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Do You Believe in Magic?

By: Rav Aharon E. Wexler

In this week’s parsha we are confronted with the strange ritual of the Para Aduma. A Gentile once asked Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai about the similarity of the ritual to magic. The Gentile explained that basically a rare red haired cow is slaughtered, burnt to ash and when one of you are defiled from the dead, you take a couple of drops of the ash and sprinkle it on and all is cured!

Rabbi Yochanan asked the man if he had ever seen an exorcism. The man replied that he had. He asked, “What do you do?” The Gentile answered that “we take roots and fumigate them under the man and spray water and the spirit leaves!” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the man incredulously, “Do your ears not hear, what your mouth is saying?!?! Just like there was a bad spirit by you, tum’ah is a bad spirit by us. We cast it away with our ritual as you cast yours away with your ritual!”  The Gentile went away satisfied with this answer.

The talmidim on the other hand were shocked by their Rebbe’s answer. Did Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai really believe that the Parah Aduma was like magic? Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkia assured his students and said: “By your life! Neither does the dead person defile nor does the water purify; only this is the decree of the Holy One Blessed be He!!”

This story is amazing. The relation of the story connected to Rabban Yochana Ben Zakkai is especially fascinating as he was someone who was an eye witness to the Parah Aduma ritual and was therefore an important source of knowledge about the mitzvah.

It teaches that sometimes we need to answer people in the language and terms that they understand. To the Gentile, magic was a fact; so Rabban Yochana Ben Zakkai answered him accordingly. He did not attempt to dissuade him from the cultural milieu in which he lived. The students on the other hand know that there is no magic in the Torah, and to them he reveals the real answer - there is no such thing as tum’ah and tahara per se, they are not independent forces that exists in the world. They are only halachic constructs created by God for us to live in covenant with Him.

Often, we have a hard time relating to tum’ah and tahara as they are taken very seriously by the Rabbis and continue to play a large part in marital life. The demythologizing of the mitzvot by Rabban Yochana ben Zakkai  by explaining that these are halachic categories and not independent facts, helps us to relate to the mitzvot in our world which is so scientific and devoid of magic.

Shabbat Shalom






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