by HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky zt"l writes that because the world was created in spiritual balance, the magicians and devils of ancient times that are mentioned in the Torah are not encountered today. In order for freedom of choice to exist, the forces of tumah have to be allowed to oppose the forces of holiness. If Moshe had been the only one with the ability to perform wonders, Pharaoh would have had no choice but to listen to him. Therefore the chartumim (necromancers) of Egypt were given similar powers in order to balance the miracles' impact on Pharaoh. If the spiritual leadership of Israel has the power to act in miraculous ways, then the "sitra achra" (demonic force) has to be given the same ability. As the generation decline and miracle workers have ceased, since the world was created in balance – the devils and magic have also disappeared.
Chazal write on the pasuk: "Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe" (Devarim 34:10) – but among the nations someone arose: Bilam b. Beor. Opposite Moshe, someone from the sitra achra had to be appointed, who would have similar abilities.
The Rambam writes in his commentary on the Mishna in Avoda Zara (ch. 4), that devils or ghosts are not real, and that all the stories about them are false. However, the Gra writes in Yoreh Deah (#179) that the Rambam was attacked on this point, because we find many stories in the Gemara about magic and devils. Rav Kaminetsky's explanation resolves this difficulty. The Rambam does not intend to totally deny the existence of devils. He is saying that they existed only during the time of the Tannaim and Amoraim. Nowadays, though, when the spiritual forces have faded, the world needs to remain in balance, so they do not exist.
Rav Tzadok already mentioned this idea, and writes in his book, Resisei Laila, that during the First Temple period the Written Torah, prophecy and open miracles were the norm. During the Second Temple period, the Written Torah was replaced with the Oral Torah, prophecy was replaced with wisdom, and miracles became concealed. During the First Temple period these three elements could be felt tangibly, which explains the existence of idol worship, as the recognition of the Divine also sought a tangible expression. During the Second Temple period, when prophecy and open miracles had already disappeared, the inclination to worship idols was conquered and defeated.
This is what it says in the beginning of our Parsha: "I appeared to Avraham..." (Shemot 6:3) R. Tzadok writes (Resisei Laila):
Also in the prophetic influence He appeared to the patriarchs in the Divine manner spreading through the world. Therefore their prophecy was with image and vision, according to the cloaks and veils with which the Divine garbs itself in this world ... Hashem created the world in balance, so that always according to the Torah's manner with Am Yisrael is Hashem's guidance with all the other worlds. Even the nations act this way, with balance, so that the increase of idol worship, chartumim and magicians was only so long as the Shechina was revealed with Am Yisrael. When the Shechina departed and the Oral Torah began, Greek wisdom – which is also human wisdom – appeared among them."
Rav Kook zt"l writes about the relationship between idol worship and prophecy: "The imaginative power was banished from its widespread domination in Israel, and the inclination for idol worship was contained in a lead tank. (The members of the Knesset Hagedola sealed it in a lead tank; cf. Yoma 69b) ... In parallel, we no longer have a prophet" (Orot, pg. 36)