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Harry Potter and the Ashes of the Temple

In spite of its exceptional popularity, or perhaps because of it, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series produced its own share of controversy. Critics complained that Harry is a chronic rule-breaker, that the vividly depicted magical backdrop will divorce children from reality, and that the books instill no redeeming social values in the children who read them.

It is true that Harry does demonstrate a certain disregard for rules and regulations, but he is openly criticized by his friends and teachers alike for this, and he gets into trouble as often as not on account of his rule breaking.

It is also true that Ms. Rowling’s depictions of a magical world are mesmerizing in their detail and verisimilitude, but it’s precisely this vivid imagery that has turned millions of television-addicted preadolescents into avid readers. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any book causing children to become more detached from reality than the glut of fanciful movies, video games, and trading cards with which they come into contact daily.

The third argument, however, is where Harry’s critics really miss the boat. The books are steeped in such universal ethical lessons as honesty, discipline, and loyalty, to mention only a few. And from a Jewish perspective, Harry Potter can offer our children (and us as well) a contemporary insight into the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate today, on the 9th day of the month of Av.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, many of the advocates of evil and the defenders of good share a common character trait: an irrational insistence upon the “purity of blood.” Although the leader of the forces of evil himself comes from a mixed background, his followers are dedicated to purging the wizarding world of “mudbloods,” those who have non-wizard blood flowing in their veins.

But it isn’t just the wicked who display this kind of genealogical prejudice. Many of the defenders of good, even as evil threatens to destroy them and their society, refuse to join forces with potential allies because of irrational prejudices.

J. K. Rowling may never have studied Jewish history, but her series provides a perfect parable for the causes of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even as the Roman siege upon Jerusalem tightened, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Sicarii, the Essenes, and other radical groups refused to address the common danger that threatened every Jew, sometimes even forming alliances with the Romans in hope of gaining the upper hand over their political enemies within the Jewish people. The Romans exploited this infighting until both the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation was broken.

The Talmud tells us the cause of the destruction was senseless hatred. Jew hated Jew not for what he did but for how he identified himself. Instead of recognizing how much they had in common, instead of strengthening their commitment to Jewish values, instead of working together in the face of a common enemy, Jews squabbled over political agendas and schemed for political gain, deaf to the entreaties of the sages that they set aside their differences, blind to the impending holocaust that Rome would bring down upon them.

Nearly 2000 years later, we are still quarreling senselessly with one another and overlooking enemies who seek our destruction. If we haven’t learned the lessons of our own tradition, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Harry Potter’s headmaster, Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Of course, the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva said it more simply in aftermath of the Temple’s destruction: “Love your fellow as yourself: this is the great principle of the Torah.”

What makes him your “fellow”? That he chooses good over evil. And how do you love him? By setting aside your differences and seeing him for who he is, not for what he believes — and certainly not for what he calls himself.

Originally published in 2001 by Jewish World Review.

My Stairway to Heaven

The Day Civilization Began

“The Jews started it all – and by it I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings … We would think with a different mind, interpret all our experiences differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.”

Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

It all began on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Torah.  This week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos when, on the fiftieth day after the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people became a nation guided by divine law and moral freedom.

In an age when individual autonomy, relative truth, and non-judgmentalism have become the lodestones of our new “enlightenment,” we would be well-served to reflect on how critical personal responsibility and a well-calibrated moral compass are as the bedrock of civil society and a healthy world.

To learn more about the Festival of Shavuos, click here.

Tapping the Power of Hidden Potential

From this week’s Jewish World Review

A mutated spider bites Peter Parker and transforms him into Spiderman.  Steve Rogers receives and injection of super-soldier serum and develops into Captain America.  David Banner doses himself with gamma rays and mutates into the Incredible Hulk.

These are the fantastic tales of American comic book culture, in which ordinary people find themselves suddenly endowed with extraordinary powers and thrust, willingly or unwillingly, into the role of heroes.  Indeed, who among us hasn’t fantasized about acquiring superpowers and using them to conquer his personal demons or to save the world?

But what if it weren’t a fantasy?

In 2006, Derek Amato dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and stuck his head against the concrete bottom.  The resulting concussion left him with chronic headaches and sensitivity to light, it also turned him into a musical virtuoso.  Lacking either musical training or the ability to read music, Mr. Amato’s fingers dance over a keyboard like Mikhail Baryshnikov on a stage.  He doesn’t know how he does it, but his life has been utterly transformed.

His case is not unique.  After suffering a head injury in a childhood fall, Alonzo Clemens began producing exceptionally lifelike clay sculptures.  A 10-year-old boy knocked unconscious by a baseball acquired the ability to do calendar calculations: he now remembers every detail of every minute of his life.  A 58-year-old builder became an artist and poet in the wake of a stroke.  A teenage boy woke up speaking fluent Spanish after he was hit in the head by a soccer ball.

Examples of acquired-savant, or accidental genius, go on and on.  Who knows what potential for greatness lies within every one of us?

ILLUMINATING THE DARKNESS

One of the most compelling episodes from Jewish history is the story of Rabbi Akiva.  He was an illiterate shepherd, content with his life as a simple laborer until his wife Rachel recognized his potential for greatness.  At her urging, the 40-year-old Akiva found a kindergarten teacher to instruct him in the Hebrew aleph-beis so that he might learn to read and study.

But Akiva’s adult brain found the challenge of childhood learning too formidable a task.  Dispirited over his failure, he was ready to abandon his efforts.  But then he came upon a large stone marred by a curious indentation.  When he inquired where the hollow in the stone had come from, he was told that the steady dripping of water over time had worn away the solid rock.

“If water can make an impression on stone,” he said to himself, “then surely the wisdom of the ages can make an impression on me.”

With that, he returned to his studies.  Over the course of the next 24 years, he developed into the greatest sage in the history of his people, second only to Moses the Lawgiver.

TRIAL AND ERROR

But Rabbi Akiva’s life was not without hardship.  He witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the bloody suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Roman Empire.  Worst of all, he saw the apparent undoing of all he had accomplished with the death of his many students.

At the height of his career, Rabbi Akiva oversaw an academy of 24,000 talmudists, a generation of scholars virtually unparalleled in their intellectual prowess.  But something went wrong.  For all their brilliance and erudition, these students somehow failed to fully absorb Rabbi Akiva’s fundamental lesson to love one’s fellow as oneself.  They were not openly uncivil.  But their academic accomplishment infected them with a whisper of overconfidence, which ever-so-slightly eroded the respect they showed for one another.

For such exceptional students, blessed with the greatest of teachers, this tiny flaw proved fatal.  A mysterious plague began killing them off in horrifying numbers, and the survivors refused to look within themselves toward self-improvement until they too succumbed.  Over the course of seven weeks, the entire academy was wiped out, and the light of its wisdom extinguished.

Rabbi Akiva might have mourned his failure and retreated into despondency.  But the same resolution that drove him forward decades earlier steeled him in the face of tragedy.  He renewed his efforts and, with a handful of disciples, rebuilt all that was lost and secured the future of the Jewish people.

One of his protégés was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose life and accomplishments were celebrated this week with the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.  Building upon his teacher’s wisdom, he brought a new light of inspiration into the world, dispelling the suffering and confusion of exile by revealing the divine wisdom of eternity with a radiance that has inspired the Jewish people for nearly 2000 years.

THE LIGHT OF PERSEVERANCE

Heroism is not solely the stuff of comic books or legend.  If a blow to the head can actualize hidden talents and abilities, what does that tell us about the potential that lies dormant within every human mind and heart?  We may never become Vincent Van Gogh or Itzhak Perlman, but with persistence and determination any one of us can unlock talents and abilities we never imagined we might have.

In a way, the impatient, unfocused predisposition of contemporary culture might work to our benefit.  In a world where everyone thrives on instant and effortless gratification, the competition for genuine achievement grows less and less.  If 90% of life is just showing up, the advantage of those who truly apply themselves grows exponential.

The real measure of success is not money, fame, or power.  It lies in self-respect, and in the respect we earn from people of quality who still recognize the virtues of discipline, refinement, and integrity.  Pursue those values with sincerity, and every other blessing will follow.

Read more articles at Jewish World Review

A fruitful world

The Limits of Imagination

Yesterday, Jews around the world celebrated the Festival of Purim.  In Jerusalem, the same celebration takes place today.  So I’m taking the opportunity to revisit these thoughts from 2009.

According to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

In the world of superficial cause-and-effect, the Jews appeared to owe their salvation to the random workings of fate. But it was no coincidence that their reversal of fortunes hinged upon the very moment when the invocations of Mordechai and Esther rallied their people to cast off the yoke of assimilation, no matter how imprudent such an act of defiance may have seemed.

It wasn’t wishful thinking that turned the hearts of the Jews back toward their Creator; it was the clarity that remained after all their schemes had failed and they were left staring into the cold, harsh light of reality.

Today, however, the light of reality shines neither cold nor harsh enough to make us open our eyes. Millions rally for an illusory peace to be won by appeasement before an expanding international culture of terrorism. Voices cry out against the leaders of democracy and in support of the enemies of mankind, urging us to walk the path of peace by laying down our arms before our enemies. Their anthem, it seems, echoes from a generation built on dreams and surviving on pure fantasy:

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Like Marxism and countless other utopian visions, it’s a lovely notion. Like its title, however, it is a dream existing only in imagination. Like its author, it is nothing but fantasy destined for tragedy.

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

The world will indeed live as one, but not by wishing or imagining utopia into existence. Simple answers to complex problems rarely yield lasting solutions.

The holiday of Purim teaches us that peace comes only with the triumph of good over evil, a triumph that must be bought and paid for by standing up, speaking out and, when necessary, taking action against evil.

Originally published in Jewish World Review.

If I were God

if-i-were-god

California and the Waters of Life and Death

Whenever headlines carry the painful images of human being caught in the path of catastrophic flooding, we should all take a few moments to contemplate how quickly nature can become our greatest adversary.  Water is both the source of all life and the greatest destructive force on earth.  I ponder the paradox in these reflections from after the Pacific Rim tsunami of 2005.

 

The Tsunami and the Circle-Maker

california-flood-bicyclist-jpg_5902745_ver1-0_640_360Volcanoes. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Fires. Tornadoes. Blizzards. Drought.

In a time when reports of terrorism have become all too common, it is sobering to consider the myriad ways nature possesses to inflict death and violence on a scale surpassing the most destructive instruments devised by man. Of all these, however, destruction by water, whether from the sea or from the sky, holds a unique terror in the scope and measure of its devastation.

Aside from the 150,000 lives already reported lost across nearly a dozen countries along the Indian Ocean, dehydration, disease and hunger threaten as many as 5 million more in the wake of the recent tsunami. And rare though tidal waves may be, the more familiar trial-by-water of floods has, with much greater frequency, left similar numbers homeless and in danger of starvation.

It seems ironic that water, the source and foundation of all life upon our planet, can become nature’s most malevolent instrument against the beings whose lives depend upon it.

Devastation by water occupies a prominent place in human history. Virtually every ancient culture records the tradition of a great flood that inundated the world, lending credence to the biblical account of Noah and the ark. Jewish tradition describes this not as a random event, but as a divine response to the corruption of mankind.

The Talmud, however, reports a much more enigmatic account of divine intervention through water. It was in a time of terrible drought that the Jewish people approached the sage Choni HaMagil and beseeched him to pray for rain on their behalf. When Choni’s supplications to the Almighty went unanswered, he drew a circle in the dust and stepped inside of it, vowing not to leave the circle until G-d bestowed rain upon His people.

Immediately, a fine mist settled upon the earth, too little to alleviate the drought but sufficient to free Choni from his vow.

Choni called out to heaven: “I asked not for this, but for a rain to fill all the wells and cisterns.” Immediately, raindrops larger than melons began to fall, wreaking destruction upon homes and fields.

Again Choni called out to heaven: “Neither did I ask for this, but for a rain of blessing.” Immediately a normal rain began to fall, filling the wells and cisterns of the people as Choni had requested. But the rain did not stop, and soon the entire population of the land feared that they would drown in the rising waters.

One last time Choni called out heavenward: “Master of the World, Your people, Israel, whom You brought out from Egypt, can tolerate neither too much blessing nor too much misfortune.” Immediately the waters abated, and the people returned to their fields. From this time onward, people referred to Choni by the name HaMagil   —   the Circle-maker.

What was the point of G-d’s demonstration to the people of Israel? What did Choni mean that the people could not tolerate too much blessing? And why did Choni find it necessary to remind the Almighty, at this particular moment, that He had brought the Jewish people out from Egypt?

The Exodus from Egypt may be described, in commercial terms, as the largest loan ever extended in the history of man. During the generations of slavery in Egypt, the Jewish people had forgotten their Creator and lapsed into the same idolatries as their Egyptian masters. And although, to their credit, the Jews had guarded themselves against assimilation, this alone was insufficient to earn them the privilege of miraculous redemption. Nevertheless, G-d gave them an incalculable line of credit: Freedom from slavery, freedom from oppression, freedom to chart their own course into the future.

Moreover, He promised them immeasurable blessing and unbounded prosperity, on condition that they would repay their loan   —   repay it by living according to G-d’s law, repay it by rising above material pursuits and petty self-interest, repay it by using all the blessing that G-d would bestow upon them to aspire to moral, ethical, and spiritual perfection.

In this light, blessing may be understood as a double-edged sword. Wielded in one direction, it cuts down all enemies and obstacles that stand before us. Wielded in another, it obligates us to a standard of righteousness and moral behavior that we may find nearly impossible to meet.

This was the meaning behind the Almighty’s response to Choni the Circle-maker’s plea:

Two roads lie before My people, and it is their choice which to follow. One leads back to Egypt, back to the oppression of materialism and the slavery of self-indulgence, back to spiritual emptiness and the absence of all blessing. The other road leads forward, to spiritual fulfillment and spiritual greatness, if My people will only find within themselves the potential to seek greatness and discard all lesser goals. It is for this that I redeemed them, that they might cast off the chains of physicality and reach for the heavens.

H19060-L75167491And this too was the meaning behind Choni’s appeal to the Almighty:

Master of the World, You brought your people out from slavery and oppression on condition that they would use their freedom and the blessings to strive for spiritual heights. Your people, however, have demonstrated from their beginnings that, whatever their potential may be, they still suffer from human failings and human shortcomings. They cannot tolerate too little material blessing, lest the struggle to survive overwhelms them and they abandon all higher aspirations. And they cannot tolerate too much blessing, lest they cower before the goal set for them and lose all hope of its attainment.

By all accounts, the world that we live in today enjoys a level of material affluence unattained and unimagined by previous generations. Such basic necessities as rapid transit, instantaneous communication, indoor plumbing, electrical lighting and refrigeration, which we take for granted, provide us with an ease of living simply unavailable to even the wealthiest, most powerful monarchs until the last century. The very existence of an “entertainment industry,” much less the staggering sums of money devoted to it, testifies to our abundance of resources   —   which is to say, our abundance of material blessing.

Nowhere does Jewish tradition teach the condemnation of wealth or of recreation.

Nowhere does Jewish law mandate the forcible redistribution of wealth from those blessed with good fortune to those less fortunate. But Jewish tradition does warn us of the responsibilities of prosperity. It warns us in the narrative of the flood, in the story of Choni HaMagil, and also in the Hebrew word for charity: tzedakah, derived from the word tzedek, or justice.

It is only just that those who are blessed share a portion of their blessing with their less fortunate neighbors. It is only just that, before overindulging in one’s own good fortune, he ponders why he deserves having received such blessing while his neighbor has not. And it is only just that he ask himself how, even in the absences of tax incentives or legal mandate, he might reach out with his blessing to ease his neighbor’s plight.

If the waters of the earth, the life-giving waters that are the source of our greatest blessing   —   life itself   —   have risen up to inflict enormous tragedy, swallowing human life and draining billions of dollars of aid to spare human suffering, we will all be remiss if we do not pause to consider whether we have used our blessings wisely, and what we must do to ensure that we will continue to deserve them.

Originally published by Jewish World Review.

The morning after

i-saw-that-all-effort-and-craft

All the things that might have been

earths_fractal_brain_2What happens to the road not taken?  Does it wait for us to return, or does it blink out of existence?  And if we do return, is it truly the same road, since we ourselves have changed?

What about us:  do we divide into two at every fork, with one alternate version of ourselves taking one way and another the other?  And if that is so, might we reconnect further down the path of life, or crisscross, or switch back onto the road we left untraveled?

What of the people we meet along the way?  Are we destined to meet them no matter which road we follow, or do future friends and cohorts come into existence and disappear with every choice we make?  Will we find our soul mates whichever path we choose, or do different choices make us different people with different souls and different soul mates?

If you’re expecting me to answer these questions, you might as well stop reading here.  I have no more idea than you do, and maybe less.  But I do have a story about crossing paths and hidden possibilities.

Read the whole essay here.