Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who enquires of ghosts (sho’el ob) or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b, we read:
One who enquires of a ghost (ob)… this means one who starves himself and spends the night in a cemetery, so that an unclean spirit [of a demon] may rest upon him [to enable him to foretell the future]. When R. Akiba reached this verse (i.e. Dt. 18:11), he wept: If one who starves himself so that an unclean spirit may rest upon him has his wish granted, he who fasts that the pure spirit [the Divine Presence] may rest upon him — how much more should his desire be fulfilled! But alas! our sins have brought this upon us, as it is written, But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God (Isaiah 59:2).Commentary:
R. Akiba compares one who fasts in a cemetery hoping that demonic spirits will rest on him, to him with one who fasts in a synagogue hoping that the Shechinah (God’s presence in our world) might rest on him. We might be surprised at the concern R. Akiba expresses: while we would think that the person with the purer intention would be more successful in reaching his goal, this is not the case because our iniquities (in the words of the prophet Isaiah) serve as a barrier between us and God.
It is likely that R. Akiba has in mind the sins that brought about the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent disastrous historical events including the failed Bar Kochba Rebellion of his own generation.
From our vantage point in the 21st century, however, we might take a broader view: One who fasts in a cemetery hoping to contact the spirits of demons or the dead seeks to foretell or control the future. The nature of soothsaying, divination, sorcery, and magic is to tap into presumed powers in the universe outside God and gain control of them for one’s own purposes. In contrast, one who fasts in synagogue hoping to experience the presence of the Shechinah seeks to do God’s will to the benefit of self, family, community, and the world. The “iniquities that have been a barrier between [us] and God” (Isaiah 59:2) derive -- at their core – from misplaced priorities. This is a perennial concern and especially germane as we usher in Rosh Chodesh Elul this week and begin the process of sorting through our behaviors of the past year and the priorities that engendered them.
© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman