Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Lulav chooses the Jew...

A quick note some of you might enjoy:

In shul on the first day of Sukkot, when everyone had the lulav and etrog that they'd found and chosen from the several nearby lulav markets ("shuks"), a neighbor turned to me and said "it's really the Lulav that chooses the Jew, you know...."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sukkot: Celebrating magically protected dwellings

Sukkot: Celebrating magically protected dwellings

We read a lot in the Harry Potter series about magically protected houses and other places. Hogwarts is magically protected against unwanted entry or other harm to the students inside. The Order headquarters is protected against even being seen. The Quidditch Cup stadium magically causes muggles coming nearby to remember other things they have to do. And so on, for many houses and other places throughout the series.

The Torah tells us that G-d gave the Jewish people magically (Divinely) protected houses as well, during our 40 journey through the desert from Egypt to the Holy Land of Israel.

Wednesday night begins the holiday of Sukkot (aka Sukkos) which remembers the "Sukkah" booths (huts) that the Jewish people lived in for these 40 years in the desert. To celebrate Sukkot, Jews traditionally build Sukkos in their yards or porches, and spend a week eating in them and generally living in them as much as possible. As the Torah says, "You should sit in Sukkos for seven days... Because I (G-d) caused you to live in Sukkos...."

On the surface, leaving our houses to spend time in a Sukkah is a simple memorial act. We're remembering the Sukkos that the Jews lived in. And we show our dedication by being willing to leave comfortable air-conditioned and heated houses to eat in our Sukkos.

But if we look more closely at Sukkot, we'll see that what we're in fact celebrating isn't just life in a flimsier dwelling, but rather the Divine magical protection that we received during that time.

The Vilna Gaon asked a simple but profound question about the holiday of Sukkot: Why are we celebrating it now? The Jews started living in Sukkos immediately after the Exodous from Egypt, so we should really celebrate a holiday remembering the Sukkos right after Passover.

He answered this question by detailing the sequence of events after the exodous from Egypt. The Jews left Egypt at Passover time, and immediately started living in Sukkos, and received G-d's Divine protection from the Egyptians (and the elements) in the form of the "clouds of glory." 49 days later was the giving of the Torah, followed unfortunately by the sin of the golden calf. Among the consequences of the sin of the golden calf was that the clouds of glory left, leaving the Jews ezposed to dangers of the desert. The Jews repented, Moses prayed for G-d to forgive them, and on Yom Kippur G-d proclaimed that He forgave the sin. A few days later, the clouds of glory, representing G-d's protection, returned.

So we see something interesting here. Sukkot isn't just remembering the Sukkos. This we would do in the spring right after Passover. Rather, Sukkos is remembering G-d giving us back His Divine magical protection on our dwellings. To celebrate this, we brave the elements a bit, trusting G-d to keep us comfortable.

Our Sukkah boothes, then, are a lot more like the magically-protected houses in Harry Potter's world than we might have thought. Sukkos, like Harry, Ron and Hermione's tent, rely on the Supernatural to protect them.

And on the holiday of Sukkot we're remembering magic at its finest, the magical protection we received from G-d for 40 years.

Of course, our Sukkos don't always feel so magically protected. Wind comes in, rain drips, and the sun beats down. But if we work on our simple faith and reliance on G-d, maybe we can feel some of G-d's protection, in the Sukkah and in our daily lives.

Happy Sukkot everyone!

Final thoughts about Harry Potter and the power of teshuva

As we leave the time period of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, I want to respond to a few comments left by readers to my previous messages.

(If you didn't read the previous messages, check here, here, here, and here for posts on repentance, and here for another Yom Kippur thought.)

One reader pointed out someone I left out of my list of people in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that repented: Grindelwald. I think it's hard to tell from the book how much he repented, but certainly he seems to have left evil to some extent, so I agree, he should be on the list.

Another reader pointed out that Rashi's Talmud commentary (on AZ 17a) says explicitly what Hermione says about repentance: that sometimes it can be so painful it can kill the repenter. This is a great source, and I'll come back to it in another message sometime.

Another commenter pointed out that I may have been too hard on Harry. Harry does indeed improve himself, learn to control his temper, and admit mistakes. He turned around his opinion of Snape, and apologized for his temper in Order of the Phoenix.

Lastly, one commenter wrote that I should have included Pettigrew on my list of repenters. Maybe, but I think of Pettigrew's actions in the basement in Deathly Hallows as paying back a magical debt to Harry, not as any choice on his part. But actions do count, I suppose...

That's it fro the season of repentance, now on to the holiday of Sukkot...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Harry's good heart: Not just light, but happiness

Hi everyone! I only have a few minutes to write, but wanted to pass on a quick thought today, Erev Yom Kippur, the day that Yom Kippur starts.

(See here , here , and here and here for other Harry Potter related thoughts on Yom Kippur.)

We read repeatedly that Dumbeldore praises Harry for having a uniquely pure heart. This pure heart enables him to get the socerers stone, and to survive being posessed while Voldemort can't continue to posess him, and ultimately helps him defeat Voldemort at the end of the series.

In traditional Yom Kippur prayerbooks, before Kol Nidrei, there's a tradition to read the verse "Light is sown (saved away) for the righteous, and for the straight hearted, happiness" (or zarua la'tzadik, u'le'yishrei lev, simcha). This is a line that many ignore or miss as they come late for Kol Nidrei, or are simply looking forward to the higher profile Kol Nidrei prayer.

Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon wrote at length about this verse, and to summarize his message, the verse is telling us an important message. We spend the High Holidays thinking about being righteous, and how we can be more righteous. But we need to know that righteousness isn't the highest goal. Above being righteous is being straight-hearted.

Straight-hearted means not just doing the right thing, but having no deceit or ulterior motives or back-handedness in our hearts while we're doing whatever we're doing. There are many people who are righteous but not necessarily straight-hearted. But on Yom Kippur, when we're doing a "gap analysis" to see where we've fallen short in the past, and asking G-d for atonement for any mistakes we've made, it's important to have our eye on the biggest goal, being straight-hearted.

As I wrote above, I don't have time to expand on this, but I think that if we all think about it, and think about the intent behind the conversations in Harry Potter about Harry's pure heart and its importance and uniqueness, we'll have more to think about on Yom Kippur.

I hope everyone has a great Yom Kippur and an easy fast, and that we all have a new year with not only the light (clarity) of righteousness, but the happiness that G-d promises to the straight-hearted.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Yom Kippur: Take Harry Potter's advice and feel some remorse!

WARNING: This message discusses details of the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

We can learn the key lesson of Yom Kippur from something Harry Potter tells the evil Voldemort in the final battle at the end of Deathly Hallows:

"Before you try to kill me, I'd advise you to think about what you've done ... think, and try for some remorse ..."

"What is this?" [Voldemort replied.]

Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this. Harry saw his pupils contract to thin slits, saw the skin around his eyes whiten.

"It's your one last chance," said Harry, "it's all you've got left ... I've seen what you'll be otherwise ... be a man ... try ... try for some remorse..."

Harry's point, which Voldemort may have understood at some level, is that remorse was the only way that Voldemort could save his soul, which had been damaged by all the dark magic and evil that he had done. He learned this lesson from Hermione in chapter six, when the three of them are learning about destroying Horcruxes:

"And the more I've read about them," said Hermione, "the more horrible they seem ... It warns in this book how unstable you make the rest of your soul...."

Harry remembered what Dumbeldore had said, about Voldemort moving beyond "usual evil."

"Isn't there any way of putting yourself back together?" Ron asked.

"Yes," said Hermione, with a hollow smile, "but it would be excruciatingly painful."

"Why? How do you do it?" asked Harry.

"Remorse," said Hermione. "You've got to really feel what you've done. There's a footnote. Apparently the pain of it can destroy you. I can't see Voldemort attempting it...."

This, in a nutshell, is the lesson and purpose of Yom Kippur. The day is designed for us to feel remorse, and by doing so we have the power to repair our souls, to clean them back to their pure state.

We start with Kol Nidre, where we express remorse for any vows or promises we may have made, intentionally or not, during the year. We continue with repeated renditions of the vidui prayer, hitting our chests while confessing all the types of bad things we may possibly have done. We recite "Avinu Malkeinu," our Father our King, "we have sinned before you." And we pray for G-d to accept our remorse and wipe the slates clean, giving us a fresh start for the new year.

The midrash I've quoted previously states that if we truly feel remorse during the time from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, G-d will judge us as brand new creations, with clean slates.

Jewish Law also tells us that our remorse should start with things that we may have done to other people. With that in mind, I'd like to ask that anyone reading this, people I know or don't know, who I've bothered or offended in any way whatsoever, please forgive me. And I'll say publically that I forgive anyone who's done anything at all to me.

As Hermione said, true remorse can be painful. We don't want to admit things we've done, we're conditioned to make excuses for them. But on Yom Kippur, remorse is the theme of the day. And at the end of the day, the slates are wiped clean, and all mistakes are erased as if they never existed. As painful as remorse can be, the goal is a positive one -- the chance to start again, to start the new year as pure as newly created, with no baggage, only opportunity.

As Harry said, this is the chance we have for our souls. Let's use it!

I hope everyone has a meaningful Yom Kippur and as easy a fast as can be meaningful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Blowing the shofar and Jewish unity

Below is an excerpt from Harry Potter and Torah on the subject of blowing the shofar and Jewish unity. Part of the chapter on unity appeared on the website, but the part about the shofar was not included, so I'm posting it here now.

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!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Rosh HaShana: Even Malfoy's or Wormtail's repentance counts!

Following up on my long message about teshuva (repentance) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and my follow-up message and many comments, I think it's critical to approach Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur with the following thought in mind:

All teshuva is good teshuva

In my previous messages I discussed Jewish writings about the steps necessary in full teshuva, and how many characters in Deathly Hallows seem to have repented very seriously, and others seem to have repented fairly light-heartedly. While some comment-writers disagreed with me, my conclusion is that the Malfoy's turning away from following Voldemort, and Pettigrew's not killing Harry when ordered to, were both fairly weak forms of repentance, since they were not motivated by a realization that their actions had been wrong, but rather by self-interest or debt.

However, as Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur approach, we need to keep in mind that all repentance is good repentance.

There's an interesting statement in the Talmud (Kiddushin 49a) about this. What happens, the Talmud asks, if someone says that a deal will be made if, and only if, he himself is completely righteous? The Talmud answers that the deal is made, even if the person is known to be less than righteous, because "he may have thought about teshuva when making the deal."

All the commentaries are shocked by this Talmudic statement. How can someone known to do wrong things be considered legally to be "completely righteous" just on the basis of a fleeting thought about teshuva? He didn't do any of the steps of teshuva that I outlined previously! He may return to his evil ways immediately after making the deal! But bottom line, a simple thought of teshuva is enough to make someone righteous, at least for a moment, and that's enough that the deal is made.

The lesson for us as Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur approach is clear. The Day of Judgement and the Day of Atonement don't require huge impossible acts of repentance. We can start with simple thoughts about things we'd like to do differently in the upcoming year, and simple thoughts admitting that things in the past year could have been better. That's enough for G-d to consider us completely righteous.

We don't need to turn around our lives like Percy did, or spend our entire lives repenting like Snape did, or sacrifice our lives like Regulus did. Even the simple changes like the Malfoys did is enough for atonement.

With even a simple thought of teshuva, we can achieve the magical effect that I quoted in Harry Potter and Torah: G-d promises us that if we repent on Rosh HaShana, He will credit us on Yom Kippur as if we were new people (Yerushalmi Rosh HaShana 4:8, Baal HaTurim on Num 29:2).

I want to wish everyone a Happy Rosh HaShana, a sweet new year, a magical year and a Jewishly-meaningful year. May we all be signed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Please pray for a heathy recovery for...

Please, anyone who can, add a prayer in synagogue this Shabbat for Tzivya bat Beila, a friend just diagnosed with cancer. Thanks!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Percy's teshuva (repentance) and Yom Kippur

Following up on my previous message about Teshuva (repentance) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a commenter wrote that I had left out Percy. Big omission! Percy is one of the most notable examples of teshuva in the book.

(Note, by the way, that I don't mean below to base moral lessons on characters as if they really exist. Yes, the books are fiction. But I believe that J. K. Rowling wrote them with a keen eye for human psychology, and that we can use the characters to explore moral lessons based on the way that G-d has built human psychology.)

In the Yom Kippur vidui (confession) service, we repeatedly refer to mistakes that we made because of "Timhon Levav," confusion of the heart, and "kashyut oref," usually translated as stubbornness. The idea in these two confessions, I think, is that people have a tendency to become very invested in what we think is true, basing our actions on huge sets of facts that follow, or that we think follow, from a small set of beliefs. Since our actions are based on our entire belief systems, it's very hard to admit that we've made a mistake, since it would require us to reexamine everything we believe.

But this is the lesson of Percy. Even after years of sticking with our belief systems, believing that we're right, we still have the power to reexamine our belief systems to find things that we want to change.

In the final few Harry Potter books, Percy stuck to his beliefs, since they were all predicated on a view of the world that he was convinced was right. But once he was really pushed to think about it, for his own internal reasons and not because of outside pressure, the house of cards that he was believing in fell to the ground. In the end, he not only changed sides in the fight against Voldemort, but changed all those aspects of his life that were built on that house of cards.

It's also important to note, by the way, that Percy couldn't make this change when pushed by others. He had to realize it himself and make the changes to his beliefs from within. This is because the house of cards of beliefs could answer the claims that others were making. He could only realize the mistakes when he was forced in his own mind to think about the underpinnings of his beliefs. I think that this is worth thinking about for all parents, teachers, and others who try to help others improve -- core changes often need to come from within.

Ultimately, I think that the type of teshuva exemplified by Percy is what we're meant to do during the month leading up to Rosh HaShana, and during the time period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. As I quoted in the Harry Potter and Torah chapter on Destiny and Decisions, the midrash tells us that if we repent properly during the time between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, G-d will credit us on Yom Kippur as if we were entirely new people.

NOTE that I posted a follow-up message, with more elaboration, here: