Thursday, January 4, 2007

Harry Potter's Magical Protection -- a book excerpt for Parshat VaYechi

The following is excerpted from the book Harry Potter and Torah and is posted here for this week's Torah portion, parshat VaYechi:

At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone we learn of the magical protection that Harry received from his mother's love, particularly from her having sacrificed her life to save his:

"Why couldn't Quirrell touch me?" [Harry asked].

[Dumbeldore answered] "Your mother died trying to save you. If there is one
thing Voldemort can't understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love
as powerful as your mother's leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible
sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is
gone, will give us some protection forever." (Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 17)

This concept is described later, in the fourth book, by the evil Voldemort himself:

"You all know that on the night I lost my powers and my body, I tried to kill
him. His mother died in the attempt to save him - and unwittingly provided
him with a protection I admit I had not foreseen ... I could not touch the
His mother left upon him the traces of her sacrifice ... this is
old magic, I should have remembered it, I was foolish to overlook it ...."

(Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, chapter 33)

We see this discussed throughout the books, how Harry has magical protection imprinted on him from his Mother's act of love and self-sacrifice.

Might anything like this "old magic" appear in the Torah?

We see an interesting analogue to this kind of magical protection at the end of the book of Genesis. After the death of Jacob, Joseph's brothers were afraid that Joseph would take revenge on them for having sold him into slavery. He comforts them by reiterating that all the events had been orchestrated by G-d to bring him to Egypt for a Divine purpose:

"You decided to do bad to me, but G-d thought of it for good, to cause the events on this very day, to keep the nation alive."[i]

What does Joseph mean by "on this very day?" The most straightforward understanding is that Joseph went to Egypt as part of a Divine plan for the entire region to be saved from the famine, and for the Jewish family to be able to relocate there.

The commentary Be'er Moshe, however, presents a very interesting alternative explanation, perhaps not as a literal understanding but as an allegorical lesson. The phrase "on this very day" is used in only one other place in the Torah's story of Joseph and his brothers, during Joseph's temptation by the wife of his master Potifar:

"And it came to pass, on this very day, that he went to the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house were home, that she (Potifar's wife) grabbed him by his cloak, saying 'come with me.' And he left his cloak in her hand and escaped, running outside."[ii]

What does Joseph's temptation by Potifar's wife have to do with Joseph's going to Egypt? Be'er Moshe explains:

"The righteous Joseph (in his reassurance to his brothers, that G-d had sent him to Egypt to keep the Jewish nation alive) wasn't referring to physical survival, for G-d had already promised (Abraham) that they would have a remnant (that would always survive). Rather he was telling them an amazing thing, that the hidden purpose for which he had been brought to Egypt first... was to face the enormous challenge (with Potifar's wife), ... because by withstanding the temptation he established the purity of life of all the Israelites, that they could resist the impurity of Egypt."[iii]

Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon[iv] uses this to illustrate a fascinating principle. Anytime a person overcomes a temptation to violate a Torah commandment, and manages to act in accordance with the Torah despite the temptation, he infuses his location, the ground or area he's on, with a spiritual energy that will help others succeed in carrying out G-d's will in that location.

Joseph was sent to Egypt by G-d so that he would face a strong temptation to do something immoral, and overcome it, thereby infusing Egypt with enough spiritual energy to enable the Jews to survive 400 years of slavery with their Jewish morality intact.

In fact, the Midrash says that when the Jews left Egypt, the splitting of the sea happened in the merit of Joseph. One of the Psalms that we say in the Passover Seder (and the Hallel prayer service) says that "the sea saw and fled." What did the sea see? The Midrash says that the sea saw the remains of Joseph that the Jews were transporting for burial in Israel. Because Joseph fled (VaYanas in Hebrew) from temptation, the sea fled (VaYanos) when the Jews needed it to. Because Joseph overcame human nature, the sea defied nature and split. Because of the continuing merit of Joseph's moral strength, the Jews were worthy of a miracle.

This same principle explains a number of other incidents throughout the Torah. For example, in Parshat Lech Lecha, when Abraham is seeing the Land of Israel for the first time, the Torah says that he "passed into the land as far as Shechem, to the plain of Moreh."[v] Rashi's commentary says that the significance of Shechem, mentioned as a point on Abraham's traveling to Moreh, is that he went there not just to see it, but "to pray for the children of Jacob who would later battle in Shechem." Similarly, Abraham then went and built an altar in Beit El, and Rashi[vi] says that he chose the location because "he had a prophecy that in the future his descendents would fall to temptation with the sin of Achan."[vii] In each case, Abraham prayed in a specific place to give spiritual protection to his descendents who would need help in the future at that very place.[viii]

We also see this concept in the famous story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses sees the burning bush and turns off his path to investigate. G-d then tells him to stop walking, because the ground around the burning bush was too holy for him to walk on, and to take off his shoes, because the ground he's already standing on is holy[ix]. What is the reason for the two levels of holiness, one in which he cannot stand and one in which he can stand but only with shoes removed? Rabbi Solomon explains that the area immediately around the bush was inherently holy, so Moses couldn't go there, and the area where Moses was standing had not originally been holy. But after Moses left his path to explore the burning bush, which he did with awareness of G-d's presence, the land on which he walked became holy as well. His religiously-inspired action infused the ground he was on with so much holiness that he had to remove his shoes.

As a final example, folklore tells us that the site of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem was selected because of acts of tremendous love and self-sacrifice between brothers that happened on that spot.[x]

We see that this little-known principle, that our good deeds infuse a location with positive spiritual energy, is a common denominator in all of the stories above. This same principle also can be seen in practical Jewish law.

The Shulchan Aruch[xi] rules that it is preferable in general to pray in a large synagogue rather than a small one, since "a large gathering is an honor to the King." The exception[xii] is that when the choice is between a small synagogue in which a lot of Torah study and good deeds are done throughout the day, and a large synagogue used only for prayer, the smaller one is preferable. Why? Isn't the larger crowd still an honor to the King? Rabbi Solomon explains that the influence of the spiritual energy from the study and good deeds done in the smaller synagogue will help our prayers, and this outweighs the larger size crowd of the other.

The Shulchan Aruch also rules on the value of a person's establishing a "makom kavu'ah le'tefilato," a designated place to pray in synagogue.[xiii] While doing so has many benefits, such as improved concentration, the primary reason is that a person's regular prayer will give spiritual power to the location, which will improve the power of future prayers there.

From all of these sources we see a tremendous but little-known Torah principle, that the good deeds that we do have a tangible effect on our surroundings that will give spiritual energy and protection to other people in those surroundings.
Could this kind of spiritual energy attach to a boy's skin instead of the ground in a particular place? Jewish sources do not seem to discuss it. Is this the "old magic" that protected Harry Potter, that Voldemort did not foresee? Even J.K. Rowling may not know. But if we pay attention to our surroundings, and to the mitzvot that have occurred there in the past, we may feel some of this spiritual energy in our daily lives.

For more about HARRY POTTER AND TORAH, see

[i] Gen 50:19-20
[ii] Gen 39:11-12
[iii] Be'er Moshe parshat VeYechi chapter 25
[iv] Scholar in Gateshead, England, and Lakewood, New Jersey, in the booklet Avita Nifla'os Mi'Torasecha, introductory chapter
[v] Gen 12:6
[vi] Rashi on Gen 12:8
[vii] Joshua chapter 7
[viii] In Beit Elokim (Sha’ar HaTefila chap 18), the Mabit discusses Abraham’s having engaged in all these prayers as part of his then-new role as patriarch of the Jewish nation.
[ix] Ex 3:2-5
[x] This story does not appear in any primary Midrashic sources, but is quoted heavily in modern books of folklore.
[xi] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 90:18
[xii] Mishna Berurah 90:55
[xiii] Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayim 90:19

No comments: