Thursday, January 11, 2007

Moses, the Egyptian, and the killing curse - part 2

Moses, the Egyptian, and the killing curse - part 2
Harry Potter and Torah - Parshat Shmot

In the first chapter of Harry Potter and Torah I discuss at length that the "killing curse" in Harry Potter, Avada Kedavra, is the only incantation in the Harry Potter series that's based not on Greek or Latin words but on words from Hebrew and Aramaic. In Hebrew avada means "I will destroy," and kedavra means "as I will speak," so the killing curse in Hebrew means "I will destroy as I will speak," a fitting translation.

In part one of this new on-line chapter we saw that Moses used a Divine Name of G-d as a "Biblical killing curse" to kill an Egyptian who was beating up a Jew and trying to kill him. (If you haven't read part one, read it now before continuing here.)

This story helps us understand a somewhat strange sequence of events that happens later in the Torah during the Jews travels in the desert. In Leviticus (24:10-14) the Torah tells us:

The son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man went out and had an argument with a Jewish man in the camp. The Jewish woman's son then used G-d's Name to curse. The people brought him to Moses. His mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divro, from the tribe of Dan. They kept him in custody until G-d could explain what to do."

The Torah continues that G-d specified the death penalty for the man, which raises an obvious question: what's going on here?

Rashi's commentary, based on the Midrash quoted previously (Shmos Raba 1:28-29), explains that this man, the "son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man," was the son that was born from the relationship between the Egyptian man and the Jewish man's wife. This man wasn't simply cursing the way people curse nowadays, he was trying to kill the other man the same way Moses had killed his father (the Egyptian). This explains why the Torah connected his cursing to an argument with another Jewish man, and why he received such a serious punishment. This wasn't just cursing, this was attempted murder. And it wasn't a circumstantial action on his part, it was his carrying on in his fathers footsteps, and expressing anger against society for his father's being killed.

Killing curses gives us a new perspective on these Biblical stories. Rather than a series of disjointed events that don't fit together, the stories give us a clear progression across time and generations. At the same time, the Biblical perspective on killing by speech is different from the notion in Harry Potter. Biblical killing curses don't require the venemous hatred that avada kedavra requires, otherwise Moses's would have failed and the son of the Egyptian's would have succeeded. Rather, it requires the killing to be carrying out the will of G-d, to save a man from being killed rather than to express anger at society. In the Torah, the true source of magic, of events that transcend the natural order of the world, is always Divine.

As always, questions and comments are always welcome, either as comments on this blog message or at e-mail to

Other aspects of the Torah portion of Sh'mot that relate to Harry Potter themes include Moses's carrying out magical acts with his staff, one of the dozen Biblical examples of magic wands listed in the book. In addition, the story of Moses and the burning bush is cited in the chapter on magical protection.

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