Let enchantment live and cast its spell of wakefulness and vitality.

Last week’s parsha contains the encounter at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Kohenet Renee taught that if we befriend Goddess, if we make contact with the ultimate Source, and maintain right relationship with that One, then Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots are no longer needed. A certain awareness, trust, and clarity naturally flows from Divine Intimacy.

This week’s parsha, however, is chock full of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. Intense and profound mystical encounters are enough to provide guidance for a lifetime. For some folks. Yet for others, the operationalizing of Spirit seems to be necessary. 

Traditions around the world come up with their own lists of rules, precepts, remembrances, creeds, credos, or manifestos. These Jewish pointing out instructions are called Mitzvot. And Parshat Mishpatim, this week’s reading, presents one mitzvah after another.

We see the polarity between these parshiyot in something beloved Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast writes, “all religion starts in mysticism and ends in politics.” He illustrates this with the metaphor of a volcano. Sinai Encounters, or whatever form theophanies may take, are fiery, white-hot, roaring with shock waves of transformative impact... but eventually, inevitably, lava cools into stone. Generations, years, even moments later we might pick up a stone of instruction yet forget the magnanimous flow now embedded in stillness, instilled in silence. 

We need to turn these rocks in our fingers and help them catch the light of inspiration once again.

One such pebble got caught in my shoe this week: “You shall not suffer a sorceress.” (Ex. 22:17) The meaning is troublesome and the verse is grammatically peculiar. It is variously translated as: “You shall not tolerate a sorceress” or even “You must not allow a sorceress to live” or starkly “Never let a witch live.”

This strikes me as sexist and barbaric. We like magical women, no?

The Talmud is troubled with the grammar — the feminine noun ME·CHA·SHEI·FAH singles out the female — the Rabbis make sure we know that both sorcerers and sorceresses are meant: 

“witch” does not refer only to a female who practices sorcery; both a man and a woman are included. If so, why does the verse state “a witch”? This is because most women are familiar with witchcraft.

Most women are familiar with witchcraft. Hmm — does that ring true to you, or to those of us here who identify with being female? What does being a sorceress or a witch mean anyhow, at least to the Rabbis? “The case of the HAMECHASHEF/warlock is referring to one who performs a real act of sorcery…” HAMECHASHEF ZEH HA’OSEH MA’ASEH. A witch is a doer who does. Not someone who merely pulls a trick or deceives the eye. A witch is someone sourcing something substantial.

The context of this conversation, by the way, is a list of those who shall be put to death by stoning. This schema distresses me because my role in this community is to help our witches live! To invite you to bring your magic, to draw on special powers flowing within and through each and every one of us, to encourage you to conjure your unique thriving…

The phrase is awkward in Hebrew in another way. LO TICHYEH is translated as “you shall not suffer” or “not tolerate.” The text seems to say “you shall kill.” Instead, we have “you shall not let live.” Are we the Source that brings about life? That One Who causes witches and women, warlocks and witchcraft, to exist in the first place? Are we to kill, or even stifle, something that God has brought into being in the first place?

Maybe this mitzvah is Torah’s stern warning against manipulative personalities who appear to wield special powers. Those who manifest wonders for which they alone take credit. Those who show no humility. Magic tricks are entertaining amusements precisely because we know there’s something hidden from us. We seek the “how did they do that?” factor. Our suspension of disbelief provides a pleasant tension. When we encounter something truly baffling, beyond our tolerance for cognitive dissonance, someone who breaks our capacity to contextualize or understand, then our experiences become threatening and frightening. Our fear gets rejected and projected out. We label things as sinister, forbidden. Tragic consequences ensue — drownings, lynchings, burnings, stoning.

Let us reread this verse: “don’t allow your magic to merely live.” Let it thrive. Allow the feminine, hidden, mysterious, powerful, dark, and fertile — that latent and irrepressible lifeforce stirring in all things, male and female, revealed and concealed, within men and women and the myriad merism in between — let that magic catalyze, vitalize, to make things happen, to wo(mb)-manifest. 

Let enchantment live and cast its spell of wakefulness and vitality.

Scholars concur that all Hebrew words come from three-letter, or triliteral, roots. But there is something bewitching and enchanting in words that share two-letter, or biliteral, similarities. The author Fabre D'Olivet compiled a dictionary of this so-called “radical vocabulary.” Who doesn’t love digging into our radical roots?

Our source for “sorceress” is כ.ש.פ CHAF.SHIN.PEH. CHASHAF means “to cast a spell.”  The first two letters of this root are CHaSH. כש D’Olivet teaches that these letters connote “the idea of movement of vibration which agitates and expands the air.” Is this the clap of thunder accompanying a spell, the crackle of atmospheric effervescence?

The last two letters of that three-letter root are SHaPH שף, which refer to “every apparent, eminent, distinguished, prominent object: that which extends beyond. [An] onomatopoetic root, expressing the noise in trampling with the feet.” The powerful stomp–and–shake of a soul in touch with its profound and pulsing source.

I implore you, sings the Torah, “you shall not suffer a sorceress.” Do not let the magic within merely live. Let it clap and stomp. Unleash your holy flow, your Sinai volcano, the elemental revelation just barely contained by the skin.

Shir Feit

About

Shir Yaakov is Kol Hai's founder and spiritual director.