The Wizard of Avos

Let's talk about The Wizard of Oz.

Book or Movie? Movie or Book?

Now, to the honest, there are many differences between the MGM movie and L. Frank Baum's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Here are just a few of the more significant ones:

*In the book, Dorothy has silver shoes. In the movie, of course, they are ruby slippers.

*The movie's Glinda is an amalgam of the book's Glinda (the Good Witch of the South) and the unnamed Good Witch of the North.

*In the book, the Queen of the Field Mice saves Dorothy from the poppies (don't ask); in the movie, it's Glinda.

*In the movie, the Emerald City really is emerald. In the book, it's an illusion created by wearing green glasses.

*In the book, everything in Munchkinland is blue. In the movie - well, let's just say that they paid for Technicolor and they were determined to get their money's worth!

*There are many more differences. The Horse of a Different Color is in the movie, but not the book. Ditto Professor Marvel. The Golden Cap used to control the Flying Monkeys is in the book, but not the movie. Ditto the Kalidahs. I could go on all day. (Get me started in person and I just might.)

*The most significant difference of all? In the book it really happened, but in the movie it was all a dream!

So here's the dilemma: which to write about? After literally seconds of deliberation, I decided I have to focus on the movie. Sadly, most people have probably not read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or its many, many sequels. But virtually everyone has seen the movie.  So I'll focus on the movie and maybe I've whet your appetite enough for you to pick up the books. (I especially recommend The Magic of Oz, #13 in the series.)

The Wizard of Avos

So, what Jewish lesson does The Wizard of Oz suggest to you? To me, it illustrates Pirkei Avos 4:1.

In Avos 4:1, the sage Ben Zoma lays out four famous dicta: Who is wise? The one who learns from all people. Who is strong? The one who conquers his inclination. Who is rich? The one who is happy with what he has. Who is honored? The one who honors others.

Let's look at these one at a time.

Who is wise? The one who learns from all people. If you'll pardon the pun, that this refers to the Scarecrow is a no-brainer.

Why is the Scarecrow en route to see the Wizard? Because he wants a brain. In truth, he already has one. As the Wizard points out in the book, the Scarecrow is “learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn't know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

Even after he has received his diploma from the Wizard, the Scarecrow is not too full of himself to learn from others. When he learns of the ruby slippers’ magic from Glinda he says, “But that's so easy!  I should have thought of it for you.” He knows he still has much he can learn from others.

(The quality of the Scarecrow's brains is debatable. He quotes the Pythagorean Theorem as “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.” Not exactly. Really, it's “In any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares on the other two sides.” But feel free to try the Scarecrow's version on a math exam and let me know how well you do.)

Who is strong? The one who conquers his inclination. That's the Cowardly Lion.

Hakoveish es yitzro (“the one who conquers his inclination”) is often translated as “the one who conquers his evil inclination” or perhaps “the one who conquers his desires,” but that's not really what it says. It says “the one who conquers his inclination.” The Lion is inclined to be cowardly. That's his nature. But, as the Wizard rightly indicates (again, in the book), “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

The Lion may not be brave per se, but he doesn't need to be. He's strong enough to overcome his cowardice. All of us are strong when we overcome our natural instincts. That could mean giving charity even though we feel stingy or keeping our hands to ourselves even when we are attracted to someone other than our spouse. When we overcome our urges and natural tendencies to do what we know is right, that is when we are our strongest.

Who is rich? The one who is happy with what he has. That's Dorothy. No question about it - it's not even a stretch to say so.

Think about it. At the beginning of the movie, Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home life. It's boring. The landscape is flat and dull. Her world is in sepia tones. She falls in a pig sty. Miss Gulch is after Toto. Who would want to stay there?

(An aside: Dorothy ran away from home because Miss Gulch was sending the sheriff to have Toto put down. Now Dorothy's home. Isn't the sheriff still coming to put Toto to sleep? They never really resolve that plot point. But I digress.)

Okay, so Dorothy is bored with Kansas and she wants to go someplace more exciting. Somewhere “over the rainbow,” as she laments in a classic, but rather insipid song. (I know I'll get in trouble for that, but it's the only part of the movie I fast forward through. Yawn!)

When she gets to Oz, it's exactly what she asked for. There are Munchkins and Witches and Tin Men and Flying Monkeys - how much more different from Kansas can you get? And it's in color! But does Dorothy appreciate it? Does she take time to soak in all the wonders of Oz? No. Right away it's, “Boo hoo, I want to go home.” She's not happy in Kansas, she's not happy in Oz. You just want to slap her. Dorothy is poor because she's never satisfied.

In the end, she learns her lesson. She appreciates all that Kansas has to offer - food, shelter, friends, family, security, love, safety, acceptance - if it's not there, she really doesn't need it. At the movie's end, Dorothy is truly rich because she is happy with her lot.

The Midrash tells us (Koheles Rabbah 1:34) that there are some people who, if they have 100, they want 200. If they get 200, they want 400. Such a person will never be satisfied, let alone “rich,” because he will always focus on what he doesn't have. A person who appreciates the blessings G-d has given him, whatever they may be, is the richest of all.

Who is honored? The one who honors others. There's your Tin Woodsman. (In the books, he has a name; it's Nick Chopper.)

“But,” I hear you say, “the Tin Woodsman didn't want honor. He wanted a heart.” Work with me here.

Who do we honor? Generally speaking, I’d have to say people we respect. People we like. People we love.

Not so, you say? True, if you lived in the regime of a brutal dictator, you might honor him even though you hated him. But that's only because you fear him. It's not sincere. It's lip service. In truth, it's no honor at all, it's a pretense. Real honor comes from courtesy and sincerity.

Honor and love are intertwined. We see this concept in the non-Jewish wedding vows, with which you might be familiar (“to love, honor and cherish”). But it is also a Torah concept. The Talmud tells us – and it’s actually brought down as practical halacha (Jewish law) - that a husband must love his wife as much as he loves himself and he must honor her more. (See Rambam, Hilchos Ishus 15:19.)

So love and honor are related. In order to get honor, you have to give honor. In order to get love, you have to give love. You can't just sit around saying “How come nobody likes me? How come nobody respects me?” You have to make the first move. The Wizard is on the right track when he tells the Tin Man that “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” That may be, but how much you are loved by others is a direct result of how much you love!

Now, I have to be intellectually honest here. I think that I have argued a pretty good case for a relationship between love and honor, but they’re really not the same thing. The Torah commands us (Shemos 20:12) to honor our parents, but we are not commanded to love them. (Hopefully we do, but even if we don’t, we still have to treat them respectfully.) The Torah also commands us (Vayikra 19:34) to love a convert, but not to honor him. (We should extend common courtesy to all people, but it doesn’t have to go so far as to be honor.) So, for good measure, let’s take a look at what Avos has to say specifically about love:

Avos 5:19 says that any love that is conditional will last only as long as the condition is met. Any love that is unconditional will last forever.

I could tie that in to the movie, but I won’t. I think it’s a powerful enough statement to stand on its own. I’ll repeat it for good measure: “Any love that is conditional will last only as long as the condition is met. Any love that is unconditional will last forever.” Think about that. It’s important.

What About the Wizard?

Okay, if the four principal characters of The Wizard of Oz fit rather nicely into Avos 4:1, what are we to make of the Wizard himself? (In the book, the Wizard has a name. It’s Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. He only used the first two names, which abbreviate to “Oz,” because the rest of his initials spell out “Pinhead.” This was before Zippy the Pinhead or Pinhead the Cenobite in Hellraiser. It means a dunce. A dimwit. A nincompoop. Don’t like it? Take it up with Baum.)

There are quite a few points in Avos that I think could pertain to the Wizard. Here are just two:

1) In Avos 4:3, Ben Azzai tells us not to put down any person; everybody has a reason for being here. The Wizard may be pretty useless as a Wizard, but he did do some good. Even though he failed to get Dorothy home, the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man seemed pretty pleased with their rewards. And, as we see in the book, he did build the Emerald City as a safe haven from Wicked Witches. So while he may be a “bad Wizard,” he can still be a “good man.”

2) Avos 5:9 gives seven characteristics possessed by a wise person and not possessed by – well, let’s be polite and say an unwise person. To be honest, I think the Wizard is failing miserably by most counts on anyone’s wisdom scale. To say that he’s full of hot air is to put it mildly. He sure can blow smoke on things that he clearly knows nothing about. But there may be hope. The last characteristic of a wise person is that he admits to the truth. When shown that his position is wrong, a wise person will admit it and stop championing a false cause. When revealed as “the man behind the curtain,” the Wizard was wise enough to come clean and tell them the truth. It’s not much, but it shows that he may not be a complete – well, he may not be as big a pinhead as his name implies. (In the later books he studies magic with Glinda and becomes something of a real wizard, so I guess he can be taught!)

Where Do We Go From Here?

When we read a book or see a movie, we can always look for expressions of Jewish ideals in it. We can enjoy the entertainment, but we can also try to gain something more uplifting from it. It won’t ruin literature for us – it will enhance it while heightening our sensitivity to seeing Torah in all things around us.