Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Josh Kaplan on Vayetze

When we think of the Torah, words like “awesome,” “cool” and “amazing” may come to mind, but it’s hard to imagine seeing those words IN the Torah. Those are the kinds of things you more likely hear kids screaming on the playground – at a magic show.

But in my portion of Vayetzay, Jacob says exactly that. When he wakes up from his dream, where he had seen angels moving up and down a ladder, he opens his eyes, looks around and says, “This place is AWESOME!” He says that it is none other than a gateway to heaven – an amazing sight.

One of the most important things that Torah does is to help us feel a sense of amazement. The same thing is true with magic – it builds a sense of amazement and wonder. I can see that every time I do a magic show in front of any audience, whether they are four years old or a hundred.

Everyone is amazed by magic.

My interest in magic began when my dad showed me a phenomenal mind reading card trick, back when I was about 8 ½ years old. Since then, I’ve been performing professional magic tricks inspired by great magicians from all over the world. At this point, I know hundreds of tricks and have performed a few magic shows had have made countless appearances at shopping centers, my school and on the street.

I especially like to perform in front of young kids. They seem to the most amazed of all, because they are less cynical than adults and teens. They just love to be amazed and leave it at that. Older people want to know the trick – except for my mom, who loves just about everything I do!
Aside from amazement, there is another aspect to magic that is also found in my portion: deception. While the magician needs to draw out people’s sense of amazement, he knows that it’s only an illusion. When you are doing a trick you have to sound amazed – there’s some acting involved, and acting involves manipulation.

Jacob is quite a manipulator. In last week’s portion, he was able to deceive his father and manipulate his brother in order to gain the birthright and the blessing. But this week, the deceiver gets deceived by someone even more manipulative, Jacob’s father in law, Laban. When he saw that Jacob wanted to marry his daughter Rachel, he substituted Leah in disguise and she married Jacob instead. It was a masterful illusion – I can only imagine how he set up the lighting at the wedding, and all the costumes and masks worn to hide Leah’s true identity. It wasn’t until the next day that Jacob recognized that the joke was on him.

Later in the portion, he gets his revenge, however, beating Laban at his own game.

Ever since those days, it seems, Jews have been very involved in the world of magic. Did you know that the word Abracadabra is an ancient Hebrew word meaning, "...with these words I shall create it." If you think of the great magicians of out time, many of them have been Jewish, including Houdini, Lance Burton, and David Copperfield. At times magic has been considered dangerous, but Jews have always taken seriously its power to awe and amaze.

As someone who is learning the art of deception, I realize that it is a great responsibility. It’s a lot like becoming a bar mitzvah. After all the hard work and practice, my job will be to amaze people, not only with my card tricks but with my Torah reading, and not only with that, but with my desire to make this world a better place and make sadness disappear. Whether at a magic show or right here, the most amazing thing a person can do is magically to put a smile on someone’s face.

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