Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 19 December 2020 / 4 Tevet 5781

Parashat Mikeitz

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Power and Superstition

When the brothers are caught with Yosef’s goblet, the messenger relays Yosef’s message to them: Why did you repay good with evil? This is the [goblet] from which my master drinks, and he has a presentiment about it…” When they are brought back to Yosef, Yosef confronts them with a similar accusation: What is this deed that you have done? Did you not know that a man like me believes in presentiments?

Yosef here speaks not as the son of Yaakov, but as an Egyptian lord. It is the sort of behavior that would be expected of an Egyptian nobleman who has experienced a meteoric rise to power. The higher a person’s rank, the more marvelous his fortune, the more superstitious he will become, explains Rav Hirsch, citing Napoleon’s example.

The word used here for presentiment is nacheish. This same word is the subject of a prohibition in Vayikra 19:26: Do not consult with omens. Rav Hirsch comments on the linguistic aspect of the root nachash in terms of its relation to the root nachatz, citing several examples of word pairs where the smooth /sh/ sound denotes a smoothly performed activity, and where the counterpart word with a hard, forced /tz/ sound describes the same activity as it is performed in difficult circumstances. Nachatz means to press or urge against impediments, to strive toward a goal, overcoming all the obstacles along the way. Nachash means to strive towards a goal without having to overcome the natural intermediate links. Thus, the omen-manipulator seeks to either bring something about or come to know the future without recourse to the natural intermediate links of cause and effect. By seeing meaning in an unrelated omen he disregards the lack of intermediate links between two remote things.

It is ludicrous to suggest that there exists a causal connection between, for example, a black cat, or a piece of bread that falls and the success or failure of a venture or the good or bad future of a person. Superstition is laughable madness that is counter to all sane thought. It also denies the world order and presents a harmful influence on man’s free and moral activity. Man was given the two gifts of Torah and knowledge — goals are to be set by Torah, and intelligence teaches what is possible to do within nature. By resorting to omens, man denies G‑d’s providence and places human moral action under unfounded foreign influences. Once we believe we can promote our own good fortune by means other than doing what is right and good, and that we have other things to fear besides doing evil, we are in real danger of corrupting our actions.

A superbly successful individual is more prone to superstition because he himself is surprised at his own good fortune. An ordinary person credits himself and natural causes with his success. But when a person reaches the point where he cannot owe his good fortune to his own merit, he can easily come to ascribe to it supernatural causes. Indeed, one should see G-d’s beneficence as the source of this success — just as Yosef, when he is not putting on the Egyptian-nobleman show for his brothers — does. (“It is not I! It is G-d…” in Bereishet 41:16.)

  • Sources: Commentary Bereishet 44:5; Vayikra 19:26; Collected Writings VIII, p. 42

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