Does the date February 16, 2018, mean anything to any of you?

If you are a Jandorf, it should.

That is the Bat Mitzvah date of Ian’s older sister, Shana. On that date, and it took me a while to find this, I spoke about the Torah lessons we can learn from Harry Potter. Now I learned this past week that not only is Shana a fan of Harry Potter (or was a fan of Harry Potter), but so is Ian. So today, I’d like to pick up where I left off. But instead of telling you how Harry Potter can teach us Torah lessons, I’d like to focus on how Harry Potter is dissimilar to the Torah.

If you are a relative of the Jandorf’s and this is only the second time you have been to Ner Tamid, I do want to clarify, we discuss things other than Harry Potter in this shul.

The connections between Harry Potter and Judaism are easy. The premise of the book is that there is a regular world and a world of magic. In Judaism, we won’t call our world magical, but we believe in two dimensions, a regular world and a spiritual world.

In Book Seven, Harry is resurrected. Contrary to popular belief, resurrection is a distinctively Jewish idea. (I am sure there is someone here who is mad at me for just killing the ending of Book Seven for them. Guess what? We have passed the statute of limitations on needing to give spoiler alerts on Harry Potter. That’s like not spoiling the story of the Exodus. Yes, the Jews go free. And yes, Harry dies and comes back to life.)

More comparisons – Harry wears glasses. Most Jews I know wear glasses…

As I was saying, the comparisons are easy. So today, I’d like to focus on one very important distinction.

The first day a student arrives at Hogwarts (Hogwarts is the boarding school for kids with magical inclinations), the kids all assemble in the great hall and go through what is known as the sorting ceremony. There is a hat at the sorting ceremony that each child places on his or her head and it announces which one of the four houses the student is assigned to. Their assignment is based on abilities, personality, and preferences. Each house has a unique flavor to it, and this hat ensures that each student lands in a house that fits their persona. There is Gryffindor where they value courage, bravery, nerve, and chivalry. Hufflepuff values hard work, patience, justice, and loyalty. Ravenclaw values intelligence, learning, wisdom and wit. And lastly, Slytherin values ambition, cunning, leadership, and resourcefulness.

Judaism also has houses, or more accurately, tribes. But it’s really the same idea. Each tribe has unique characteristics. The tribe of Levi is known for its zealousness. The tribe of Yehuda for leadership skills. The tribe of Yissachar for being wholly devoted to Torah study.

On the one hand there are twelve tribes so that means there is more variety than the four houses. But – and here is the crucial difference – there is no choosing hat. You are born into your tribe. Irrespective of your unique skill sets, you are a Levi, a Yehudite, a Yissachar, for life. You may be the most charismatic, brave, wise, leader, but if you were born into the family of Zevulun, you will never be a king. You may be the most devout and dedicated Jew, but if you were not born to the tribe of Levi, you will never serve in the Temple. You are stuck.

So let me ask you a question – if you had to pick between a Harry Potter reality, where you get to put on a hat, and it analyzes exactly who you are, and sends you to an appropriate ‘tribe,’ or a system where your tribe is assigned to you at birth, which one would you choose?


It’s a good thing none of us are in charge. G-d knew what He was doing. He doesn’t need my endorsement but let me share with you three reasons why being born into a particular tribe and being “stuck” in that tribe is one of the greatest blessings, and important ideas, especially in this day and age.

1.Contrary to our belief system, our personal identity is moored, connected, anchored, within our family of origin, where we come from. When we think of who we are, it is not just the choices we made in life; it’s the world, the people, the culture that we were born into, that makes us who we are.

Bruce Feiler, in his best-selling book, The Secret to Happy Families, shares research that indicates the stronger the bond to the past – the more we feel rooted within our family, whether we like them or not is irrelevant, but the more we feel a sense of our family being a part of who we are, the more confident, the more capable, the more successful we will be in life.

When G-d ‘imposed’ an identity on us, He was giving us the greatest gift possible – a sense of self, a sense of identity, that is rooted in something concrete. Even when I don’t know who I am, I know where I come from, and that gives me stability.

  1. Being stuck or limited, in general, is actually one of the greatest gifts possible. We sometimes tell young people that their options are endless. It’s a lie. And it’s a damaging lie. Our limitations, the tension in our life help us grow like nothing else.

You know when I start writing my sermons? Friday morning. You know why? Because if I would start on Tuesday or even Thursday, I would have too much time, and I wouldn’t be motivated to get the job done. 

Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham jail, wrote powerfully in defense of ‘tension.’ He was speaking about racism, and how some people avoid hard truths, who prefer to avoid tension. And he laments how much is lost when we don’t bring the tension out and address it. It’s not limited to racism; it’s true about everything. Tension is the secret sauce to romance. A world without tension is a world without personal growth and social change.

I’ve shared the story in the past of one of my young daughters who used to always steal my printing paper to color on. I would go to print my sermon before Shabbos, and there’d be no paper. So I bought her a coloring book, filled with unicorns and princesses, all the stuff she loved. When I showed her the coloring book, she started crying. “I don’t want to draw their picture. I want to draw my picture.” She didn’t want friction, tension, limitations, she wanted to be free and unencumbered by anything at all.

But two days later, I found her drawing in that coloring book with a big smile on her face. I asked her to explain herself. She told me that she realized that although she could not pick the pictures, she could pick the colors, and the pictures in the coloring book with her colors, are actually pretty nice, maybe even nicer than her drawings.

So yes, I did not choose to be a Jew. I did not choose which tribe I am a part of. I did not choose many things in my life. And that’s not just okay, it’s great. The limitations create a framework, they create tension, between my past and my future, between my autonomy and G-d’s commandments, and in between those lines, I could create something magnificent. Something I would not have created had I been left without being boxed in.

When G-d commands the Jewish People to be counted in this week’s parsha, and tells them, “You need to be counted in context of your family and of your tribe,” G-d is giving us two of the greatest gifts; a sense of self that goes deeper than my wishes and whims, and a framework, what some may even call limitations, so that within them we can draw the most beautiful pictures.

And now let me share with you the final reason why our tribe is assigned to us at birth. This reason is most relevant to you, Ian:

There is a story told of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, a great Chassidic Rebbe, otherwise known as the Sefas Emes. His parents died at a young age and he was adopted by his grandfather. When his grandfather died, the Chassidim, the students, turned to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, and asked him to take over this Chassidic group, to be their rabbi. He said no. “I am way too young.” He was 18 at the time.

Two years later, the question came up again, and this time he said, yes. So one of the chassidim not-so-respectfully asked him. “Uh, is there really such a big difference between 18 and 20? You’re still pretty young, rabbi?!”

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter replied, “You’re right, I am young. I’m just as unqualified as I was two years ago. But I realized something. I used to think that to be a great person, I had to climb a spiritual mountain. And that’s something I still haven’t done. But what I recently learned is that I don’t have to climb the spiritual mountain. I was born on a spiritual mountain. I have my father and mother’s legacy to guide me. I have my grandfather’s teachings to inspire me. I am not starting from the ground level. I was born on a mountain.

Ian, you were born on a mountain, a very high mountain. I am not going to talk about your parents today. I checked, I spoke about them on February 16th, 2018… Your parents are amazing people, conscientious, honest, and deeply committed to the Jewish People and our shul. You have wonderful grandparents, Joyce, Ross, Beverly, Betty, and Yisrael, who are all very proud of you. But who I want to highlight today is your great-grandfather, your namesake – Reverend Morris Klavan.

When Morris Klavan was in Duke college for engineering, he was told he had to take an exam on Shabbos. He refused. He switched majors and became an educator. I am sure that decision was not an easy one, certainly in that day and age. But I am also confident that he grew tremendously from the difficulty of making that decision. Tension is what brings out our greatness. It’s not lost on any of us how you go to a school where your observance may be different than some of your friends. But that has not made you weaker in your connection to Judaism, I have watched over the years as it has only made you stronger and more passionate about your Judaism.

 This Bar Mitzvah ‘hat’ with the words, Ha’eish sheli, my spiritual fire – is not like the choosing hat. So many of your qualities you inherited from your great-grandfather and those who came before you.

It’s a coincidence that your great-grandfather ended up being exceptionally dedicated to Judaism. As but one example – he read the Torah in this shul for 35 years! He’d be very proud of your reading the Torah here today.

So, Ian, Harry Potter is great, but the Torah is even better. We are bound to our people, to our tribe, and to our family, and that is a gift. There is inspiration and life lessons to learn from those who built the mountain you are born on. There are great qualities that you inherited from your parents like soccer skills, excellence in math, thoughtfulness for others – we know where that comes from. But there is a tension between where you come from and who you want to be. That tension is the greatest gift of all.

Rooted in your family story, inspired by the high mountain you were born onto, and limited by the picture that G-d gave to you, I am sure you will create a most beautiful picture of your own.