My high school principal was a brilliant man who was also very wise – unfortunately, those two do not always go together. Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz, our principal, was blessed with a wealth of knowledge and an uncommon amount of common sense. In middle of eleventh grade, a young man applied to the school. Applying to a school midyear is in it of itself highly unusual but to make matters worse, two minutes into his entrance exam, it became quite clear to my principal that this applicant knew no Gemara, which is what the entrance exam primarily revolved around. A minute later it became clear that he also knew no Chumash. But the young man implored the principal to accept him because although he acknowledged he knew very little, “I want to learn,” he said. “And I promise, I will catch up to everyone else in my grade.”
Well, the principal was very impressed by his commitment, but he was also stuck, he needed to test the boy before accepting him; he needed to assess his level of intelligence to make sure that he would fit in. And so, after a couple of silent moments, the principal asked this young man if he read… Harry Potter! Turns out he did. Turns out he loved Harry Potter. And so for the next twenty-five minutes, the principal judged this young man’s critical thinking skills and values by grilling him on Harry Potter.
Today, this young man is a director on NCSY’s national team. Turns out, there’s a lot more to Harry Potter than we assume.
Shana Jandorf, who is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah today, is a HUGE Harry Potter fan, and so I thought it would be appropriate to mine those books for some relevant wisdom which I could share with you on this important day. It’s been a while since I read them (and I only got through the first four!) so excuse me for any mistakes. These are three life lessons that I think you, and really all of us can learn from Harry Potter. Are you ready? Here we go:
#1) The first lesson is certainly the story behind the story. It’s well-known that Joanne Rowling, otherwise known as JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series was living in poverty for years while she worked on the Harry Potter manuscript. She was divorced, had an infant daughter, and was dependent on government subsidies to survive. Through it all, she pursued her dream and worked on her book. After somehow completing her manuscript, twelve publishing houses rejected it, until finally, a small publisher, Bloomsbury, took it on.
In her own words, “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
“Failure,” she continues, “gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.” (Harvard commencement speech)
In this week’s parsha we read about the building of the Mishkan. According to many, the building of the Mishkan was in response to the terrible sin of the Golden Calf. Imagine that! The Jewish People commit one of the gravest sins, serving an idol, immediately after G-d took them out of Egypt, and immediately after G-d gave them the Torah telling them NOT to serve idols! As soon as they realized what they had done, as far as they were concerned, their relationship with G-d was over. They had officially stooped to the lowest level, they have committed the most serious of mistakes.
And yet, G-d forgives them. Not only does He forgive them, He instructs them to build a home – a beautiful structure that would represent the eternal, unbreakable bond of their relationship.
Our Sages take this all one step further. They suggest that G-d actually caused the Jewish People to sin! You know why? So that He could teach them a powerful lesson, so that He could teach them that the only way to learn that we can grow from our failure is by failing, so that He could teach them that G-d will always forgive us, no matter what we do, no matter how grave the sin. And so, G-d caused them to fail to teach them the power of failure.
Now please don’t walk away from here thinking that you can go ahead and sin and just say, G-d made me do it. What I do hope you walk away from here learning is that through their sin, through the Jewish People’s failure, they received a magnificent Mishkan. Through their failure they learned how strong their connection was with G-d. Through their failure they learned how we have the incredible power to reinvent ourselves even when we hit rock bottom.
So Shana, the first lesson I would learn from Harry Potter is this: You’re a very talented person. You’re bright, you’re kind, you’re athletic, you’re talented, and you’re well-liked. But you will, if you haven’t already, taste the bitter pill of failure. Defeat is miserable, and it could feel unbearable at times. But I hope you can learn from the Jewish People and from JK Rowling that in the clarity of failure you can actually find your true friends, that in the clarity of failure you can find your true self. Because the real lessons of life are learned not when we succeed but when we fail.
#2) And this is my favorite part of Harry Potter – Life is full of platforms like platform 9 ¾. For the uninitiated, in Harry Potter world, platform 9 ¾ is a nexus between the regular world which we live in, otherwise known as the world of muggles, and the magical world of wizardry. So boys and girls who wanted to travel Hogwarts, the wizard school, would have to find this magical location tucked between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross Station in London, through which they get on a platform that takes them to their school.
What platform 9 3/4 represents is that there are places, often places that cannot be recognized by the naked eye where two worlds touch, where we can travel from one world to the next. One such place in Judaism, is the Mishkan. The function of the Mishkan was to serve as a place where Heaven meets earth, where G-d’s Divine Presence can be found on this planet. Other such places are the Western Wall, or a shul, a study hall.
But there are many other places that also serve as a bridge between this physical world and a more spiritual reality. And like platform 9 ¾, most of the places that we can truly connect to G-d and connect to spirituality are non-descript; we don’t think of them as spiritual, but in truth they are as spiritual as can be.
As a great Jewish thinker once said, “G-d is wherever you let Him in.” As Jews we believe spirituality is not limited to “holy” places. We believe that going to work, spending time with our children, going on a jog, all of that can be an opportunity to connect to a higher, more spiritual existence. How we behave, how we interact with people, our mannerisms, and even our thought-process; those are all potential connection points, we just have to find them, we just have to let G-d in.
And it’s quite obvious that this is the case from this week’s Parsha. The Mishkan was a rather restricted location. Only Kohanim, only male Kohanim were allowed in. Even then, only the Kohein Gadol was given full access! Where was everyone else supposed to connect to Hashem if they couldn’t get in?
Clearly, Judaism believes that while the Mishkan or Bais HaMikdash serves a role, there is spirituality in many, many other places as well. “Make for me a holy home,” G-d says, “and I will rest among all of you.” There is holiness to be found among each and every person in each and every place.
And I believe this is especially important for you, as a young woman, to think about. As a community, we are struggling with the question of where and how women play a role in our spiritual community. There are some who have gone to one extreme, and photoshop or blur woman’s faces out of magazines and out of history. That’s certainly not our approach and it’s counterproductive. But there are others in our community who are creating new rituals and titles in order to be more inclusive. And as a community, we discuss and debate, what is allowed? What is appropriate?
I don’t know where this will all end, but no matter what conclusions we reach as a community, I hope that you, Shana, always remember that while the synagogue, like the Mishkan, is the most obvious nexus between heaven and earth, but the opportunities for spirituality and Divine connection are endless and everywhere. G-d is not limited to one place; not a Mishkan nor a synagogue. G-d is not limited to one group of people; not Kohanim nor men. “G-d is wherever you let Him in.” The opportunities to connect to Him, the spiritual opportunities that exist are endless and everywhere. Platform 9 ¾ is often where you least expect it.
And #3, the final lesson, and this is one is true not only in magic books, but it is especially true in Harry Potter – It’s often the most unassuming people who turn out to have ridiculous powers. Harry Potter, who lost both of his parents at young age was forced by his aunt and uncle to live in a dusty cupboard under the stairs. His cousin was given all the attention while his adoptive parents completely ignored Harry. But of course, with time, it becomes quite clear that it’s Harry, not his obnoxious cousin who is the really special one.
We see this everywhere in the Torah; it’s Moshe, the humble man with a speech impediment, who is chosen to lead the Jewish People, it’s Har Sinai, the low mountain, that is chosen to be the location for Matan Torah, and it is Betzalel, a young 13-year-old boy, who is elected to oversee the building of the Mishkan.
Now the Torah doesn’t choose the underdog because it’s more dramatic. G-d chooses the underdog because it is conveying to us a basic tenant of leadership – humility is the foundation of accomplishments.
Rabbi Herman Neuberger, a man who accomplished more than we can imagine, used to comment, “What you can accomplish is endless – as long as you don’t take credit for it.” Our natural desire for recognition and for being important so often gets in the way of what we’re trying to do. Humility, modesty are the foundations for true success in life.
Shana, you are very fortunate. Our greatest and most natural role models are our family members. You have many wonderful family members to look up to and grow from, but today, I’d like to highlight your parents. And that’s because I believe they are paragons of the value of modesty and humility.
At virtually every shul event, Esther, your mother will be working at the door. At the last event we had, after all the people filed in, Esther picked her stuff up and started to head to the exit of the shul. I said, “Esther, aren’t you staying for the event?”
She shrugged and said, “Nope, I’m just here to help.” And she left.
Your father is always available, always willing to help the shul in any way, and he is more than happy to take a lead or to take orders, as long as the job gets done. There’s no ego, no chasing of honor, that gets in the way of their life choices; it’s about what’s right, now what other people think. And having role models like that is something that you, Shana, should not take for granted.
So Shana, you’re eventually going to grow out of Harry Potter – at least I think you will. But I hope you never lose of these lessons; of JK Rowling and the importance of failure; how through failure we succeed, of platform 9 3/4; how G-d is everywhere, not only in shuls or in titles. And lastly, how Harry Potter lived in a cupboard under a staircase; how humility paves the way to true success in life. Learn this trait from your wonderful family, and there is nothing Shana, nothing at all, that you will not be able to accomplish. Mazel Tov!