Sunday, January 7, 2007

Moses, the Egyptian, and the killing curse - part 1 - Harry Potter and Torah for Parshat Shemot

Moses, the Egyptian, and the killing curse - part 1
Harry Potter and Torah - Parshat Shmot

In my previous blog message, and in the epilogue of Harry Potter and Torah, I mentioned an incident in the Torah (in this week's Torah portion, Shmot) that relates to a theme from Harry Potter, killing curses, that is not elaborated in the book. Today I'm writing the first part of the story.

The Torah tells us that Moses, who had been raised in Pharoah's house but knew that he was Jewish, saw an Egyptian beating a Jewish man (Ex 2:12). When he saw that there was noone coming to help the Jewish man, Moses killed the Egyptian. The next day he saw two Jewish men fighting with each other, and asked one why he was beating up the other. The man responded "Who made you our judge? Are you saying you'll kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" (Ex 2:14)

The Midrash and many commentaries (Rashi, Ramban, Rabbeinu Bechaya) explain the wording of the Jewish man's retort to Moses, "are you saying you'll kill me," to mean literally that Moses might kill him by talking, "saying he'll kill," and had done so to the Egyptian. In the original Hebrew this is clearly a grammatically correct reading of the sentence.

As commentaries elaborate, if the man had said to Moses, "are you planning to kill me," we wouldn't have any reason to think that Moses killed him through speech. But the use of the word "saying" implies killing by speech. Commentaries also elaborate that the man must have seen the Egyptian man drop dead without Moses touching him.

When Jewish commentaries discuss performing magical acts through speech, the words spoken are not incantations or curses, but rather various names of G-d. Even though the Avada Kedavra curse in Harry Potter has its roots in the Hebrew language (as is discussed in Harry Potter and Torah), the Torah's magical incantations are all names of G-d. The magic which is performed, in this case killing the Egyptian without touching him, is not an independent magical act by Moses, but is rather carrying out G-d's plan for the world.

As a side note, the Midrash says that the Egyptian was beating up the Jewish man because he was enamored with the Jewish man's wife, who was named Shlomit. This will be relevent later when we look at other examples of killing curses in the Torah.

So far, we've seen killing curses in the Torah described a lot like those in Harry Potter, causing a person to drop dead on the spot without being touched. But rather than carrying out the decision of a wizard, like Avada Kedavra, the Torah's killing curses are names of G-d, and carry out His decisions for the world.

This idea will be developed more later this week. As always, comments or questions are welcome.

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