Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zombies in Megilat Esther (for Purim)

Just saw on Facebook: Esther 9:11 proves that zombies existed in the time of the Megilla:  
"On that day a number of people killed in Shushan came before the king...."

Happy Purim everyone!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The king's magical book (repost for Purim)

In honor of Purim this weekend, I'm re-posting some articles I wrote in past years.

The king's magical book

In Megilat Esther, the book of Esther containing the Purim story, we read in the beginning of chapter 6 that the king couldn't sleep and asked that his book of records of his life be brought to him. The usual translation is that he asked that it be read to him, but the Hebrew can be read that the book "should be made to be read to him." The Talmud (Megila 15b) says that the book opened magically to the story of Mordechai, fitting the literal reading of the Hebrew very well.

What is the Talmud trying to tell us?

I think that we can answer the question by analogy to the Harry Potter series. Throughout the series we hear magical explanations of things that seem like circumstance to non-magical people. For example, a number of magical places (such as the Qwidditch Cup stadium, and the Hogwarts castle) are enchanted such that any non-magical people that get close to them will all of a sudden remember something that they had to do in another place. Similarly, non-magical people don't see or know about Dementors, but they feel sad all of a sudden whenever in one's presence.

These sorts of details in the Harry Potter books make them fun to read, since they make us think of magical explanations of circumstances like remembering something we have to do or all of a sudden feeling sad.

The Talmud above might be teaching us that things that happen by circumstance, such as opening a book to a page ramdomly, are in fact caused by G-d to happen in a way that will fit a plan that He has for the world. Circumstance is not fitting a magical enchantment, but in a similarly magical way is fitting a Divine plan. This makes everyday events as magical as they are in Harry Potter, but the magic is Divine, not created by wizards.

The entire Purim story is in fact teaching that lesson. G-d's name doesn't appear anywhere in the book of Esther, but we know and believe that circumstances are being orchestrated by G-d to bring about the results that He wants. Even the name "Esther" reflects this, being from the same Hebrew root as "hester," meaning hidden. G-d's hand in events might be hidden, but It's there nonetheless. It doesn't take a wizard to see the magic, but it requires that we be attuned to how G-d is shaping the events in the world to bring out His plans.

I want to wish everybody a good Shabbat and a Happy Purim!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sirius, Kreacher, and the Origins of Haman (Repost for Purim)

I wrote this a few years ago, and it certainly fits the times today as much as it did then. Happy Purim everyone, and let's hope that we merit Purim-like redemption soon!

Sirius, Kreacher, and the Origins of Haman

We read in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and several times in subsequent books, how Sirius's mistreatment of Kreacher the House Elf led to Kreacher's betrayal of Sirius to Voldemort. Harry gets upset at the implication that Sirius was at all responsible for what happened, but Dumbeldore (and later Hermione) stood firm that treating Kreacher the way Sirius did led to the hatred that fueled Kreacher's betrayal.

Ultimately, Harry learns from this, and changes his treatment of Kreacher and of others. Not only does this pay off in Kreacher's help for Harry, but Harry learns in the process that situations are complicated, and that the full story of Kreacher's life makes it very clear that he's worthy of better treatment than he received from Sirius.

We see the same thing regarding Jewish enemies. Haman, in the Purim story, is descended from the Biblical nation of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people. Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt, and again before entering the Land of Israel, and again in the time of King Saul. The Amalek descendant Haman tried to kill all the Jews in the Purim story. And Jews tend to think of other enemies, such as the Nazis, as being descended at least ideologically from Amalek.

But why is Amalek the way they are? What made them our arch enemy?

Clearly all human beings have free will, and are responsible for bad things that they do even if they're pushed to do them by others. Sirius's mis-treatment of Kreacher doesn't take the blame off of Kreacher for betraying Sirius, and anything that we can say about the origins of Amalek will never take the blame off of them for things that they did to us. But by examining the origins of Amalek, we can learn something about our own behavior, as Harry did from Kreacher. 

In Genesis, at the end of the Torah portion of Vayishlach, we read a long description of the desendents of Esav. This is thought of by many people as a fairly "boring" part of the Torah, listing who "begat" who. Why do we care about Esav's descendents?

In the middle of the lineage, we read that Esav's son Elifaz had a concubine named Timna, and that Timna gave birth to a son named Amalek. What's Timna's story, and what led her son to become arch-enemy number one of the Jewish people?

The Talmud tells us a fascinating story about Timna. Timna, says the Talmud, was born from an aristocratic family. She's described as the "daughter of Kings." But she heard about Abraham's family and their belief in monotheism, and she became determined to join Abraham's movement. Abraham, we know, was accepting many many converts to his new religion. The Torah refers to "all the souls that Abraham made in Charan." Timna wanted to be one such convert to Abraham's new religion.

Abraham, however, thought that Timna was not a true believer in monotheism. So he rejected her, and apparently did so in a way that she felt was rude. But she didn't give up, she waited a while and then went to Abraham's son Isaac (Yitzchak). Isaac also said no. So she waited a while and went to Jacob (Yaakov). And Jacob also said no. She became depressed, but was still determined to join the family. She ended up deciding to become a concubine of Elifaz the son of Esav, saying "it's better to be in a lowly position in this family than to be in a high position in another family." But because of her feelings for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, she gave birth to Amalek, who in the words of the Talmud "pushed at the Jewish people with two hands."

This story is tremendously powerful. The Talmud is putting responsibility for Amalek's origins on the shoulders of the Jewish forefathers!

The phrase "push with two hands" is Talmudic terminology for treating someone as altogether bad. The Talmud elsewhere tells us that in all circumstances we are obligated to push people away (if we have to) only with our left hand, and to simultaneously pull them closer with our right. Even if we have to push someone away, we have to do so in a way that brings them closer as well.

Note that the Talmud is not saying this only about converts. It applies to teachers who have to discipline students, parents who have to discipline children, and all Jews that ever have to admonish others. The Talmud says that we have to do this "le'olam," forever, in all circumstances.

Pushing people away with the left hand while bringing them closer with the right means that if we're pushing away one aspect of a person, we have to acknowledge at the same time that the person has many other qualities that are good. The goal in pushing someone away is not that they should be further away, but rather that their problematic aspects be pushed away and that the rest of them be pulled closer.

I think that it's not at all an exageration to say that Jews pushing each other away with two hands is destroying our society. Imagine if every time a Jew had to disagree with another Jew, it was done in a way that was designed to bring the other Jew closer in the process. No throwing stones, no insulting, no disregarding, just an attempt to disagree in a way that moves us towards, not away from, Jewish unity.

If we can all learn the lesson from Amalek's origins, and can all learn to follow the Talmud's command to always push people away only with one hand while bringing them closer with the other, then hopefully, with G-d's help, we can be redeemed from all of our current problems just as on Purim the Jews of Shushan were saved from Haman's threat.

Happy Purim everyone!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Preparing for Rosh HaShana the Harry Potter way

As we get closer to Rosh HaShana, I'd like to share some old articles that relate to the High Holidays, teshuva (repentance), blowing the shofar, and the like. I hope that they help make your (or your childrens) holidays more fun and meaningful.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Happy Shavuot!

I want to wish everyone a happy and meaningful Shavuot holiday!

Below are links to a few articles in the spirit of Harry Potter and Torah, all relating to Shavuot.

Harry Potter fans know all about the mirror of ERISED, which shows people what they truly desire. I think that Shavuot teaches us about the Torah of LAITNETOP, which can show each of us how great our potential really is. Read more here:

Shavuot also teaches us about what G-d considers important, first and foremost of which is how we interact with other people. Our interactions with others have a truly magical power all their own. Read more here:

An article I really enjoyed discusses Shavuot and the Greatful Dead. I wrote some of my own thoughts on Judaism and music, relating also to Shavuot, here:

If you're reading this and don't know what the Shavuot holiday is (it's not as widely celebrated as Passover or Yom Kippur) you can read some great articles on it at:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Passover salvation and Harry & Voldemort's final battle

Below is a thought about Harry Potter and Passover that I wrote a few years ago, that I thought people would enjoy again.  For more Harry Potter-related thoughts for Passover, see here (Passover and unity) and here (matza and bogarts) and here (magical protection at the splitting of the sea).

Passover salvation and Voldemort's rebounding curses

A lot of people have discussed a particular aspect of Harry's victory over Voldemort at the end of Deathly Hallows, that in fact Harry didn't destroy Voldemort, rather Voldemort killed himself, with a curse that rebounded on him when it collided with Harry's curse. I've written previously (here) that I actually don't like this aspect of the story, since I think that Harry should have killed Voldemort directly, but as I write below, there's a definite analogue to this in the Torah.

In fact, we see throughout the Harry Potter stories that Harry's defeats of Voldemort are most often because of something that Voldemort himself did. When Harry was a baby he defeated Voldemort because of Voldemort's having killed Harry's mother unnecessarily. The same enabled Harry to defeat Quirrel (posessed by Voldemort) at the end of Sorcerer's Stone. Harry beats Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire because of Voldemort's wand. He escapes Voldemort at the end of Order of the Phoenix because of Voldemort's damaged soul. Over and over, Harry defeats Voldemort because Voldemort's own actions turn against him.

This is a theme that we see throughout the Torah as well. Jewish salvation is very often enabled specifically by the things that our enemies themselves do.

In the Passover story, we know that Moses was raised in Pharoh's house, as Pharoh's son. The plagues are each brought as a consequence of Pharoh's actions as well. In the Purim story, Haman's downfall is due to Esther's position as queen, which was a result of Haman and the King's immoral process of choosing a new queen.

This is even hinted in the Passover Hagadah, in the song "ve'hee she'amda." We say "This (G-d's pact with Abraham) supports us forever, because not only once but in every generation someone stands up against us (the Jews) to destroy us, but G-d always saves us from their hands." The phrase "from their hands," in Hebrew "mi-yadam" (מידם), hints to us that G-d's salvation always utilizes our enemies "hands" in bringing about our salvation - G-d always saves us through our enemies hands.

Besides learning about the nature of Divine salvation, that it seems to operate similar to Voldemort's rebounding curses, we can see a new perspective on things that others do to us. Not only do we know that G-d will always save us, we can look at things that our enemies do as the potential sources of our future Divine salvation.

I'd like to wish everyone a happy and meaningful Passover, both the seder and the holiday itself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New book: Morality for Muggles

Another book came out connecting Harry Potter to Jewish themes! It's called Morality for Muggles and you can find out more about it (or buy it on-line) by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Talmud and the space shuttle's view from space

Hi everyone!  This is not directly related to Harry Potter, but I found it fascinating and thought I'd share it here.

The Talmud (Chagiga 12a) makes a cryptic statement about the creation of the universe: The Hebrew word "tohu" in the second verse of Genesis, usually translated "formless" or "void," is explained by the Talmud as refering to "the green line that surrounds the entire world." Since the year 300 or so when the Talmud was written, most commentaries give metaphorical or mystical explanations, and most people studying it shrug and move on.

Enter the space shuttle. Take a look at the attached video, which is time-lapse image of the world from the space shuttle. What you'll is, yes, a green line that seems to surround the entire world, apparently at the outer edge of the atmosphere.


Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A personal thought about the reported Gilad Shalit deal

The Gilad Shalit deal will force Israeli society to do something that we're really bad at: admit that things can have good and bad sides. It's undeniable that releasing terrorists will most likely result in some of them killing other Israeli civilians. This has happened before with prisoner releases and is likely this time. It's undeniably likely. On the other hand, it's undeniable that Israel has a social contract, where families (almost all) send their sons to the army, and the government has to treat each soldier like he's their son. This too is undeniable. Our challenge ahead: celebrating his release and admitting in any debate that there are sometimes big decisions to be made with undeniable trade-offs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Harry Potter, Shofar and Jewish Unity

Below is an repost of an excerpt from Harry Potter and Torah on the subject of blowing the shofar and Jewish unity.  Other Rosh HaShana thoughts related to Harry Potter are here, here, and here.

Shana tova everyone!

Harry Potter, blowing the shofar, and Jewish unity

At the end of the Goblet of Fire, Professor delivers some well-chosen words about the need for unity among students and all "wizardfolk" who oppose the evil wizard Voldemort:

"Every guest in this hall ... will be welcomed back here, at any time, should they wish to come. I say to you all, once again -- in light of Voldemort's return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.

"Voldemort's gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can
only fight it by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.
Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical
and our hearts are open." (Goblets of Fire, chapter 37)

The next year, the sorting hat, the magical talking hat whose job it is to divide the students into the four schoolhouses, infuses the same theme into its start-of-year song:

"...And now the sorting hat is here
And you all know the score:
I sort you into houses
Because that's what I'm for.
But this year I'll go further,
Listen closely to my song:
Though condemned I am to split you
Still I worry that it's wrong....
Oh, know the peril, read the signs,
The warning history shows.
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external deadly foes.
And we must unite inside her
Or we'll crumble from within.
I have told you, I have warned you...
Let the Sorting now begin."
(Order of the Phoenix, chapter 11)

The same lesson of the importance of unity is pervasive throughout the Torah and Jewish prayer. Jewish unity is both a Torah-ordained objective and a source of Divine strength.

Before blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShana we read Tehilim (Psalms) chapter 47. Obviously one reason is that it mentions shofar blasts. But at the end of the paragraph we read the following:

"Representatives of nations gathered, the nation of the G-d of Abraham, for the protectors of the land are G-d's, He is greatly exalted."

Rav Salomon explained this as referring to the Jewish people whenever we gather together. We're all different, "representatives of nations," all with different customs and practices, but when we gather together for the sake of being Jews, as "the nation of the G-d of Abraham," then we have the collective ability to be "protectors of the land," and the power and beauty of this unity leads to G-d's being "greatly exalted."

In 1914, the Chassidic Rebbe of Belz made the following succinct statement concerning the difficult times felt by Jews of that era: "It is of the utmost importance that the Jews love one another. One must love even the lowliest Jew as himself. One must engender unity and keep far away from anything that causes disunity. The salvation of Israel during times of trouble rests on this".

Note that unity does not require agreeing with everyone. The Rebbe of Belz was not suggesting
condoning the actions of "even the lowliest Jew." Rather, unity means disagreeing respectfully and treating others with love regardless of agreement or disagreement, and caring about the needs of others as we care about our own.

Satmar Chassidic teachings explain that suspecting another Jew of wrongdoing is sometimes necessary, but nonetheless is something that we should literally cry for ever having to do. This teaching is based on the events described in the Yom Kippur musaf service, where the sages cried at suspecting the High Priest of wrongdoing in the Yom Kippur Temple service, based on the Talmud (Yoma 18b, Mishna 1:5).

Our goal as Jews should be to have so much unity that we become "representatives of nations, the nation of the G-d of Abraham," with all of our differences and yet complete unity of purpose.

We need, as Dumbeldore said:

"… an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and
language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open."

Shana Tova!