Summary: Those of our readers who have spent the last two decades in a cave (composing, perhaps, a contemporary Zohar), may not have heard of the Harry Potter saga, which spans seven volumes and concerns itself with an 11 year old boy who discovers to his surprise and delight that he is a wizard. He spends the next seven years of his life having adventures at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, trying to foil the schemes of Lord Voldemort, the most powerful Dark Wizard who, just coincidentally, also killed Harry’s parents.
Why is it The BEST? I’d have thought that stories about wizards and werewolves would not be the ideal vehicle to deliver the values of Torah in a way easily digestible to millions of people. I’d have been wrong.
Truth be told, the Harry Potter books are not about witchcraft. They are about children in an English boarding school who have to deal with the crucial questions of life: Free choice, choosing friends, dealing with jealousy, lashon ha-ra, loss and grief, and trying to make a difference in the eternal battle of good versus evil. The vast majority of people who grew up in the last twenty years have read these novels, which deal with the same subjects that one will find in Pirkei Avot. All a teacher needs to do is to connect the dots, to show them how to connect Torah ideas with what they love to read. Not only will they absorb the message, but for the rest of their lives they will know to seek out Torah values in anything they read or see.
What are some examples?
Harry suffers the loss of his parents and throughout the series is discovering ways of dealing with that loss. He finally resolves that grief by becoming the father he never had, continuing his work, and being a father figure to others. The biblical Yosef first loses his mother, and is then ripped away from his father. He survives temptation by identifying with the image of his father (Sota 36b) and ultimately becomes a father figure to Pharaoh himself and to all of his own family.
Harry is terrified that the similarities he shares with Voldemort means that he too is fated to be an evil wizard. Dumbledore teaches him that “It is our choices which determine who we are.” What better illustration of the importance of our free will and our ability to live up to, or squander, our natural tendencies or our yichus? Doesn’t the Gemara say that one who is born when Mars is ascendant will spill blood, but can channel that tendency into the mitzva of brit mila or the act of shehita (Shabbat 156a)?
When Ron deserts Harry and Hermione but manages to find his way back with the deluminator that Dumbledore had left him in his will, Ron says shamefacedly: “He must have known I’d want to leave you.” Harry responds, “No. He must have known you would always want to come back.” Each morning we say to Hashem, Rabba Emunatekha, How great is Your faith in us. No matter what we did yesterday, you give us another chance and believe that we will do better today. We teach our students to believe in Hashem; we must also teach them, and ourselves, that Hashem believes in us.
The Harry Potter saga contains lessons of particular relevance to this moment in time. When Harry frees Dobby the House Elf from his cruel bondage at the hands of Lucius Malfoy, he is striking a blow against the institution of slavery, and just as surely, the half-giant Hagrid, Muggles (non-magical folk), and Wizards born from Muggles – and the prejudices they all suffer – present opportunities to teach about racism and its practitioners and enablers.
The Midrash presents Yitro, Iyov, and Bilaam as Pharaoh’s advisors, to serve as examples of opponents, bystanders, and perpetrators of evil. The Talmud, in a slightly different way, and with different goals, presents Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s views of the civilization built by Rome (Shabbat 33b). In Harry Potter, Dumbledore’s army, the Centaurs, and the Death Eaters play the same roles.
Underlying the entire Potter series is a concept that we would be wise to take to heart today. Different periods in history contain their own unique challenges in dealing with destructive forces. Sometimes all one can do is hide and hope to survive the crisis. Sometimes, as we recall on Tisha B’Av, Jews have been called upon to give up their lives to sanctify God’s name. But there are times, such as those in which we live, when we have the privilege and responsibility to actively fight evil, enduring the many sacrifices along the way, with no guarantee that ours will be the generation that will finally vanquish the enemy. We don’t get to choose which role we will be called upon to play, nor whether our sacrifices will usher in the final redemption or merely stave off evil for one more generation.
The battle against the evil represented by Lord Voldemort featured those who, like Lily and James, and Igor Karkaroff, tried to hide unsuccessfully. Many were martyred by the forces of the Dark Lord. It fell to Dumbledore and his “Army” to fight and suffer the sacrifices of many. Even Dumbledore himself died with the battle still raging. And when he discovers that he is the final Horcrux, Harry had to make peace with the idea that the final victory required him to die, as well.
At a time when lack of control is our constant companion, this lesson of submission to a greater plan is not merely the stuff of children’s books.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, who has a lot more to say about Harry Potter, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, NY, and teaches at SAR Academy in Riverdale.
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[Published July 23, 2020]