Vayashev and the Age of Harry Potter

Vayashev and the Age of Harry Potter

The story of Yosef and his brothers, Harry Potter, and our lives — not much in common? Guess again. To all three, we might apply the following profound Midrash:

Rabbi Shmuel, the son of Nachman said:

The brothers were busy in the selling of Yosef; Yosef was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Reuben was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Yacov was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Yehudah was busy taking a wife for himself; and G-d was busy creating the light of King Mashiach.”

Here’s how the great Polish rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk, looks at this Midrash:

This is the nature of this world: Nothing can achieve its full manifestation and true purpose of existence except after a state of absence and cosmic nothingness. An obvious example is the nature of a seed. It will never sprout and grow unless it first disintegrates into the earth.

Thus it was at the beginning of creation: The light came forth from the darkness that preceded it. So too the Jewish people count a day starting from the previous night. And so we say in our prayers, who forms the light and creates the dark, for the world of creation, Beriya, precedes the world of formation, Yetzira. As the Zohar explicitly states: ‘There is no light except that which emerges from darkness.’

Even regarding the greatest single event in Jewish history, the giving of the Torah, we read, ‘And it was when you heard the Voice from the midst of the darkness.’ This principle also holds true in personal life: ‘G-d ‘dwells with the humble’ because there can be no enlightenment unless there is a sense of one’s personal lack in the face of the Divine.

This is why, continues the Radomsker, our matriarchs were barren for so long. They had to tap in to this sense of nothingness that precedes such holy births. And this is also why we are in such a long exile: it precedes the greatest redemption in history. In a similar manner, this is how we should understand the Talmudic statement: ‘on the day of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, Mashiach was born.’ Finally, this is the reason behind mortality in general. The body of the future will be so luminous that it could not come into being if our present body were to remain alive in its existing form.

Returning to the opening Midrash, specifically at the time when everyone in Yacov’s family was pre-occupied with personal misfortunes, was G-d creating the light of Mashiach. With regard to both Yosef and Yehudah, the parsha uses the word ‘yarad’ go down. Yet we know, as we will read in coming episodes, Yosef and Yehudah are the linchpins of both the family of Yacov and the Jewish nation. Indeed, from these two sons will emerge both Mashiachs in Jewish history. All these are examples of the principle, ‘Yerida Tzorech Aliya,’ a descent which needs to precede an elevation.

The Harry Potter parallels are obvious: (These are above and beyond the ‘coincidence’ of the three gifts of the sword, the ring, and the cloak paralleling the three gifts that Yehudah gave to Tamar.) One is that life comes in installments. We cannot evaluate either the final outcome or the correctness of our choices by what happens at any given moment. When the first Rebbe of Chabad was imprisoned for spreading Hassidic teachings and practices throughout Russia, he was visited by his teacher the Maggid os Mezritch, and the Baal Shem Tov (both of whom were no longer physically alive). He asked them: Does his imprisonment mean he should stop teaching? ‘No,’ they replied, on the contrary, you will become stronger as a result.’ Interesting that this Friday is also the celebration of his liberation, and even considered the Rosh Hashana of the Hasidic movement in Chabad circles.

Once I personally asked the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, ‘When it’s not clear whether our choices are wrong or right, how do we know what to choose?’ The Rebbe gave me a one word answer: ‘UVCHEIN,’ meaning, ‘And so.’ In other words, the Rebbe was saying, ‘Look at the results.’ I have often thought about the implications of this response. At first I thought he meant that if something good happens to you, this is a positive reinforcement of your actions. But later I realized that this could not be what he meant. First of all, we do not get instantly and clearly rewarded in this world for good actions. Also, as in the abovementioned story of the first Rebbe of Chabad, often greater challenges follow positive choices. So what could he have meant?

After more study and contemplation, I understood that he was talking about, not what happens TO us, but what happens IN us. In other words, do we become better people — more drawn to acts of goodness and away from self-centeredness — as a result of our choices. This is the measure of our success, even if difficulties temporarily follow our choices.

This too is the positive message of the Harry Potter series, and why I believe its continuity over so many years is a kind of Messianic foreshadowing. It shows that, as in the above teaching of the Radomsker, that not only does redemption follow catastrophe in a linear way, but it emerges from the ashes of the devastation. In personal areas too, finding oneself often comes from losing oneself.

Another parallel is, from a Torah perspective, the victory of evil is only temporary and the defeat of good is only temporary. And that our heroes are always with us even when they are no longer physically present. Most significantly, we learn from Harry Potter that we need to stick together; that strife and enmity are our greatest enemy, but loyalty and courage help us weather any storm.

Above all, I love the message that even though life and Torah come in long and spread out cycles of seven, there is a higher and miraculous eighth dimension — as in the light of Chanukah — that reminds us that One Author is behind it all, and we will eventually see behind all the loose threads, to the elegant tapestry of life (interesting that the seventh HP book is divided in two parts, thus making eight movies).

If we can convey these ideas to others, and to ourselves, the phenomenon of the Harry Potter era will not have been in vain.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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