Monday, June 18, 2007

Order of the Phoenix and fighting the right battles

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, coming out in theaters in July, we see Harry Potter's world immediately after Voldemort's return, in which a few dozen people are fighting Voldemort, but the rest of the magical world is denying that Voldemort has in fact returned. Throughout the story Harry and Dumbeldore are treated as troublemakers by people who don't want to admit that Voldemort is back. Only in the amazing final scene does the rest of the world realize the truth, that they've been fighting the wrong battle for a year.

We see, then, the importance of seeing the truth and fighting the right battles. Only when the whole world realizes that Voldemort is back, can they fight the right battle on the true side of good. The same lesson can be seen in the Torah, and is applicable in our modern life as well.

In the story of the spies, when the spies were giving their report of what they saw in the Land of Israel, they included the somewhat offhand comment "the Amalekites are dwelling in the Negev region" (Num 13:29). Now, in the torah portion of Chukat, the Jews get closer to Israel, we the Torah describes that "the Canaanites dwelling in the Negev region heard that the Jews were coming" (Num 21:1). If we're paying attention to the details, we're left with a simple qusetion: Who was actually dwelling in the Negev region, the south part of the Land of Israel? Was it Amalekites or was it Canaanites? And why does the Torah appear to contradict itself?

Rashi's commentary quotes a Midrash that gives a perplexing answer: In fact, it was Amalekites that were living in the Negev region. But as the Jewish people approached, they deliberately talked in the language of the Canaanites, so that the Jewish people would hear them and think that they were Canaanites and not Amalekites. Their goal was that the Jews would pray for success against the Cananites, not for success against the Amalekites, and would therefore lose in battle.

What's going on here? This Midrash is obviously trying to tell us something. Even before we think about what it says about prayer, what's the point of the whole story of Amalekites trying to pass themselves off as Canaanites?

I heard an interesting explanation of this that relates to what each of these nations symbolize in Jewish thought. The Canaanites were the people living in the Land of Israel before G-d gave the Land to Abraham. Since the time of Noah the Land of Israel had belonged to the Canaanites. They were the ones with a legitimate gripe against the Jewish people for dislodging them from their land, albeit at G-d's command. The Amalekites, on the other hand, were actually descended from Abraham's grandson Esau. They had land in the Edom region, but as Esau's descendants, hated the Jewish people on principle, out of anger and basic hatred, not for any practical reason. They attacked the Jewish people soon after the Exodus from Egypt (as I discuss briefly in Harry Potter and Torah in the chapter on magic wands), and anti-semites throughout time are considered in Jewish thought to be descended from the Amalekites.

The Midrash is telling us that sometimes Amalekites, who act out of hatred and anger, will try to take the appearance of Canaanites, who have a legitimate complaint about land. Sometimes Amalekites will "talk the talk" of land, as a means of covering up the simple fact that they're driven by hatred and anger. They want to be seen as Canaanites with a legitimate complaint, when in fact they're Amalekites acting out of anger and hatred.

The point for modern times is probably obvious to everyone reading this, but I'll spell it out anyway. Today's Palestinians are trying constantly to take the appearance of Canaanites (even when they chose 50 years ago to call themselves "Palestinians"). They talk constantly of the legitimate desire for land for a state. HOWEVER, when we look at what's really going on, we see clearly that their true actions are the actions of Amalekites, not of Canaanites. Their drive is not to make a state, but to experss their hatred and anger.

If today's Palestinians were metaphorical Canaanites, they would have been thrilled to get control of the Gaza Strip 2 years ago, and would have built their society there and lobbied to then get control of the West Bank (as Israel was planning at the time to give them next). If they were Canaanites, they would have accepted Barak's offer at Camp David of 99% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to build a peaceful state. If they were Canaanites, they would have accepted the United Nations Partition Plan in 1948.

But instead they've been consistently acting like metaphorical Amalekites, not acting to get a state but acting out of anger and hatred. Gaza wasn't built into a functional society, but rather into a springboard for missiles. Same for Lebanon. And West Bank regions such as Bethlehem were the launchpad for most terrorist bombs during the last intifada, not built into functional cities.

I'm not writing this to advance my own proposal for what should be done here. That's not my point. My point is that WHATEVER we do, we have to first recognize the truth, that the Arabs are not acting to create a state, but rather are acting to destroy Israel. Once we acknowledge that, but only after we acknowledge that, can we see where to go from here.

Some people will disagree with me, and my answer is simple: I'd love to be proven wrong. Israel withdrew from Gaza hoping that the Palestinians would use it as Canaanites to build a functional society. Israel offerred 99% of the West Bank hoping that the Palestinians would use it as Canaanites to build a peaceful society. The Palestinians can prove me wrong very easily by doing something, anything, to show that they're committed to building a peaceful society side-by-side with Israel. But after 50 years of Amalekite behavior, the world needs to see the (metaphorical) Amalekites for what they are. First we admit the truth, then we work from there.

In the final scene of Order of the Phoenix we see Harry Potter's world forced to admit the truth about Voldemort's return. They don't know what to do next, but once they see the truth, they can try to solve the true problem instead of the fake problems they'd been looking at until then. If we can do this as well, hopefully we, like Harry Potter's world in the final book, can reach a peaceful conclusion to our saga.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Quick note about attribution

The Talmud, when discussing the story of Purim, says that the salvation in the Purim story came as a result of Queen Esther attributing something to Mordechai that he had said. She could just have told the King that his guards were going to kill him, but instead she specifically said that she had heard this from Mordechai. The resulting gratitude of the King to Mordechai led to a cascading series of events that led to the redemption. The Talmud concludes that anyone that quotes something with correct attribution will bring redemption to the world.

However we exactly understand the generalization that the Talmud makes, it's certainly a good thing for the world for people to give credit where credit is due.

So, with this in mind, I wanted to make a quick comment about my post about the magical wisdom of the magical land: I attributed the idea of the magical wisdom from the land of Israel staying with a person even when he leaves Israel to the Chassidic Rebbe of Boston, since I heard it from him several years ago. But I saw over Shabbat in a book of his that the idea is originally from the Imrei Emes, an early Rebbe from the Gur dynasty.

I hope everyone has a good week!


Sunday, June 10, 2007

The story of the spies and the importance of self confidence (Shlach)

Harry's friend Neville is told by a teacher in Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix (in the book) that the only thing holding him back is his own lack of self-confidence. Later in the story his self-confidence grows, leading to his involvement in the climactic conflict at the end of the book (as we're all looking forward to seeing in the movie).

The ability of self-confidence to have a magical effect on our lives is something that we can see in the Torah as well.

(By the way, if this is your first time reading this blog, you can read 200 pages worth of Torah ideas about Harry Potter themes in my book, Harry Potter and Torah.)

The story of the spies, who were sent from the desert to spy out the Land of Israel before the Jewish people entered the Land, has been the subject of many discussions from many perspectives. When the spies returned from seeing the Land and gave their negative report, they mentioned seeing a tribe of giant people, and said "we felt like grasshoppers, and that's how they saw us." Many commentaries point out that the spies were betraying something very psychological in this sentence.

"We felt like grasshoppers" -- this was their own feeling, a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem

"and that's how they saw us" -- once the spies had lost their own self-confidence, others saw them negatively as well

When people have self-confidence, it changes how they act, and indirectly changes how they are perceived by others. If the spies had had self-confidence, if they hadn't seen themselves as "grasshoppers," the giants would not have seen them in that way. But, conversely, if people lack self-esteem and see themselves negatively, it effects how they act and how they project themselves, and thereby effects how people see them. The spies "felt like grasshoppers," and therefore "that's how they saw us."

This is not only a lesson for Neville in Harry Potter, but a lesson for all of us in our lives. Confidence is not a consequence of how we act and how we're perceived, rather it's a choice that we all have the power to make that will effect how we act and how we're perceived.

We will see Neville starting to learn this lesson when the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix comes out this summer, and I predict that his increased self-confidence will play a part in the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In the meanwhile, if we all realize our own inner strengths, and focus on our self-confidence, the result might be magical.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Magical wisdom and the magical land (Shlach)

Throughout the Harry Potter books we see magical incantations, potions, and other tricks that Hogwarts students try to use to become smarter, especially when they have tests. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (chap 31), as the students prepare for their OWL exams, they're told:

"Now, I must warn you that the most stringent anti-cheating charms have been
applied to your examination papers. Auto-answer quills (pens) are banned
from the examination hall, as are remembralls, detachable cribbing cuffs, and
self-correcting ink."

We will see that the Torah and Talmud also discuss magical wisdom, but of a very different sort than the methods used for cheating at Hogwarts.

This week's Torah portion, Shlach, discusses the story of the spies spying out the Land of Israel.

In a nutshell, twelve spies are chosen to spy on the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land of Israel and report back on what they see. But ten of the spies spoke badly of the Land and disparaged the possibility of the Jews taking control of the Land. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua (in Hebrew "Calev" and "Yehoshua") defended the Land and defended G-d's ability to bring the Jews there, but the Jewish people panicked because of the spies report. G-d got angry at them for not believing in the Land's greatness and for not trusting in His ability to bring the Jews into the Land, and as a result they were punished with forty years of wandering.

If we look closely at the verses of the story, we see a strange detail that the Torah seems to emphasize. After the bad report and the people's panic, the Torah says (Num 14:5-6) as follows:

"Moses and Aaron fell on their faces (bowing in prayer) in front of all the people. Caleb and Joshua, among those who were in the Land (of Israel), tore their clothes (in grief)."

If we think about it, there seem to be two very different reactions going on. Moses and Aaron, the spiritual leaders of the people, G-d's chosen prophet and high priest, prayed to G-d not to punish the people. Caleb and Joshua, however, reacted less hopefully, and reacted instead to the grief they felt.

If the spiritual leaders started praying to G-d not to punish the people, why didn't Caleb and Joshua join in? Why were they seemingly pessimistic while Moses and Aaron were seemingly hoping that their prayer would result in things being OK?

Moreover, it seems in fact that Caleb and Joshua were right. Rather than simply forgiving the Jews, G-d's reaction was a pretty harsh punishment. Could Caleb and Joshua have known that the punishment was coming, and been in grief over it, while Moses and Aaron, the prophet and priest, still had hope that ended up being unrealized?

The Chassidic Rebbe from Boston teaches that this is an example of the Talmudic axim that "the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise" (BB 158b). As spiritual and close to G-d as Moses and Aaron were, they had not set food in the Land of Israel, which Caleb and Joshua had. This gave Caleb and Joshua an added wisdom that even Moses and Aaron didn't have, enabling them to understand that G-d was not going to simply forgive the Jews this time, and that a bigger punishment was on the way. This led to their grieving rather than praying optimistically.

This answers a question about the concept of "the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise." Does the air make a person wise only when that person is in Israel, or does it give an added element of wisdom that lasts with the person after leaving Israel? The Bostoner Rebbe concludes from his understanding of the story above that this special Divine wisdom stays with people even after they leave Israel.

It seems to me that an additional condition might be needed, that the wisdom from the Land will only stay with people that want to keep the Land's wisdom with them when they leave. Otherwise, wouldn't the ten other spies who started all the problems also have had Divine wisdom that would have prevented them from the entire sin? It seems necessary to appreciate the Land and the wisdom it imparts for the wisdom to stay with a person who leaves, which would be the only explanation (I think) for why Caleb and Joshua kept this Divine wisdom while the other ten spies obviously didn't.

We see from this a Jewish perspective on earning Divine wisdom. Coming to the Land of Israel is one part, since the Land is G-d's chosen Land with Divinely magical properties such as making people wise. But we also need to appreciate G-d's Land, and G-d's gifts to us in general, to keep the magical wisdom that He gives us.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Harry Potter themes in Parshat Beha'alotcha

This week's Torah portion, Beha'alotcha, discusses the manna ("mon" in Hebrew) that the Jews ate for 40 years in the desert. The Midrash and Torah commentaries say that the manna could taste like anything that the eater wanted it to.

I've elaborated on this in two previous blog messages:

In Why did Harry's Bogart Effect Him Like a Dementor I use the manna as an analogy for the bogart, a magical animal that can take on any shape.

In More About Magic on Shabbat I discuss the question of whether it would be prohibited on Shabbat to eat manna and imagine its tasting cooked or baked, if the process of cooking or baking is in general forbidden on Shabbat.

Have a great Shabbat everyone!