goods and, like a street magician with great powers of deception, use it to do great harm to those who dare to challenge their magic and declare it illusory.

This week’s portion,


(“I appeared”) is all about magic, illusion and appearances. It is also about our ability as humans to look beyond appearances and see into the depths of reality.



God “appears” to Moses under a new name, YHVH (the Eternal One). It has often been noted that God’s name YHVH has already been used quite a bit in the Torah so why, we might ask, is it introduced to Moses as though it is new?

One answer is that YHVH is being introduced here not so much as a


name but rather as the


name of God. It expresses God’s power not simply


nature but


nature. Other names used through the Torah,






and so forth, are generic names for God borrowed from other nations. Only YHVH is distinctive, or personal, to God. In other words, it is not a name bound up with appearances, describing ways in which we might become aware of God through nature, storms, thunder and the like. It is the name that captures the unique reality of God that is beyond nature.

That is the reality behind the plagues.


includes the first seven plagues that precede the Exodus from Egypt. There is a great temptation to reduce the plagues to natural phenomena, precisely because they seem to overturn the natural order. Many of us are more comfortable seeing them as magic rather than as miracles, natural rather than supernatural or transcendent. After all, what does “the transcendent” mean to us? What does it “look like”? How does it “appear”? As a result, we explain the plagues rather than wonder at them. So the Nile becomes blood-like because of red algae in the water; the frogs fill the land as an escape from the algae blooms in the river, and so forth. Some years ago, a leading American rabbi made the front page of the newspapers by devoting his Pesach sermon to this kind of science-based interpretation of the plagues, which was heard as debunking the magic of the Exodus story. In reality, though, the rabbi was trying to restore the wonder which had been displaced by the explanations.

Our perception changes if we see the plagues not as magic but as miracle. To look upon the plagues as magic has an element of demagoguery about it; the plagues appear to be manipulative, attempts to control an opponent. But to see them as miracle shifts our focus from what is created to the Creator. The plagues then do not appear as a kind of demagogic weapon of mass destruction, but they truly express YHVH’s unique power to create as YHVH will. They become signs of the ultimate power of God.

The key to the distinction between magic and miracle in


is not, however, to be found in the plagues, but in the very brief episode that precedes them. Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh. Aaron throws down the staff and it turns into a


. Pharaoh has his magicians throw down their staves and they also become


. Aaron’s staff then swallows their staves. Pharaoh’s will is toughened and he sends Moses and Aaron away.

What does Pharaoh see when he sees Aaron’s staff turn into a


? The answer to this question is entirely dependent on the meaning of the Hebrew word


. Many translations take it to mean “snake” or “serpent”. Others translate it as “crocodile.” The Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto argued that the translation depends where you live; if you live in the desert, you’d take it to mean “serpent,” but if you live in the swamplands of the Nile (or the Australian Northern Territory!) then you’d take it to mean “crocodile”. Still others, drawing on the Genesis creation story where


are mentioned, sense a mythical element in the story and translate


as “dragon” or “sea monster.”

The prophet Ezekiel uses the word in a passage that tradition has adopted as the




. In that passage Pharaoh is referred to as a


that is fished out of the Nile by God. This image brings us close to the usage of




. Whatever Pharaoh actually sees when he looks at the


that Aaron’s staff becomes, whether it is a serpent or a crocodile or a dragon, what he


be seeing is himself as a creature within God’s creation. The


is Pharaoh.

As the most powerful being in the Nile basin, sovereign over all of Egypt, Pharaoh’s totem is the


, but in reality Pharaoh lives and rules only by the grace of God. Pharaoh’s power is nothing compared with God’s power to create him as Pharaoh in the first place. The whole show that Moses and Aaron put on with the staff is designed to reveal to Pharaoh his true nature as a creature of YHVH, but Pharaoh, in keeping with his demagogic character, is unable to see the display as anything but a magic trick. He is unable to penetrate to the truth behind the appearances and trappings of his power.

And so it is with demagogues in every age and every nation. They mistake miracle for magic; the gift of power for something of their own conjuring. It is our role as Jews, like Moses and Aaron, to keep alive a true perception of the difference between miracle and magic, even – perhaps especially – when those in power seem to be most blind to it.

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