09 Sep 2016

Shofetim 5776: Lucky Charms

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“When you believe in things that you don’t understand then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way.”— Stevie Wonder

There is an old superstition among some Eastern Sephardi communities that restricts a newly married woman from attending other weddings without first trading a hairpin with the bride. If she does not do so it is believed that her chances of conceiving a child will be in jeopardy. I mentioned this superstition in a lecture one year while serving as rabbi in Brooklyn, discouraging its practice, at which point I was savaged by someone in the audience insisting that he had personally witnessed a newlywed woman who had not traded the hairpin and indeed did not conceive until she subsequently rectified it by trading a hairpin with that bride. I responded and asked him how he explained all the other people in the world who knew nothing of this practice and yet experienced no such trouble?!

The belief that life can be controlled through superstitious and unfounded behaviours is not only false, it also distorts/damages our ability to think wisely and rationally.

Some of the most difficult situations that we deal with in our lives are ones that are unclear or uncertain to us. The manner in which we deal with that lack of certainty greatly determines the quality of life we lead, and the levels of moral strength and wisdom we can develop.

The tension and anxiety that the uncertainty causes drives us to diminish the uneasiness with almost any act that we believe might restore us to security. In our great need to find calm and balance, we will even accept answers and engage in actions that are not based in truth. In short, we favour security over truth.

Because, by our nature, we are all susceptible to doing this, when we choose to dedicate our lives towards the pursuit of truth and righteousness we must also be aware of what beliefs we hold that may impede our progress. We cannot grow in wisdom and understanding and fight for truth and justice when we still cling to visions of reality that are false.

Perashat Shofetim presents us with a blueprint for building a national system that is built on truth and integrity. It presents a vision for a just society with detailed commandments for moral, judicial and executive systems to ensure its structure. Such societies can only grow and thrive when they are consciously committed to vetting truth and viability. In this light we can understand why the prohibition against following superstitions is mentioned in this parasha.

When you enter the land that God your Lord is giving you…There is not to be found among you…a hidden sorcerer, a diviner[1], or an enchanter. (18:9)

Superstitions are another means that we use to find security in the face of the unknown. Yet, when we believe that irrational and untested procedures can somehow save us from the dangers and mishaps of the world, we abandon reason and give ourselves over to perpetual fantasies that, in reality, are far more dangerous than many of the dangers we are trying to avoid by using them in the first place.

All who believe in these superstitions and things like them and think in their hearts that they are true, but the Torah prohibited us from engaging in them, are among the ignorant and those who lack knowledge…The wise…know clearly that [these superstitions] are empty and meaningless…and all the paths of wisdom have been destroyed because of them…(Rambam[2])

 Red strings, key-shaped challas, throwing salt, lucky amulets, chamsas and hairpins all circumvent accepting the fact that the world is an unpredictable place and that our greatest and most effective response to it — although it requires consciousness, stamina and perseverance — is to faithfully dedicate ourselves to truth, justice and righteousness in all of their facets. In so doing we cling to G-d’s presence in the world and build our own faithfulness and integrity. No magical shortcuts can genuinely set us on safer ground.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] The word for diviner in Hebrew is מנחש – And is understood in the Talmud to be one who engages in superstitious acts. See Sanhedrin, 65b-66a; Mishne Torah, Aboda Zara, 11:4; Shulhan Arukh, 179:3.

[2] Mishne Torah, Aboda Zara, 11:16

Parasha Perspectives

V Shoftim

17b              Set up judges in a just system  (16:18-20)
17c               Do not plant an ashera tree or a monument  (16:21-22)
17d              No unfit offerings  (17:1)
17e              Death penalty for one proven guilty with
witnesses  (17:2-7)
18a              For difficult judgement go to Sanhedrin  (17:8-13)
18b              Appointment and duties of a king  (17:14-20)
18c               No land for Kohanim and Levi’im  (18:1-2)
18d              Donations to Kohanim  (18:3-5)
18e              Give to visiting Levi’im  (18:6-8)
18f               No  witchcraft.  A true prophet  (18:9-22)
18g              Cities of refuge   (19:1-10)
19a              Cities of refuge do not apply to premeditated
murderer  (19:11-13)
19b              Do not move landmarks  (19:14)
19c               Two witnesses required to establish fact.
Laws of false witnesses  (19:15-21)
19d              Laws of war.  Exempt: new house, vineyard
or wife or if afraid  (20:1-9)
19e              Try peace first. Laws of spoil in a war  (20:10-18)
19f               Do not destroy food trees in war  (20:19-20)
20a              Responsibility of a city when a murdered
corpse is found nearby  (21:1-9)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS