So, the saga of Harry Potter has come to its cinematic conclusion. And yes, I was one of the crazy ones who hit the midnight showing last night. This morning. Whenever. Anyway, as you know from the books everything gets rather too-neatly tied up in the epilogue, but the wizardry of the films themselves has been something to behold. The films – like the books – are more than just children’s stories. They are allegories about life. And although some people focus on what they see as the Christian-centered messages, I think there are Jewish lessons to be learned at Hogwarts. So here are a few.
First, at Hogwarts, as in Judaism, learning and living are meant to be shared in a community. Harry Potter may be a unique character, but he’s never alone. His friends tell him, time and again – you need us. You can’t do this by yourself. And they’re right. By himself, Harry is a powerful wizard. But as part of a community, he’s near invincible. In a community, every one brings his or her strengths and abilities to the table, everybody pools resources for the benefit of all.
In Pirke Avot, the ethical sayings of the sages of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia taught: “Make for yourself a teacher. Acquire a friend. And evaluate each person as having a measure of merit.” At Hogwarts, students become teachers to each other, and teachers become friends. And those who follow the path of righteousness see – and bring out – the good in others.
Second, at Hogwarts, as in Judaism, learning and living go hand in hand. Hermoine may be a whiz at classroom learning, but she’s less than sophisticated at basic human interaction. Harry has a natural gift for building community and inspiring people, but he’s less than enthusiastic about hitting the books. Over the years, they’ve had to learn to respect each other’s abilities and learn from them.
As Jews, we put the utmost stress on learning: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam. Diligent study is highly regarded by our tradition. The public school systems in this country opened opportunities for our parents, and our grandparents, that they never had back in the old country. And they have sacrificed much to make sure that each of us is well-educated, too. But our tradition also teaches us that study by itself isn’t enough. As we often read in our prayer book: “Let us learn in order to teach. Let us learn in order to do.”
We get so frustrated with elements of the Jewish world where people insist on hiding out in yeshivas, studying ancient texts for hours on end – only for its own sake, but never for the sake of others, never contributing to the greater good but – l’hefech – becoming a drain on society. Why do they expect that the world owes them a living, when they give the world nothing in return? Rabban Gamaliel wisely taught: “Excellent is the study of Torah, together with a worldly occupation, because the energy you put into both will keep you out of trouble.”
Third, at Hogwarts, as in Judaism, magic and miracles may grab the headlines, but it’s the day-to-day responsibilities of righteous living that eventually carry the day.
Young wizards and witches soon discover that potion-making and Quiddich-playing will only take you so far in life, if you don’t have a bigger goal; if you don’t see yourself as part of something much bigger, and much more important. And you don’t have to be a super-hero – or a super wizard, battling the forces of ultimate evil – to make a difference. Every little act of compassion, every donation to tzedakah, adds a measure of goodness to the world. Again, from Pirke Avot, we learn al shelosha d’varim ha-olam omeid: the world is sustained by three things: By study, by worship, and by acts of loving-kindness.
So, yes, after all these years, the epilogue is a little too sweet and simple. But what a journey it’s been – imagine entering a magic world, where we discover talents in ourselves that we never knew we had; where we build strong friendships and powerful communities; where, together, we succeed in ways we never thought were possible. On second thought, maybe that’s not magic after all.
Kein yehi ratson. Let learning and living empower our lives. And let us say together: Amen.