This past week my youngest son really kept Shabbos. Don't get me wrong – he keeps Shabbos every week and there's usually no temptation otherwise. But last Shabbos afternoon, the mailman delivered the final installment of the Harry Potter series, and according to Jewish law since it was delivered on Shabbos, he had to wait until sundown to open it. Now that's keeping Shabbos!
What is the attraction of the series? (There must a million blogs trying to answer that question!) Why were so many lining up at midnight for their copy? Across the globe they were clamoring for it. My son in the IDF (when do they have time to read?!) bought a copy Saturday night and it's being passed around the unit since the Hebrew version doesn't come out until December.
In our home, we were squabbling over who gets the book next, my husband sneaking peaks at it if I ever risked putting it down. (Maybe I should have ordered two copies from Amazon to maintain greater peace in my home!) The only negative aspect of the excitement may be its impact on our marriage. While reading the book it's very hard to concentrate on anything else -- like your relationship, dinner, laundry...
The initial appeal is the fun. It is too infrequent (despite the number of books published) that such a talented writer with such an incredible imagination appears on the scene. It is actually awe-inspiring to see the gift the Almighty gave her, to see what she can create. Everyone loves a good story. There's humor, suspense, friendship, family, family fights -- all the elements of life and literature -- with a fast paced and innovative story line.
But of course it's more. Although the wizards can do some neat tricks with their magic (they can read and dinner will still appear on the table), the book is not really about magic. All the books are, in fact, about friendship and loyalty, the development of character, growing up, [slight spoiler alert ahead!) the power of love and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. (This is not a spoiler; you knew it had to end that way, didn't you? And why haven't you finished it yet anyway?)
Which is why they are psychologically satisfying. Not only do we all want happy endings but we want to believe in our own ability to grow and change and make something of ourselves. Although Harry does use magic to battle Voldemort, it is clear in the books that his success comes not from his wizardry but from his human traits.
As we watch Harry through the years, we see him grapple with his challenges, at some points successfully, at some points less so (adolescence is hard, even for wizards!).
But the ultimate triumph is one of character -- Harry Potter is a celebration of friendship, of loyalty, of love. And of the ability to fight for what we believe in -- and succeed.
Just like Harry, we succeed one day and are beaten back the next.
This is inspiring and empowering. And Jewish. One of the cornerstones of our belief is in the ability of human beings to make the choices that will shape who we become -- the gift of free will. It's not easy. Just like Harry, we succeed one day and are beaten back the next. We deepen our character then allow circumstances to weaken our convictions. It's life's struggle.
It's been said that it's easier to learn the whole Talmud than change even one character trait, but who ever said it was going to be easy? Anything meaningful and important is worth fighting for. That's a value not just espoused by Harry but by his closest friends who stick with him through his and their torturous travails. (We had a friend once who was powerful and wealthy, giving freely to many Jewish causes. At one point he lost most of his money and ran into some legal difficulties. The most devastating of all was that except for a very small group of loyal friends, no one else would even return his phone calls!)
With real change, real commitment, real caring, we can uplift everyone we touch.
Yes, I know it's fiction and it may seem a little silly to be drawing lessons from it. But novels can be powerful and their messages can stay with us (which is why it is important to be careful about what we read).
I think perhaps the lasting popularity of the books will be due to J.K. Rowling's ability to develop universal themes that appeal to our very human (and not wizard-like at all) drives for purpose and community.
And if she succeeds in creating not just a good read but a sense within all of us that we could be better, that we could develop greater strength of character, that we understand what it means to be a loyal friend, that we recognize the power of love and wisdom, then her gift to us is truly priceless.