Friday, May 18, 2007

The magic of how we interact with other people - A Harry Potter message for Shavuot

Harry Potter learns from Professor Dumbeldore several lessons about the magical nature of people doing good things for each other.

For example, at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban (chap 22), he says that it was a good thing that Harry saved the life of an evil person:

Harry looked at him aghast... "But - that makes it my fault, if
Voldemort comes back!"
"It does not," said Dumbeldore quietly.... "You did a very noble
thing, in saving ----'s life."
"But if he helps Voldemort back to power---!"
"He owes his life to you. When one wizard saves another wizard, it
creates a certain bond between them... This is magic at it deepest, its
most inpenetrable, Harry. But trust me... the time may come when you will
be very glad you saved ----'s life."

There are many other examples as well, such as Dumbeldore's saying that the power of love is more powerful than black magic, in Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince.

We see a similar idea in Jewish thought if we look in detail at the Ten Commandments, received by the Jewish people at Mt Sinai and celebrated on the holiday of Shavuot, this year on May 22-23, 2007.

In the book Beit Elokim Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Trani (known as the Mabeet, lived in the 16th century in Tzfat) explored in great detail all the Midrashic descriptions of the Ten Commandments (Shaar HaYisodot chap 12). While there are multiple opinions in Jewish thought as to exactly how the stone tablets looked, the Mabeet's conclusion is that the stones were rectangular-shaped, the first stone with the first five commandments (those discussion our relationship with G-d) and the second stone with the last five commandments (those that discuss our relationship with other people). The two stones were the same size, and both were filled with writing, with the entire surface of the stone used for the writing of the Holy Commandments.

He then asks the following question about this description: How could it be the case that the two stones were the same size, and both were completely filled with the writing of the Commandments? The first five commandments, concerning our relationship with G-d, are made of up of several long sentences each, while the last five commandments, concerning our relationship with other people, are mostly two words each (Don't kill, don't steal, etc). How could the large number of words on the first stone take the same amount of space as the much smaller number of words on the second stone?

He concludes, to paraphrase in modern terminology, that G-d wrote the last five commandments, concerning our relationship with other people, in a much larger font (larger letters) than the first five. By engraving the last five Commandments larger, G-d made them take as much space as the first five Commandments took in smaller letters.

Why did G-d do this? Because he wanted it to be the case that as Moses carried the two stone tablets down Mt Sinai, the Jewish people would see the last five commandments first. This is because, the Mabeet writes, people naturally have a stronger temptation to violate the Commandments concerning our relationship with other people, so G-d wanted to emphasize these laws.

Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, formerly from the Yeshiva of Gateshead, England, elaborated on this point. When Jews want to approach Torah, when we want to explore how Torah can contribute to our lives, the Commandments between people and G-d naturally feel more spiritual to us. Prayer, Sabbath observance, and other Commandments that we do for G-d's sake only feel more spiritual than helping other people, caring about other people's feelings, paying people to whom we owe money, helping people who are carrying heavy things, and other Commandments of this sort. But we need to know, Rabbi Solomon said, that the Commandments between people are equally spiritual, are equally reflecting G-d's desires, and have the same spiritual effects in heaven as the Commandments that we keep exclusively for G-d.

So we see, without overdoing the comparison between Torah and Harry Potter, that Torah thought has led us to a conclusion very similar to that in Harry Potter that we quoted above: Our bonds with other people, and the things that we do for other people, can be as spiritual, as magical, as more overly spiritual or magical acts can be. All we have to do, I think, is focus our energy on adherence to the Commandments between us and other people, and keep in mind that all the things that we do for other people are a fulfillment of G-d's Commandments.

And when we're celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, or thinking about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, we can remember a lesson that G-d wanted the Jewish people to learn at the time: the importance and priority of how we treat other people.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday, enjoys their cheesecake or blinces, and enjoys having something extra to think about when thinking about the Ten Commandments.


Anonymous said...

That is a very interesting idea. Why do you think, then , that Hashem made the miztvot between people the last 5? Shouldn't the order be reversed?

Bruce Krulwich said...

I can speculate, purely as speculation, that there's a difference between what we should think about first and what has to be considered first when we explore something in more depth. It might be that the mitzvot between people needs to be the starting point when we first see mitzvot, but that when we look into Torah in more depth, that our relationship with G-d needs to be foremost, so that our dealings with people be in the right perspective.

But that's pure speculation -- to answer seriously will take more exploration into what different commentaries say on the subject. I'll have to get back to you...