Tuesday, December 29, 2009

REPOST: Joseph, Egypt, and Magical Protection (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 http://www.harrypottertorah.com/

[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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book fair of authors living in Beit Shemesh - including Harry Potter and Torah

I've always been amazed at the number of authors of Jewish books that all live in the Beit Shemesh / Ramat Beit Shemesh area. Now a local shul is organizing a book fair of books written by authors who live in the area. The schedule and list of authors/books is below.

For those readers who can't make it to the book fair, I've included links for as many of the books as I can.

We are pleased to announce the 1st Annual Beit Shemesh
Authors’ Fair
In memory of Charles H. Bendheim

To be held on:
Thursday 10th December 2009
Starting at 7.30pm
Menorat Maor Shul
Nachal Hamaor, Ramat Beit Shemesh

This will be a wonderful opportunity to meet
with local authors and buy their works.

Come meet:
  1. Rabbi Chagai Bar Giora - חוקיך למדני
  2. Rabbi Jonathan Duker – The Spirits Behind the Law: The Talmudic Scholars
  3. Rabbi Ari Enkin – Dalet Amot: Halachic Perspectives ; Amot Shel Halacha: Halachic Insights
  4. Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen - The Guiding Light
  5. Gita Gordon - South African Journeys, Flashback, Mystery in the Amazon, Scattered Blossoms
  6. Rabbi Karmi Gross - Mekor Habracha
  7. Rabbi David Guedalia – Berach Dodi – A Multi-Faceted Approach to Verse, Chok L’David – Talmudic Readings in the Tradition of Darchei HaGemara
  8. Rabbi Shalom Hammer - The Family Parsha Book; The Eibshitz Hagadda
  9. Shoshana Kesner - Oh Baby! A guide to the 4th trimester
  10. Dov Krulwich – Harry Potter and Torah
  11. Rabbi Moshe Lichtman - Eim HaBanim Semeichah; An Angel Among Men; A Question of Redemption; What's the Purpose? ; Kitzur Messilat Yesharim (Hebrew)
  12. Rabbi Dov Lipman – Discover, Timeout
  13. Rabbi Zvi Miller - Ohr Yisrael: The Classic Writings of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter; Thirty Days to Teshuva; Living Mussar Every Day; The Salant Birchon; Windows of the Soul: Practical Guide to Controlling Your Eyes
  14. Rabbi Yaakov Montrose - Halachic World vols. 1 and 2; Yoshev Ohalim
  15. Rabbi Chaim Perlmutter – Grow With Gemara - A Hands-On Guide to the Study of Gemara; Tools for Tosafos - A guide to the study of Tosafos; Gemara Wisdom - Bava Metzia - A collection of articles concerning the moral aspect of the Torah monetary laws as they are taught in the Gemara
  16. Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk – Kankanim (A Multifaceted Approach to Biblical Episodes), An Intro to the Study of Talmud Yerushalmi קנקנים – סוגיות מקראיות במבט רב תחומי, מבוא ללימוד התלמוד הירושלמי
  17. Riva Pomerantz – Green Fences; Breaking Free
  18. Rabbi Natan Slifkin – The Challenge of Creation; Sacred Monsters; Perek Shirah: Nature's Song; Man and Beast
  19. Rabbi David Spektor
  20. Penina Taylor - Coming Full Circle: A Jewish Woman’s Journey through Christianity and Back
  21. Rabbi Tal Moshe Zwecker – MiPeninei Noam Elimelech

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Magic and Knowledge - excerpt from a friend's speech

The following is an excerpt from a friend of mine's speech at his son's recent Bar Mitzva.

Mazal tov to the family - I enjoyed this so much I thought I'd post part of it here.

Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction writer from the golden age of the 1950 and 60's formulated the following three laws:

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Being a science fiction fan, that last one about technology and magic has followed me all through my life. The past few years have been full of magic. Can you imaging living at the time of Avraham. If you suffered from kidney disease, you would probably never know it, until one day, you fell ill and within a few days, died from blood poisoning. One thing about kidney disease is that it is degenerative. Past a certain point, kidneys do not heal. You don't get better.

Rav Elyashiv recently ruled that it is forbidden to pray for a deathly ill person to be healed. The problem is that are not supposed to pray for miracles. We can hope for miracles, but we have no right to beseach God to change the natural laws. We can pray that there is a mistaken diagnosis; that a cure will be found, or for the sick person to have a better quality of life. But, you cannot ask for a degenerative disease to suddenly go away.

How blessed are we to live in a time where doctors can identify kidney disease, and can retard the progress of the disease. This would have been magical only 100 years ago, not to mention how foreign the concept of a diagnosis would have been at the time of Noach or Avraham.

Can you imaging explaining to an Egyptian that this team of people all dressed up in masks and gloves were going to remove a piece of a living person (without killing them), and then they would put that piece into someone else; the end result being two healthy people. Is there anything more magical or mystical?

The fact that we understand something about medicine and science does not preclude God's existence. The Rambam might say that God has blessed our whole generation with knowledge that extends our lives and treats our illnesses. The timing is the miracle. It came at just the right time to save .... Modern medication is miraculous. Like prayer, I don't need to know how it works, only that somehow, it does. Perhaps it is a placebo effect, perhaps is does something chemical, but whatever the scientific explanation, it looks like magic to me.

I want to thank God and the people in this room for all the miraculous events that have impacted us these past few years. In this room, we have social workers who can help alleviate pain and suffering; engineers, scientists, and educated professionals who know and understand things that would be clearly miraculous if you could take that knowledge back to the time of the bible. Being able to gather this knowledge, even for a family event would have taken months of travel and severe hardship during the time of the gemara.

To you, my friends and family, I say, Y'asher Koach. May you continue to be strong, to spread your knowledge and to use it for God's purposes.

To Hillel, I say, learn from these people. Knowledge is power to change the world for you and for others. Collect this knowledge. Never forget how lucky you are to live in times such as these. Don't waste that opportunity by treating it all like someone else’s magic.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amazon's huge discount on Harry Potter and Torah

Amazon is now offering Harry Potter and Torah at a hugely discounted price of $10.32, discounted from the standard price of $19.95! Grab it while the price lasts!


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From ParshaBlog: Did Chava Speak Parseltongue?

In Harry Potter and Torah I wrote a chapter on speaking animals, titled Talking Snakes and Human Souls, discussing the power of speech, the uniqueness of the human soul, and talking animals. In the course of this discussion I note that Eve may have been the world's first parselmouth.

Now I see that the ParshaBlog has written a very in-depth article titled Did Chava Speak Parseltongue? on the subject of talking animals. Definitely a good read for those interested in what Jewish sources say on the subject of talking animals.

Friday, September 25, 2009

REPOST: Harry's Good Heart and Yom Kippur

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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Kids and self-control

I'm sure I'll think of a connection later to Harry Potter, but this is just a quick post about something I saw that I find fascinating: Psychological and Educational research on the importance of self-control. Certainly the connection to Judaism is obvious, especially during the time period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur where we're focusing on self-improvement.

The book that's discussed in the video is available here: http://qurl.com/8kcwg

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dumbeldore's repentance (teshuva) - a sign of a leader, or unbecoming of a leader?

The period before Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is always one of introspection, teshuva (repentance), and hopefully self-improvement. I wrote a series of articles a few years ago on examples of repentance in Harry Potter, and in the first article I listed Dumbeldore as an example of someone who clearly repented and changed his ways in the course of the story.

Deathly Hallows does a great job of portraying people's reactions to Dumbeldore's having made mistakes in his past. His opponents were thrilled to find something to "take him down" for, and even his followers (like Harry) were confused at the conflict between their image of their leader and the pictures they were seeing of his past. This is not different from all the revelations we see in newspapers nowadays, of politicians with questionable actions in their past.

The question is: Is Dumbeldore tainted by having consorted with Grindewald and planned anti-muggle activities? Or should he be judged only by who he is today?

This is a question that comes up often nowadays in how leaders are portrayed, both politicians and religious Jewish leaders. Is a President a worse President, or a worse human being, because of whether he inhaled drugs as a college student? Is a Rabbinical Scholar less wise, less worthy of following, or less leadership-worthy, because of whether he did something 30 years earlier that he wouldn't do today? Are the characters in the Torah less Sacred and less awe-inspiring if they did things that make them human and that we can learn from?

In the Harry Potter stories, I think the resounding answer is that Dumbeldore wouldn't have been Dumbeldore if he hadn't done what he did as a teen. Yes, it was painful for him later, but so much of his character, of his empathy, and of his understanding came from his living through his father's actions, his realizations about Grindewald, and his decision to move his life in the other direction.

This exact point is discussed in Harry Potter and Torah in a chapter titled Mudbloods Moabites and Moshiach. The chapter makes the point that the ancestors of King David, and thereby the ancestors of all Jewish Kings and of the Moshiach, have their roots in some very shady deeds. From Lot and his daughters to Yehuda and Tamar, we see why the Midrash says "I found King David my servant - where was he found? In Sodom!"

This is explained very clearly in the Hebrew book MiMa'amakim, which writes (page 95) as follows: In the period before Moshiach, the Jewish people will be in a dark and terrible state, and it will be the Moshiach's job to raise them to the highest levels. For him to have the power to do this, Divine Providence will have it that even the Moshiach's birth will reflect transforming definitive evil to the highest spirituality. Everyone alive will know that he has the ability to similarly transform all.

After all, don't we want leaders that have themselves accomplished the self-improvement and growth that we all aspire to ourselves? Don't we want leaders that can relate to us and inspire us?

The Talmud says that if we re-make ourselves on Rosh HaShana, G-d will credit us on Yom Kippur as a brand new creation, free of any of the baggage that we may have picked up along the way. Not only do leaders need to know how to do this, but we do as well.

I want to wish everyone a sweet new year and meaningful Rosh HaShana holiday. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and of all the Blessings possible.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Harry Potter thought on Hirhurim blog - choosing beliefs

Gil Student's fun-to-read Hirhurim blog has an interesting article on the discussion in Deathly Hallows of Harry's choosing what to believe:

Here is the first discussion (pp. 152-153):
"Well, in that interview," Harry went on, "Rita Skeeter hinted that Professor Dumbledore was involved in the Dark Arts when he was young."

"Don't believe a word of it!" said Doge at once. "Not a word, Harry! Let nothing tarnish your memories of Albus Dumbledore!"

Harry looked into Doge's earnest, pained face and felt, not reassured, but frustrated. Did Doge really think it was that easy, that Harry could simply choose not to believe? Didn't Doge understand Harry's need to be sure, to know everything?
And here is the second exchange (p. 185):
[Hermione:] "Harry, do you really think you'll get the truth from a malicious old woman like Muriel, or from Rita Skeeter? How can you believe them? You knew Dumbledore!"

"I thought I did," he muttered.

"But you know how much truth there was in everything Rita wrote about you! Doge is right, how can you let these people tarnish your memories of Dumbledore?"

He looked away, trying not to betray the resentment he felt. There it was again: Choose what to believe. He wanted the truth. Why was everbody so determined that he should not get it?
Gil omits the final example, where after burying Dobby Harry makes the decision to continue with the task that he was given on the basis of belief in Dumbeldore. I this that this has a strong message for us. We can debate belief all we want, but there are also times that we have to act, and need to choose our actions based on their own right-ness even when in principle we're not certain about the beliefs.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Congratulations to Neal Hendel new Israeli surpreme court justice

Mazal tov to Neal Hendel, newly appointed Israeli supreme court justice.

See the Jerusalem Post article here.

I knew Justice Hendel in Beer Sheva (not from in his courtroom). He's a real mentsh and a definite religious scholar in addition to obviously being a legal scholar.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Aish article on Harry Potter and Free Will

I thought everyone would enjoy an article on aish.com titled Harry Potter and Free Will:


It's highly related to the chapter in Harry Potter and Torah titled Destiny and Decisions.

Jewish Horcruxes (from a Rabbi in Connecticut)

I came across the following MP3 recording of a sermon by Rabbi Daniel Cohen in Stamford CT, titled Harry Potter and the Jewish Horcrux, that I thought I'd link here:


I've always been sure that there were Jewish sources about soul-splitting. I'm still looking into the sources that Rabbi Cohen quotes - I'll post more if I find more ideas relevant to Harry Potter.

Enjoy! Comments welcome as always.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Making Tisha B'Av mean something

Hi everyone, I haven't blogged for a while, even with the new Harry Potter movie out. But here it is on Tisha B'Av afternoon, and I just want to share some thoughts.

I spent the first half of the day today, from 8am until noon, at Tisha B'Av prayers with teaching and elaboration by Rabbi Yaacov Haber, a Rabbi I've been in contact with for 20 years but only now live in the same town. The prayers and Rabbi Haber's teachings, and most other teachings and writings about the day, revolve around two themes: (1) All the horrible events that have happened throughout history on Tisha B'Av, and (2) the Talmud's conclusion that the exile that we're mourning is Divine punishment for hatred between Jews.

Right now, though, I feel very frustrated. Jews the world over can mourn the exile, fast, say prayers remembering horrors throughout Jewish history, and discuss the problems with hatred between Jews. Then we go home, rest a bit, eat dinner when the fast day is over, and go back to our regular lives the next day. And unfortunately, there will be as much hatred between Jews tomorrow as there was yesterday.

I think we all need to do something really simple. We need to decide, each of us, what we can do to reduce hatred in the world, particularly hatred between Jews. Can we commit to trying to understand others instead of insulting them? Can we commit to doing something active to bring different groups of Jews together? Can we commit to doing something nice for people that we might not otherwise do?

It's very easy to focus on other Jews that need to do this more than us. Here in Israel it's easy to say that the REAL problems of hatred between Jews are the rioters, or the stone throwers, or the ..... But if we say that, nothing will change. We've all got to make a change.

If we can do this, maybe, with G-d's help, next year's Tisha B'Av can be a celebration instead of a fast day, and we can reach a Messianic state of true peace and understanding. If we want that, we need to make a step.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New book: Jewish Themes in Star Trek (not by me)

This just got to market - I'm still waiting for my copy, but from what I've seen on-line, Jewish Themes in Star Trek finds Jewish lessons in Star Trek just as my book did for Harry Potter.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Harry Potter ideas for the Passover Seder

I was talking to a friend about the Passover Seder, and he mentioned that the 4 houses in Harry Potter can parallel the 4 sons in the Passover Seder. Or maybe the 4 cups. Or maybe the 4 phrases of redemption.

I'll post more between now and Passover about this and other ideas, but I want to open up a question to blog readers: Where else do you see Harry Potter ideas in the Passover Seder? Leave comments below, or e-mail me at author@harrypottertorah.com. I'll then post a complete list here, and we can all add some more Harry Potter to our Seders!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sirius, Kreacher, and the Origins of Haman

Hi everyone. I'm writing this in a hurry, without access to my books, since I want to get it out before Purim. Feel free to send me questions by e-mail (author@harrypottertorah.com) or leave blog comments, and I can elaborate the sources and the details. Happy Purim everyone!

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 descendent 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!

Monday, February 9, 2009

A book by Rabbi Noah Weinberg ZTzL

Following up on my previous message about the passing of Rabbi Noah Weinberg, anyone interested in reading some of Rabbi Weinberg's ideas can check out his book titled Five Levels of Pleasure: Enlightened Decision-Making for Success in Life:

Harry's mission, Yitro's hearing, and the life of Rabbi Noah Weinberg OBM

For most of us nowadays it's hard to imagine changing around your life because of a mission that you feel, because of a drive to accomplish a specific job that you think is uniquely yours. We tend to go about our lives, doing what's right and doing what's right for us to do. But a life's mission? That's for more chivilrous times.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a lot of people try to talk Harry out of fulfilling the mission that Dumbeldore left him. Aberforth says it most bluntly, but the questions are raised throughout the book. Is it a realistic mission? Can he trust that it's the right mission? Can he trust that he understood the mission correctly? As we know, Harry stuck with it, made the fateful decision after Dobby's death that he was going to persevere, and in the end he was successful.

Last Thursday Rabbi Noah Weinberg died in Jerusalem. I didn't know him, I never met him, I only heard him speak a few times and read very little of his teachings. But from what I've learned and heard from others, and from what I saw on a video that he released a few years ago for Tisha B'Av, I think there's an amazing lesson that we all can learn from him. He was truly a man with a mission. Raised in the religious Yeshiva communities of Baltimore and New York, descendent of a long line of scholars, he had an experience in his youth that shocked him: he talked with Jews who knew nothing of Judaism. He spent the rest of his life, to his last day, establishing schools and adult education centers worldwide to teach Judaism to those who knew nothing about it.

At the time this was radical. The Yeshiva world was fairly insular and most scholarship was very inner-directed. But he was on a mission. He was driven to do everything he could to eliminate Jewish ignorance, eliminate assimilation and inter-marriage, and teach the beauty of Torah to people who had never been exposed to it.

He said of himself that he felt that he had not accomplished enough. The thousands and thousands of Jews that had learned in his institutions, and the entire genre of institutions that he inspired, were not enough as long as assimilation and intermarriage were on the rise. He set the highest standard for himself.

Many people are writing about him and many people are continuing his work in Jewish education. I encourage anyone interested to read the articles about him at http://www.aish.com and other sites on-line. The articles and the web sites all reflect the thoughts and feelings of people that are trying to follow in his footsteps.

But the rest of us can learn a lesson from him that I think is just as important. When we see something that inspires us, that gets us thinking about a mission that needs to be done, we can decide to embark on it. Life missions are not just for Rabbi Weinberg, and (le'havdil) they're not just for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, they're for us as well. If the world needs to be changed, and if we feel the ability and the inspiration to do it, than we can try to make the inspiration a reality.

In this upcoming Shabbat's Torah portion, we read that Moses's father-in-law Yitro (Yisro) heard something that caused him to leave where he was and join the Jewish people. Our sages tell us that he heard of the events of the Exodus from Egypt, that these events inspired him to change around his life.

Interestingly, the same statement by our sages tells us that other great people of the time also heard of the events of the Exodus, but that they were not themselves inspired to join the Jewish people or in any way to react to the events. Yitro had the inspiration and the ability to make the mission a reality, even when other great people could not.

If we can all learn this lesson from Yitro, from Rabbi Weinberg, and from Harry, and can grab onto inspiration and make it a reality, taking on life missions that can change the world or at least our little portion of it, then (G-d willing) Rabbi Noah Weinberg's name will truly be of Blessed Memory.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Facing the truth -- what would you do?

All through Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Dumbeldore and the others have a very hard time conveying to others the truth of Voldemort's return.

This is a situation that we all can understand - sometimes the truth is so scary that a lot of people would prefer to ignore it.

I believe that this is exactly what's going on right now in Israel. Even as most governments of the world, even some Arab governments, are supporting Israel's need to defend its citizens against years of terror, others (especially the media) are refusing to accept the reality of Palestinian terror.

The video clip below conveys the point very well. Hopefully, if the world can realize the truth, we can find a way forward from there that will succeed in bringing true peace, peace without terror.

Harry Potter and Torah book on sale at Amazon

Amazon now has Harry Potter and Torah available at a sale price of $17.95, down from the usual price of $19.95. They also have it eligible for free shipping.

Click here to check it out!


For a sample chapter that relates to this upcoming week's Torah portion, see a book chapter on Magical Protection.