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March 2011

Planning for the ultimate future

last will and testament

Image borrowed from an online provider of wills.

Is there a bracha for finishing the difficult work of estate planning? The formal term -- "estate planning" -- doesn't begin to hint at the emotional and spiritual challenges of thinking about, and planning for, death. This is work that Ethan and I have been doing of late. Not surprisingly, the whole process feels different now than it did almost ten years ago, the first time we engaged in it. Now we have a fifteen-month-old son, which changes everything.

"Are you afraid of dying?" my therapist asked me last week. I thought about it for a moment and told her that I am not. I don't know what comes after this, but I have faith that this life isn't all there is. And I feel certain that, whatever comes next, there's a cessation of suffering. I have some fear of dying, depending on how it happens; I don't want to suffer. But I'm not afraid of death. It's a journey into something we can't know. A passage, like birth. I've been blessed to be present for some deaths which have felt like powerful moments of opening. I'm convinced that there's nothing to be feared about death.

What I am afraid of is loss. I have a hard time facing the reality that people I love are going to die. I'm blessed to still have my parents; I can't really think about losing them, ever, even though I know that someday I will, because everyone does. I can't really think about losing Ethan, even though I know that could happen too. And I can't think about (God forbid) losing my child -- both because of the anticipation of my own grief, and what I know would seem the quintessential unfairness of a life cut too short. No: thinking about my own death is far easier than contemplating any of those.

After my strokes, a few years ago, I remember my spiritual director at the time counseling me through meditations aimed at facing the prospect of my own death. I hope that, before I go, I have the spaciousness to do the emotional and spiritual preparation which will make the passage fruitful and manageable for me. That's work I'll need to do in the realms of yetzirah and briyah, emotion and consicousness. But in the world of assiyah, the world of action and physicality, preparing for death means "estate planning." Legal documents and memoranda about the disposition of property. The formal legal language can be distancing; I have to remind myself sometimes what we're really talking about.

It's hard to think of losing my spouse, and it's hard to think of our son growing up without either one of us. But it does feel good to have done the work of thinking through what would become of Drew, who would care for him and how, which of our possessions (his father's ancient Commodore PET, my rainbow tallit from Jerusalem) we would specifically want for him to inherit. It's an interesting exercise in thinking about what we own and which of our possessions have emotional and spiritual significance -- and in thinking about the family and the communities of which Drew is a part, and the networks of love and support which we hope would sustain him if something happened to us.

One way or another, this seems to me to clearly be an opportunity for spiritual work. If anyone reading this has stories about the emotional and spiritual valances of facing mortality, "estate planning," or preparing for what comes next, I'd love to hear them.

A few more 70 faces links

I wanted to take a moment to give a shout-out to folks who have mentioned or reviewed 70 faces recently, and also to offer a reminder of upcoming events -- I've got 3 events in the Boston area on the weekend of March 12-13, and my first Berkshire County event is in Williamstown on the evening of March 16. (Read more about all of those events here.)

The author of the blog Tony's Musings made a post earlier this winter called Velveteen Rabbi in which he wrote:

For several years now I have been inspired by the Jewish-American wisdom coming from the pen of Rachel Barenblat, who writes a blog under the title of "The Velveteen Rabbi", whose blog motto has been "When can I run and play with the real rabbis?" Having received ordination from ALEPH - the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Rachel is now Rabbi Barenblat, and has changed her motto to "Now running and playing with the real rabbis!" At the same time, this talented woman has also just seen publication of "70 Faces", poems written in response to the Torah in the longstanding tradition of midrash.

(This is as much a post about this blog as it is a post about the book, but he does say kind things about the book as well as the blog -- thanks, Tony!)

Zackary Sholem Berger reviewed 70 faces for the Forward: Torah Poems That Bring Comfort, Not Questions. Unfortunately, he didn't love the book (my first not-so-positive review!) though he found some things to like about it, at least:

Barenblat, who is also a rabbi and blogger, can make the patriarchs and matriarchs immediate and narrative possibilities concrete: "Maybe there’s always a ram," she writes, "waiting just outside the frame."

...But the fatal flaw of the book is its failure to live up to the claims the author makes for it.

And finally, one of the poems from the book was reprinted in a blog post: First Step:

This is maybe not a book I would normally own, becuase a) I'm very picky about my poetry, and b) I'm not Jewish, but I really like Rachel's poetry.

Thanks, Celli! And thanks to all who've taken the time to write something about the book or to share a favorite poem with friends.

Freedom - a poem about liberation

I'm working on a revision of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach (that link goes to last year's post about last year's edition) -- this will be version 7.1, which is basically version 7 with a few Hebrew typos amended, with a couple of new readings, and with two pages which aim to connect our spiritual, symbolic, and internal story of liberation with the liberation struggles of so many people in the Middle East and North Africa this year.

I'll also offer those two pages as a special insert, which could be printed and used alongside a copy of last year's edition of the VR Haggadah -- or, for that matter, printed and used alongside any haggadah at all! The insert contains a brief explanation in prose, and then a pair of poems. One of the poems is mine; the other is by Sue Swartz of Awkward Offerings, and it's really powerful. I can't wait to share it with y'all.

I'll offer the insert as a downloadable pdf alongside the pdf of the revised haggadah soon, but wanted to share my own poem here before the insert, and the revised haggadah, are formally launched. I'd love to know what y'all think.



In remembrance of the 2011 protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere.


Liberation comes when people gather
by the tens and by the thousands

demanding that the despot who's held the reins
step down, and in between the slogans

they dish out lentils cooked over open flame,
and homes open up so the protestors can shower

and members of one faith link hands
to protect members of another faith at prayer.

Liberation comes at a cost: not only
the horses and chariots swept away, but

innocents gunned down by their own army,
panicked children lost in the roiling crowds

activists imprisoned for speaking freely,
and when the world stops watching

they may be beaten -- or worse.
It's upon us to at least pay attention

on mobile phones and computer screens
as real people rise up to say

we have the right to congregate and to speak
we will not be silenced, we are not afraid.

On land use zoning and discrimination (an update on the Al Falah Center & more)

I posted a few weeks ago about the Al Falah Center, an initiative of the Muslim community in Bridgewater, NJ, and about local opposition to the proposed mosque, including opposition from local Tea Party leaders (as noted in this New Jersey Jewish News article.) My post was revised into a letter which the rabbinic cabinet of Jewish Voice for Peace shared with representatives from the Muslim community in Bridgewater. After I made a few revisions per their request, the letter was co-signed by 35 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic students. (For those who are interested, the text of the amended letter appears below the extended-entry cut.)

The Bridgewater Town Council met recently, and voted unanimously in support of changing the town's zoning laws to block the Al Falah Center's application. Members of the Muslim community continue to meet with Town Council members in hopes of reaching an amicable solution. I'm also told that the Bridgewater Muslim community has offered to take the religious school out of their plans, in a further attempt to address the broader community's traffic concerns.

There was a fairly spirited conversation in the comments section of my previous post. Some Bridgewater Muslim residents commented / emailed me to say that they feel discriminated against, they're receiving death threats and harassment, and they're doing everything they can to work with the rest of the town and its needs. Other Bridgewater residents, members of other faith traditions, commented to say that they have nothing against Muslims and that their concerns have purely to do with traffic patterns.

I understand that the traffic concerns are real, but want to note that they may also simultaneously mask anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment. As the revised letter (below the cut) notes, changing zoning in order to block the construction of a minority group's house of worship is a classic example of discrimination. Regardless of whether those who are arguing against the center mean to be discriminatory, discrimination is the end result of their line of argument.

Intriguingly, half an hour away there is a similar dispute taking place wherein a Chabad rabbi wants to build a synagogue and local opposition argues that it would set a "bad precedent" -- see Millburn residents fight construction of synagogue in residential neighborhood and Neighbors Protest Possible Resolution to Build Synagogue in Short Hills. The latter article makes the case that opposition to the building of the Chai Center is really anti-Orthodox or anti-Chabad sentiment -- as does this New York Times piece, New Jersey Neighbors Protest a Proposed Synagogue.

For more background on the matter of land use zoning being used to discriminate against minority religious groups, here's a link to a fascinating amicus brief presented by the Anti-Defamation League in 2004: Amicus Brief: Murphy v. Zoning Commission of the Town of New Milford. [pdf] (That's a link to the actual amicus brief; here's a summary of the case.) I recommend especially section C: Congress Compiled Significant Evidence That Land Use Laws Continue to Be Used To Discriminate Against Religious Groups. (In response to that evidence, Congress unanimously passed The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.)

For those who are interested in learning more about what's happening in Bridgewater, and/or in being part of the conversation there, two upcoming meetings may be of interest: a public hearing on the al-Falah Center application (February 28th at 7pm, Performing Arts Bldg / Somerset County Vocational & Tech, 14 Vogt Drive) and a public hearing on changing Bridgewater's zoning laws for houses of worship (March 3 at 7pm, Bridgewater-Raritan High School, 600 Garretson Road.)

Continue reading "On land use zoning and discrimination (an update on the Al Falah Center & more)" »

Thinking about J Street


The next J Street conference runs from February 26 to March 1 in Washington, DC. I won't be there, alas. My sweet 15-month-old doesn't travel especially well (he enjoys new adventures but doesn't really sleep when we're on the road, which isn't good for anyone.) Because of some other travel on my schedule and his dad's schedule this month -- including our upcoming mini-vacation, about which more in a few days! -- I wasn't able to make the decision to leave Drew at home and attend J Street on my own.

So while y'all are talking about Israel and the Palestinians, how American Jews and Muslims can work together for peace, democracy movements in the Arab world, the revival of the Israeli left, and more, I'll be doing my usual round of babycare, with occasional forays into Torah study and poetry, and spending my evenings curled up on the couch with my sweetie catching up on episodes of Top Chef and Fringe.

I'm bummed to miss the conference -- both the workshops and discussions, which I imagine will be excellent, and the opportunity for creating and celebrating community. I blogged more than 30,000 words at the last J Street conference (here's a link to my roundup of JStreet conference posts) and found it a thought-provoking and valuable experience all around. I hope that some of the folks who are attending this year's conference will blog about their experiences so that we who aren't there in person can get a taste for what it's like.

To those who are attending, I wish you safe travels and a meaningful experience! Tell us all about it when you get home, if not before.

Letter to liminal places (a poem for those who feel in-between)



You've brought the baby home
but you don't feel like real parents

the house you built is sold
and you don't know where you're moving to

the next step is obscured
windblown snow swirls in the dark

but remember the speckled orchid
which adorned your Passover table

after a year of dull leaves
beneath the stump of former glories

it has begun again
improbably to bloom.

I mentioned in a post a few days ago that I'd been working on a poem about liminal spaces, about the uncertainty of being between one thing and the next. The image which first sparked this poem (an image of the diploma being hung and framed while the person who earned it waits for the phone to ring) has been cut -- it was my ladder in to the poem, but I decided it doesn't actually belong in the poem.

Anyway: this is definitely a poem-in-progress, and I'm not convinced that this is its final shape, but aiming to post a poem here each week is good for me on levels both spiritual and creative, so I'm posting it. As always, I welcome responses on levels both literary and emotional/spiritual -- let me know what resonates for you.

This wasn't written in response to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompt, here's a link to this week's "Come One, Come All" post so you can see what others wrote.

Kedushat Levi on work, rest, action, speech, Torah

Here's a taste of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayekhel. My translation is indented; explanations and commentary are interspersed. He says some lovely things about the interplay of work and speech, weekday and Shabbat -- and then says something very powerful about the study of Torah, the building of the tabernacle, and the creation of new worlds. Read on!

"These are the things (דברים) which God commanded that you should do them, six days you shall do [work], etc..." (Exodus 35:1-2.)

The sages interpreted this (in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat) to refer to the 39 forms of labor. As it is said, "these [are the things]" -- this hints at externals [external forms of labor rather than internal ones], as the Ari (of blessed memory) expounded on the verse (Lamentations 1:16) "For these things I weep, etc," arguing that we need to heal them by means of work. When we say "to do," [as in: "these are the things which God commanded that you should do them,"] we're speaking in terms of healing.

Reb Levi Yitzchak is arguing that what God was really saying was not merely "these are the things you should do -- do all your work on six days, but on the 7th day, you should rest," but also "these are the things which God commanded we should heal / repair." In his reading, God is giving us an encoded instruction about the need to make a cosmic repair.

It is said with regard to Shabbat "God commanded to do," and with regard to the [building of the] mishkan it is written "which God commanded, saying." The Tur raises a question [about why one verse uses language of "doing" and the other verse uses the word "saying"], and notes that although creating the mishkan involved the mitzvot of making/doing, by means of the the work of the mishkan they repaired the world of speech. That's what Torah means when it says "which God had commanded, saying."

This week's Torah portion begins with the instruction about working during the week and resting on Shabbat, and then moves into language about the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites built as a dwelling-place for God. (The word mishkan shares a root with Shekhinah, the indwelling and immanent Presence of God.) It's this juxtaposition -- instructions about work/rest followed by instructions about the mishkan -- which catches the eye of the Tur, and later of Reb Levi Yitzchak...and on that juxtaposition, they're going to hang a fascinating new interpretation.

Reb Levi Yitzchak cites the Tur (a.k.a Jacob ben Asher) who noted that the first verse uses the language of "doing" (God commanded us to do something), and the other verse uses the language of "saying" (God commanded us, saying...) He tells us that although building the mishkan involved physical making and doing, as the Israelites built that tabernacle they were actually in some cosmic sense repairing the brokenness of human speech.

Sometimes it's hard to say exactly what we mean. Sometimes our words hurt one another. Sometimes we say the wrong thing, or we speak in a way we regret. Human speech is a flawed and often broken thing. When our ancestors built the mishkan, says Levi Yitzchak (following the Tur), as they attached wood and cloth and pegs together they were also cosmically repairing the brokenness of human language. In his reading, the Torah hints at this when it uses the word לאמר, "saying..."

Continue reading "Kedushat Levi on work, rest, action, speech, Torah" »

Kallah 2011: savoring new light

I just learned that the brochure for the upcoming ALEPH Kallah, our biennial gathering of the Jewish Renewal (and Renewal-curious :-) community, is available for download as a pdf file at the Kallah webpage!

This year's Kallah will be in Redlands, California. (Edited to add: it runs from June 27-July 3.) The theme is Or Chadash ("A New Light"), with the subtitle "Enrich, Inspire, and Brighten Your Jewish Path." The course offerings look fantastic, as always... and this time, unlike last time, I have the luxury of being able to take whatever courses call to me most, instead of looking for classes which fit the gaps in my curriculum grid. I'm hoping to do one of the storytelling classes in the morning, and in the afternoon there's a class called Uri, Ori! - Awaken, My Light! / Nur ala nur: Light upon light! which will incorporate Qur'an and Torah texts alongside Sufi, Zoharic, and Hasidic commentaries -- sounds utterly amazing.

The posts in my ALEPH Kallah category chronicle some of the awesomeness of the 2009 Kallah. I sang in Linda Hirschhorn's choir, studied Eco-Judaism and the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and had all kinds of amazing davenen experiences. (I also went to bed woefully early most nights, missing the evening programming with great regret. Though I hadn't yet announced the news on this blog, I was in my second trimester of pregnancy and utterly exhausted all the time.) I had imagined, then, that I would bring Drew with me to the next Kallah -- but after seeing how difficult the time change was for him when we went to Colorado for my ordination, and how discombobulating he currently finds being away from his home routines, I've realized that the best thing for him is to let him enjoy a summer week at home with his dad and grandparents and friends while I spend a week soaking up the joys of immersion in my Jewish Renewal world again.

Anyway: if you've ever wanted to experience the kinds of learning, prayer, and community that I write about here, the Kallah is a great way to do it. Jewish Renewal is best experienced through, well, experience! Reading about it will only take you so far. Go, download the booklet of course offerings, and see what calls to you! I'd love to see you there.

Liminal and limitless

Ordination, my spiritual director told me recently, can be like childbirth. Yes, one opens up and something comes through one -- but that's not the end of the journey, it's only the beginning. The work now is to learn how to keep my own spiritual channels open so that blessing can continue to flow, and to navigate the "contractions" of ordination's aftermath as I enter this new phase of my professional, emotional, and spiritual life.

It's a powerful metaphor, and with that metaphor in hand I've been looking back on the six weeks since I received smicha (is it really only six weeks?!) and seeing their various peaks and valleys in a new light. Ordination comes at the end of a long journey, but it's also the beginning of a new journey, and I don't yet know where that new journey is taking me. Someone asked me last week at the reading I did at Knox how I navigate being a rabbi and a poet, and I said I had only been a rabbi for about a month and he should ask me again in five years! We both laughed, but I was only half-kidding.

There have been a lot of moments of intense emotion over these last six weeks: more than usual? or am I just espcially attuned to them right now? I can't tell. One way or another, this winter has offered me alternating periods of emptiness / quiet, and periods of densely-packed opportunities for emotional and spiritual work.

So I'm working on a poem this week about liminal spaces. It seems as though a lot of people in my life are in liminal spaces: done with school but not yet working, done with pregnancy but not quite adjusted to new parenthood, in between one assignment and the next. No longer on the shore, but not yet certain how to get to the far side of the water, or where that distant shore might turn out to be. I know that's how I've been feeling lately, at last sometimes, and it can be a challenge to be at-home in the not-knowing.

And I've been thinking a lot about the dual roles of mother and rabbi. Both are caregiving roles. Both are roles which are potentially all-consuming: is a mother's work, is a rabbi's work, ever really done? Both can be vocations. Both my identity as a parent and my identity as a rabbi feed into my poetry (and vice versa), and I believe deeply that all of these roles can nourish each other. But I'm also already becoming sensitive to the risk of feeling perennially as though I'm not giving "enough" -- to my parenting, to my partnership, to my community, to my work, to myself.

The only path I can see through all of this is a path of accepting that there is always more work to be done than can ever be completed. The work of mothering, the work of rabbi-ing, even the work of poetry: in the words of Mishneh Peah 1:1, eilu d'varim sh'ein lahem shiur, "these are things which have no limit." I don't yet know how I'll manifest balance between them, and I can't know where these vocations will take me. All I can do right now is breathe into the occasional contractions as this winter births me into a new spring, and trust that a whole-hearted commitment to the work will be enough.

Three days at Knox

Old Main.

On my first day in Galesburg, after a walking tour of the Knox campus (including the site of one of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates) and lunch with a handful of Knox faculty and staff, I had the profound pleasure of discussing my Akedah Cycle of poems (now published in 70 faces) with the students in the Feminist Methodologies class who had been assigned the task of reading the relevant sections of Genesis alongside the poems themselves.

We had a fabulous and free-wheeling conversation about the Bible (some of them had gone to years of religious school; others had never cracked open a Bible before), midrash (which one of the students compared with fanfiction, to my delight -- that's an argument which I'm going to explore in some depth in a forthcoming article), theology, names for God, the divine feminine, the Lurianic cosmogony and the task of lifting up the sparks, reproductive technology, the idea of reading beloved texts with awareness of their problematic qualities but still with love (I was thinking of Wendy Doniger's excellent essay Thinking Critically About Thinking Too Critically [pdf], though I couldn't come up with her name in that moment), the responsibility to wrestle with the texts we hold dear, and more.


That evening I gave a talk about midrash and poetry, which culminated in a reading of the Akedah Cycle and then some Q-and-A. That was a lot of fun, too; I had forgotten the extent to which those poems were intended to be read aloud (though of course they were; I wrote them as a sermon in the first place) and people asked excellent questions, like how becoming a mother had changed my relationship with these Torah texts and whether I'd explored the extent to which some of these same stories appear in the Qur'an. (I got to talk a little bit about the retreat I attended for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and the study of the Joseph/Yusuf story that we did there...)

Thursday morning was spent with a rotating group of Knox students (from SASS, Hillel, and other places), a giant latte, and a pile of mini-muffins from the local bakery. We talked about school and religion and theology and travel and life after college and all kinds of good stuff. And then I got to have lunch with three faculty members, during which we discussed everything from hadith about Isaac and Ishmael to the appeal of Eastern religious traditions to religious pedagogy to the theologies of Battlestar Galactica and the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Having a latte on hallowed ground.

And finally, on Thursday afternoon, I read from my poems as part of the Caxton Club's literary series. I read mostly poems from 70 faces, though also some poems from chaplainbook, and even a handful of poems from Waiting to Unfold, my as-yet unpublished manuscript of mother poems. The crowd was smallish (perhaps because the posters had, it was discovered, been printed with a January date) but those who were there were receptive listeners, and they asked fabulous questions afterwards -- about my creative processes, about commitment, about Torah poems and motherhood poems. It was grand.

And now, as Shabbat approaches, I'm on my way home -- and getting ready to lead services at my shul tomorrow morning, and looking forward to seeing my sweet little boy again! I'm so grateful to the community at Knox for welcoming me into your midst. Thanks for giving this rabbi, poet, and mama a chance to spend a few days with you, discussing subjects I hold dear.


This week's portion: a poem about the Golden Calf



Already so many changes.
Our long column of refugees
snaking into the wilderness.

Through the sandal-sucking mud
where the waters had been.
Their men and horses consumed.

And then that Voice
speaking directly into us,
reverberating in our chests...!

But Moshe ascended by himself
into the sapphire sky
and he didn't come back.

Of course we asked Aharon
to make something to remind us
we weren't as alone as we felt.

This week we're reading parashat Ki Tisa, which contains the story of the Golden Calf. I thought it would be an interesting experience to try to write a poem from the point of view of the Israelites who begged Aaron to make them a god to go before them. So that's what I did.

No recording this week -- I'm on the road and wasn't able to record myself. Sorry, all!

This poem wasn't written in response to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompt, but here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what others wrote.

A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically

When A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically first came out, I ignored it. Pretty resolutely. It sounded gimmicky to me: seriously, this guy was going to spend a whole year trying to live according to what's in the Bible? Did he not know, or not care, that his chosen enterprise was not actually how any living religious tradition really relates to this text?

Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder because I was afraid that he would use the experience as an excuse to mock the Torah (which I hold dear) and religious practice (ditto.) Granted, there's the idea within Judaism that one does mitzvot because they're commanded, and understanding (and meaning) will follow (see Rav Soloveitchik's classic Halakhic Man), but Jacobs wasn't going to be observing Shabbat or keeping kosher because they're mitzvot, he was going to be doing those things as part of a year-long stunt, a follow-up to reading the whole encyclopedia and writing a book about that.

Judaism as it has come down to us is a rabbinic tradition; the Torah is always understood through the lens of commentary upon commentary. Written Torah matched with Oral Torah, in one paradigm -- or historical text filtered through the lens of generations of interpreters, in another. One way or another, what Jacobs intended didn't sound to me like authentic relationship with Torah. I just didn't see how the end result would be interesting to me.

Then my friend Emily read the book for her book group. "I'd love to know what you think of it," she told me. "He starts out completely skeptical, but he takes on practices like daily prayer, and the experience changes him. It reminds me of some of the things I've heard you say about the purpose of spiritual practice, actually." So I said okay, fine, lend me the book.

Continue reading "A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically" »

This is spiritual life

On the first day of the hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training program which I began in early 2009, my spiritual director described what her spiritual practices had been like before she had children, and then she talked about how her spiritual life inevitably changed once her kids came on the scene. She was clear that spiritual life does continue; but she noted that it may need to take different forms than it did before. (She said other things too, but that was what really struck me. I was newly-pregnant then, and did not know that I would miscarry a few days later, so I was hyperconscious of everything having to do with prospecive parenthood.)

I remember hearing similar stories from Reb Marcia, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program. At one point during DLTI, she reminisced to us about davening while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her kids to take to school and about singing along with a recording of the morning liturgy in the car. She told us those stories by way of encouraging us to get Hazzan Jack's Learn to Daven! cd and to listen to it often -- and she's right; it's a great way to become comfortable with the full text of the classical morning service -- but I think of her exhortation often now when I daven along with Reb Shawn Zevit's Morning I Will Seek You in the car on the way to daycare.

It's easy to think of spiritual practice as something we do when we can dedicate space and time away from our "regular lives." If I could just get on top of my to-do list, then I could make time to pray. If I didn't have dishes to wash, laundry to fold, thankyou notes to write, a desk to tidy, bills to pay, emails to return, blog comments to moderate.

But all of life can be spiritual life. I can begin my day with modah ani; I can say the blessing sanctifying the body as I moisturize my skin in the morning, or as I use the bathroom, or as I change diapers; when I see my son beginning to walk, I can follow the morning liturgy in thanking God Who makes firm our steps.

There's no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly -- as delicious as that is! Those of us who've had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn't "who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer" -- it's "who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?"

There's never enough time to get wholly on top of the to-do list. (If nothing else, cooking/dishes and laundry are self-generating tasks: cook one meal and eat it, and the next day you're still going to be hungry again.) The time to study a little Torah, or to pray, or to meditate, can't be "when everything else is done" -- because everything else is never done. Besides: Torah, prayer, self-care are important. More important, maybe, than the other things on our to-do lists a lot of the time...though most of us don't inhabit a paradigm where that perspective is commonly shared.

The real challenge of spiritual life -- for me right now, anyway -- is remembering that all of life is spiritual life. As I drive wherever I'm going, God is all around me. God is manifest in the people standing in the grocery check-out line or on the airplane jetway. Every step I take is an opportunity to be mindful of one foot, and then the next; every breath I take is an opportunity to inhale God in, and exhale God out. Spiritual practice doesn't just have to mean meditation, or yoga, or enfolding myself in tefillin and tallit and spending quality time with the siddur. Washing dishes can be a spiritual practice. Babyminding can be a spiritual practice. Self-care can be a spiritual practice.

There's a Hasidic idea of avodah b'gashmiut, service or worship through corporeality, which I love (and which I've blogged about before.) That idea goes like this: physicality, the mundane world in which we all operate, isn't an obstacle to connecting with God -- it's the very vehicle through which we can have that connection. Tending our bodies, tending our children, eating food and clearing the table: all of these are opportunities for spiritual connection. In Hasidic language, the task is one of "elevating the sparks" -- finding the holiness latent in each of these things, and lifting it up to heaven.

Every day is full of sparks waiting to be lifted up. Whatever you're doing right now can be part of your spiritual life too.

Purim Katan: a koan of a festival

In a leap year, as previously noted, there are two months of Adar. Each month of Adar has a 14th. On the 14th of the second Adar, we'll celebrate Purim. On the 14th of the first Adar, we celebrate "Purim Katan," "Little Purim." Because leap years arise only seven times in every nineteen-year cycle, Purim Katan is a relatively rare occurrence. So what does one do on Purim Katan? The rabbis of the Mishna tell us the following:

There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah, sending mishloach manot (reciprocal gifts of food), and gifts to the poor. (Megillah, 6b)

Let's unpack that. The Mishna is telling us that there is no difference whatsoever between the two Purims -- except the actual acts whose performance signifies Purim! On Little Purim, we don't read from the scroll of Esther, we don't send mishloach manot, and we don't give charity to the poor. So what can it mean to say that there is no difference between them, when at first glance it appears that they have nothing in common save their name? (I can't help thinking of the quote from The Muppets Take Manhattan: "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere.")

But I think we can find, in the koan of this invisible festival, a deep teaching.

Sometimes our celebrations take visible forms. Reading the megillah, dressing in costume, making noise to drown out the name of Haman -- sending mishloach manot, and feeding the poor -- these are the visible external signs of Purim, just as eating matzah and telling the tale of the Exodus are the visible external signs of Pesach, and eating dairy and studying all night are the external signs of Shavuot, and so on. The external manifestation of each holiday does matter! The physical acts which embody the observance of a festival help us experience that festival wholly.

But sometimes we can evoke the emotional and spiritual valance of a celebration without actually doing the acts we associate with the holiday at hand. Imagine if, a month before Thanksgiving, you had the opportunity to spend a day meditating on gratitude and family, thinking about the festive meal you were going to prepare and enjoy, imagining your dinner table and the people who will join you there. You wouldn't actually make the turkey or the cranberry sauce, but you'd think about them, and you'd contemplate gratitude and thankfulness and what role those spiritual states play in your life. How might that change your experience of Thanksgiving a month later?

That's the invitation of Purim Katan: to spend the 14th of Adar I meditating on the deep mysteries of Purim (the God Who is hidden from the simple text of the megillah, but plainly manifest all over the story; the queen who pretends to be something she isn't in order to preserve and celebrate who she truly is; the need, once a year, to ascend to a place where binary distinctions, like those between Haman and Mordechai, are no longer relevant) in order to begin to prepare ourselves for the festival that's coming, so that when the festival gets here, it's different for us than it otherwise might have been.

There are a couple of tiny ways in which Purim Katan is traditionally marked. We don't say tachanun, the (weekday) prayers of repentance, on Purim Katan. The tradition also prohibits fasting on this day. And many sources argue that there is an obligation to celebrate and rejoice. One d'var Torah I found online, written by Greg Killian, makes the point that "Purim Katan has no halachic requirements. Whatever we do to increase our joy on Purim Katan, we do because we want to, not because we have to."

Here's a teaching from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema. (This teaching is based on a talk given by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; I found it online here.) The Rema begins his commentary on Orach Chayim, one of the sections of the Shulchan Aruch (a central text of Jewish law), with a quote from Psalm 16:8 -- "I place God before me constantly." Later in his commentary, on the subject of Purim Katan, the Rema writes that in his opinion, it is not obligatory to feast on Purim Katan, but one should still eat somewhat more than usual, quoting Proverbs 15:15 "And he who is glad of heart feasts constantly." Note the two usages of the word "constantly."

The sages tell us that his first use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "I place God before me constantly," shviti Hashem l'negdi tamid, which I've written about before) is understood to suggest reverence for God; his second use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "he who is glad of heart feasts constantly") is understood to suggest joy. He mentions reverence first because it's a necessary precursor to doing mitzvot; he mentions joy second because joy is the natural outgrowth of doing mitzvot. What strikes me, reading this, is that there are no active mitzvot associated with Purim Katan. This holiday challenges us to experience the shift from reverence to joy without actually "doing anything."

Purim Katan begins this Thursday evening. How might you choose to mark this rare minor festival -- how might you reflect on the Purim story's teachings, and increase your sense of joy, so that in thirty days' time the observance of Purim itself can be more meaningful and more sweet, and so that your reverence can transmute directly into joy?

This week's portion: God's afterimage, and letting our light shine

This week we're in parashat Ki Tisa. The parsha includes the episode of the golden calf, when the people become anxious because Moshe has been gone for so long and they ask Aaron to make them a god who can go before them. First God becomes angry, and Moshe talks him down. Then Moshe comes down the mountain and becomes angry himself, and smashes the tablets which God had inscribed. (That's what gave rise to the Torah poem I wrote for this parsha back in 2009, Re-entry -- now available in print, in a revised form, as part of 70 faces.)

But the story doesn't end there. Moshe calls the Levites to help him quell the spiritual rebellion; the people go into mourning for their broken relationship with God; we learn about the pillar of cloud which would descend when Moshe entered the Tent of Meeting; and then Moshe makes a peculiar request of God -- he asks to see God's face. God responds, "I will make My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim My name before you...but you cannot see My face, for man cannot see My face and live." Instead, God offers an alternate suggestion: you stand in this cleft on the rock, and I will shield you with My hand, and after I've passed by, you'll be able to see My back. (That's at the end of Exodus 33.)

Jewish tradition interprets these verses the way we interpret all anthropomorphic descriptions of God in Torah -- as metaphor. God doesn't really have a face, nor a hand with which to shelter Moshe in the cleft of the rock, nor a back which Moshe might glimpse as God departs. These are human conceptions. We can't wrap our minds around the reality of what God is, so we mentally create God in an image we can understand. (That's the subject of a lovely teaching on this passage, The Knot of God's Tefillin, which is Chanan Morrison's rendering of Rav Kook's teaching on this passage.)

I can relate to Moshe's request. It makes sense to me that he yearned for this kind of encounter. He wanted to encounter God panim el panim, face to face, presence to presence. He wanted a radical I/Thou connection with God -- and who could blame him? Instead, what he gets is a partial glimpse of a totality too great for him to comprehend.

Moshe can't grasp the wholeness of God from within the limited perspective of a single human mind. If he were to encounter all of what God is, his individual selfhood would disappear; the orderly limits of his mind would shatter. God gives Moshe only what he can handle. He can see God's goodness. He can listen to the recitation of one of God's names, which contains compassion and mercy along with remembrance of our misdeeds. And he can glimpse something of the divine Presence as it passes him by.

I don't think this passage is only about Moshe. I think it speaks to us, too. Where can we see God's goodness manifest? What are the names of God which we receive on the frequencies to which we are attuned? What afterimage of God's presence, as it were, are we able to perceive in the world around us?

At the very end of the portion, we learn that when Moshe came down from Sinai he was literally radiant, and the people were afraid, and every time he went to connect wth God he had to veil his radiance so he wouldn't overwhelm everyone. Have you ever had a spiritual encounter, or an experience of prayer, which left you glowing? How do you "veil" your light so as not to overwhelm those around you -- and what do you think might happen if instead you cultivated that light and allowed it to shine?

Kedushat Levi on Aaron's clothes

Reb Zalman tells a wonderful story about a rabbi serving his first pulpit. The president of the board catches sight of him studying a text in his office, and says to a colleague with some consternation, "I thought we got a finished one!"

The anecdote never fails to draw laughs in our community, because we know that the work of studying Jewish texts is never "finished." In that spirit, I've started studying the writings of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, one of the great Hasidic masters of the late 1700s, along with my hevruta David. We're going to try to meet each week to translate and discuss some Kedushat Levi. This week we studied two teachings, one short and one long. Here's the short one.

"And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory [or: gravitas] and for splendor. And you shall say to all who are wise of heart, 'Y'all shall make garments for Aaron to sanctify him,' etc." (Exodus 28:2-3)

We will see that Moshe sanctified Aaron (in ensuring) that Aaron should be clothed in the Holy Blessed One (Kudsha Brich Hu.) For the souls of the righteous are vessels for the highest divine qualities. That's what it means when the Torah says "You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother" -- that there should be, fashioned out of Aaron's very soul, holy garments.

An explanation of "for glory and for splendor": these are the Holy Blessed One and the Shekhinah. Those who were wise of heart made garments for Aaron out of his very self-ness. That's why in the first text it's written "for Aaron" and when it comes to those who are wise of heart, the text reads simply "Aaron."

- R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

The Torah text tells us that Moshe was commanded to make holy garments for Aaron, and then it tells us that Moshe was instructed to tell those who are "wise of heart" (the same description given to those who contributed to the building of the Tabernacle) to make Aaron's garments to sanctify him. Reb Levi Yitzchak reinterprets this. For him, this text isn't just about stitching some  of linen together. This text is about Moshe ensuring that his brother would be garbed on behalf of God in a deep way. The souls of the righteous, Levi Yitzchak tells us, are vessels for divine middot or qualities; Aaron's very soul becomes his garment.

In the Torah text, God tells Moshe that the garments should be made for Aaron "for glory and for splendor." On the surface, this appears to be a statement about priestly dress: the priest should be dressed in a splendid and glorious fashion. But for Levi Yitzchak, those two words connote aspects of divinity -- specifically, the Kudsha Brich Hu ("The Holy One Blessed Be He," or in my preferred locution, "Holy Blessed One" -- that's God's transcendent side) and the Shekhinah (God's immanent presence.) Aaron's garments should be made of his very soul, for the sake of God's immanence and God's transcendence, for the sake of the divine masculine and the divine feminine, for the sake of God Who is inconceivable and God Who is as near to us as our own heartbeats.

Aaron's holy garments, fashioned out of his soul, enable him to be clothed for the sake of divine transcendence and divine immanence. Those who are wise of heart, says Levi Yitzchak, fashioned garments for Aaron out of who he most quintessentially was in the world. He hangs this interpretation, in part, on a tiny inconsistency in phrasing: first the text says לאהרן ("for" or "to" Aaron) and then says אהרן ("Aaron" without a preposition in front.) To those who have ordinary minds/hearts, the situation was simply that skilled craftspeople were making clothes for Aaron. For those who are wise, however, it's clear that the clothes are made out of Aaron himself, out of his quintessence, for the sake of God.

In that sense, this passage can be understood in a new light. It's not just about stitching some clothing for a long-ago high priest, but rather, it teaches us that those who serve God can be garbed in the purity of their own souls in the service of the divine.

Shabbat shalom!


Supporting the Muslim community in Bridgewater

Addendum as of February 13: I'm no longer able to engage in substantial conversation around this post -- I need to move on to the tasks of this busy week -- but I invite everyone to read the comments below this post, which come from Bridgewater residents of different faith-traditions who offer different perspectives on the situation, and if you're interested, to reach out to the communities there and learn more.

The rabbinic cabinet at Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a part, recently received a bulletin from Jews Against Islamophobia, who had received a request for help. The Muslim community in Bridgewater, New Jersey, would like to build a community center they're calling the al-Falah Center. The center would hold a daycare and a K-8 elementary school in addition to a mosque / prayer space; their plans are to build it on the property which was formerly the Redwood Inn. They chose the venue because they've rented it on several occasions in the past, for events and gatherings, and found it sufficiently spacious (and with good-enough parking) to hold their community comfortably.

Bridgewater is already a religiously diverse community, home to seventeen Christian churches, a convent, a Jewish synagogue, two Hindu temples, and one Sikh temple. Out of consideration for their neighbors, the organizers of the al-Falah center have promised not to broadcast the call to prayer. "Our minaret is purely for decoration," they write in a recent press release, "just as a church steeple is part of the architecture of a church even without its church bells."

But the Muslim community in Bridgewater is running into difficulties. The Somerset County Tea Party opposes the building of the mosque, claiming that it is linked with terrorism. They note that "al-Falah" is the same name as a mosque in Queens which is, they argue, associated with the terrorist organization which was responsible for the shoe bomber.

"al-Falah" is an Arabic word which appears repeatedly in the Qur'an; it means "the true success," in the sense of "true success is not riches, but rather connection with God." Many Jewish houses of worship share common Hebrew names -- my parents belong to a Temple Beth El in San Antonio, and my friend Rabbi Joshua serves a Temple Beth El in Bennington, and there is no connection between the two. To argue that because this mosque has the same name as another mosque they are necessarily connected is specious.

But more importantly, tarring a community with the brush of suspected connections to terrorism is a powerful way to make people respond fearfully to that community. I'm saddened by this, as a rabbi and as a Jew. My religious community has living memory of being mistreated for our differences, and I believe we have an obligation to speak out against such mistreatment of others. The verse most often repeated in Torah is "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Talmud tells us that this verse appears in the Torah 36 times; it must be important. As a person of faith, I am powerfully moved by the Torah's call.

It is my fervent prayer that the various communities who call Bridgewater home find a way to relate to one another in compassion and understanding, not in mistrust and fear. May it happen speedily and in our day.

ETA: the letter being circulated by the rabbinic cabinet of Jewish Voice for Peace is now closed for new signatures; thanks to all of the Jewish clergy and student clergy who took part.

A sweet scent before God

This Shabbat morning, during our Torah study at my shul, we'll be discussing ideas which flow out of one verse in our Torah portion. What appears below are a variety of teachings and questions, some of which I plan to offer during that discussion. Enjoy -- and if you have other teachings to give over on this subject, please feel free to share!

תעשה לה לריח ניחח אשה ליי  / You shall make of it an offering of fire for a pleasing odor to Adonai (Exodus 29:41)

Classical commentators note that the phrase reiach nikhoach, a pleasing odor, is used to describe offerings from the cheap to the costly, as an indication that God is gladdened by simple offerings as much as by fancy ones. Fire reduces all of them to ashes; after a sacrifice has been given and burnt, all that matters is its acceptance by God, not how expensive it was or wasn't. What matters is that one reached out to God, and that reaching-out is always accepted.

The Hebrew word קרבן (korban), usually translated as "sacrifice" or "offering," comes from a root meaning to draw near. Other peoples of the ancient Near East made sacrifices to propitiate their gods; the startling shift in ancient Israelite tradition was that sacrifices were understood not as a way of "paying God off," but as a mode of drawing-near to God. In this week's Torah portion, we read about the daily offerings of lambs, of flour mixed with oil, and of wine: "an offering by fire for a pleasing odor to Adonai." The scent may or may not be pleasing to us (though for the carnivores among us, the idea of the scent of roasting lamb may evoke some mouth-watering) but Torah tells us that it was pleasing to God.

In the world of kabbalah, smell is regarded as the loftiest and most transcendent of the senses, the critical connection-point between body and soul. The Ari -- Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the great founders of kabbalah -- taught that the sense of smell is connected with the month of Adar (in which Purim takes place), perhaps because both of Purim's heroes have a connection to scent. Esther's real name was Hadassah, which means myrtle, and the Talmud drashes the name Mordechai into mar dror, flowing myrrh. This year we have two months of Adar, and we're in the first one now. What are the scents of this season for you?

Today our strongest religious connection to scent may come at havdalah, the short-and-sweet ceremony of wine, fire, and spice with which we sanctify the passage out of Shabbat. We pass around b'samim, fragrant spices, in order to spiritually revive ourselves so that we don't fall into despair when the "extra soul" which has been ours during Shabbat departs for the workweek. What are the evocative scents of your religious life? Sweet wine, havdalah spices, matzah balls cooking in the kitchen, the etrog when it first emerges from its case at Sukkot-time -- or something else entirely...?

My friend Bella Bogart offers an insight in the name of Rav Tzadok HaCohein of Lublin (of blessed memory) as taught by David Twersky. Rav Tzadok was writing about the ketoret (incense) offered on the golden altar in days of old, and noted that one of its ingredients had a terrible scent. Why would we include something bad-smelling in our incense when the goal is to create that reiach nichoach, that sweet fragrance for God? The symbolism, he wrote, is that we are demonstrating that "even if a Jew has a 'bad odor' -- is not acting like he is supposed to -- he still has a place in the Temple of God." Even someone who dosn't always do the right thing, that person is still welcome in our community and welcome to relate to God.

And what can we make now of this idea of reiach nichoach, offerings which have a pleasing scent to Adonai? My friend Hazzan Abbe Lyons points out that one option is to look at this idea from an environmental point of view. Emissions can be more or less pleasing (to God and to us.) What do we emit into the world? These offerings, Torah tells us, were made at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, the place where the community came together. What are we emitting when we come together -- in the world of action and physicality (automobile exhaust, power burned to keep our synagogue warm and bright), in the worlds of emotion and intellect and spirit?

In a sense, anything we "give off" -- emotional energy, spiritual energy -- is perceived and received by God. When are our emotional emissions pleasing to the Holy Blessed One? It's easy to imagine that joy is an emotion which is pleasing to God (after all, Psalm 100:2 says עודו את–יי בשמחה / ivdu et H' b'simcha, "serve God with joy"), but how might our other emotions be received by God? Can we imagine times when anger might be pleasing to God -- righteous indignation; anger which burns pure and clean -- and also times when God might not find our anger "sweet"?

Hazzan Shoshana Brown offers the idea of linking the word "reiach" to its cousin "ruach" (spirit) since they share the same root. That root appears in Exodus 5:21, where the word "reycheynu" is used to refer to the reputation of people. When the Israelite foremen are complaining to Moshe about being made to look bad before Pharaoh, what they're really saying is "you have made us 'smelly' in Pharaoh's eyes!" What might it mean to make ourselves sweet to God's supernal sense of smell? Because reiach and ruach share a root, Hazzan Brown also offers, we can think now in terms of offering a ruach nichoach -- a pleasing spiritedness -- towards God in our prayer and our song.

My colleague David Rachmiel suggests that if we each imagine coming home to a glorious scent -- a pie or challah baking in the oven; grandmother's chicken soup, or dad's most fabulous recipe -- we can begin to get a glimpse of what these offerings might have been like for God. In burning those offerings, once upon a time, we were creating "home" for God. What can we do in our lives now to create a "home" where God can dwell?

On That Day (a poem about moshiach for Big Tent Poetry)




Soft snow will fall
but no one's roof will leak.
No one will wake hungry.
The traumas inscribed in our muscles
will melt like salted ice.
Strangers will show their real smiles
on the subway and the sidewalk.
The Israeli will lie down
with the Palestinian
and rise up clasping hands, saying
brother, it is so good.
Each of us will be the favorite child.
Every place on earth
will be God's holy mountain
where prayers in every idiom
are received. And we will know our fears,
the resentments we used to cherish
as the too-small garments
of the children we no longer want to be.
Torah will splash from every faucet
fill our cups to overflowing
quench our thirst with joy.

This week's Big Tent Poetry prompt invites us to write a poem which cures our winter blues or cabin fever or heartache -- to write a poem as though the thing one longs for were already here.

I toyed with a few different ideas before hitting upon this one in the shower a few days ago, when he image of the Israeli lying down with the Palestinian came to me in a flash. (It's a reference to a line from Isaiah, chapter 11, verse 6: וְגָר זְאֵב עִם-כֶּבֶשׂ, וְנָמֵר עִם-גְּדִי יִרְבָּץ; וְעֵגֶל וּכְפִיר וּמְרִיא יַחְדָּו, וְנַעַר קָטֹן נֹהֵג בָּם. "And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf, and the lion cub, and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.")

Of course, I thought: in Jewish tradition, for what do we collectively yearn most? The advent of moshiach -- or, phrased another way, the coming of the messianic age when the work of perfecting creation will be complete. So that's what this poem is about, in a somewhat whimsical way. Some of the images in this poem are drawn from classical Jewish teachings about that day; others are my own invention. The title of the poem is drawn from Jewish liturgy -- from the Aleinu, the prayer which concludes most services, which includes the line bayom hahu, yihyeh Adonai echad u-shmo echad, "On that day, God will be One and God's name will be One."

Here's a link to this week's "Come One, Come All" post so you can see what others did with this prompt.


Two essays on Egypt and Israel

By way of small follow-up to last week's post On Egypt, Protest, and Liberation, I wanted to share excerpts from a couple of essays I've recently read which speak to the question of how the seismic shifting of power in Egypt may impact Israel.

The first one is Democratic Egypt Tests a Divided Israel by Shaul Magid, published in Religion Dispatches. Magid writes:

Most of us are watching the historic events in Egypt with awe, hoping its citizens will nonviolently replace a repressive and dictatorial regime with a democracy. But those of us with ties to Israel tend to see a more complicated picture, with Israel tracking the unfolding events and viewing a potentially democratic Egypt simultaneously as a victory for freedom and a political liability.

The mainstream Israeli left, perhaps best represented by Haaretz, supports the uprising for democracy and removal of Hosni Mubarak as a positive shift in Middle East politics... The commitment to democracy of the Israeli religious far-right, frequently associated with the settler movement, exists only insofar as it doesn’t threaten the goal of Jewish hegemony in Greater Israel. Its theological ideology focuses more on territory than politics. The position of the government (right, but not far-right), represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is committed to democracy in principle but concerned about what democracy in Egypt might yield.

Magid notes that the revolution in Egypt is sparking the question of what would happen if the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt sparked massive nonviolent acts of civil disobedience on the part of the Palestinians (and their Israeli supporters) in the West Bank? It's a powerful question, and no one knows the answer. But I agree with Magid when he writes that "We cannot support democratic change contingent on what democracy will bring; even if it may not serve our interests in the short run, it’s still the best alternative human beings have come up with."

And the second one is What Israel Is Afraid of After the Egyptian Uprising by Peter Beinart, published in The Daily Beast. Beinart writes:

We’re almost two weeks into the revolution in Egypt and the American media keeps asking the question that my extended family asks during all world events: Is it good for Israel? Ask a Jewish question, get a Jewish answer, by which I mean, another question: What’s good for Israel?

Obviously, a theocracy that abrogated Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state would be bad for Israel, period. But that is unlikely.... [Still,] Egypt doesn’t have to abrogate the peace treaty to cause the Israeli government problems. Ever since 2006, when Hamas won the freest election in Palestinian history, Egypt, Israel and the United States have colluded to enforce a blockade meant to undermine the group’s control of the Gaza Strip. A more accountable Egyptian government might no longer do that, partly because Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but mostly because a policy of impoverishing the people of Gaza has little appeal among Egyptian voters...

Which bring us back to the question: Is this bad for Israel? Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC certainly think so, since they believe that what’s best for Israel is for its government to be free to pursue its current policies with as little external criticism as possible. I disagree. For several years now, Israel has pursued a policy designed, according to Israeli officials, to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse.” (The quote comes courtesy of the recent Wikileaks document dump). The impact on the Gazan people has been horrendous, but Hamas is doing fine, for the same basic reason that Fidel Castro has done fine for the last 60 years: The blockade allows Hamas to completely control Gaza’s economy and blame its own repression and mismanagement on the American-Zionist bogeyman.

It may be, Beinart writes, that a new Egyptian government might articulate some of the Egyptian people's anger at Israel's decisions vis-a-vis Gaza. But, he argues, "More than ever in the months and years to come, Israelis and American Jews must distinguish hatred of Israel's policies from hatred of Israel's very existence."

Two smart essays by two smart writers; I commend them both to you.

While I'm on the subject of Israel, the folks at Rabbis for Human Rights recently alerted me to a troubling possibility on the horizon. Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party are seeking to change how human rights organizations operate in Israel, effectively crippling such organizations with beaurocracy. You can read about it, and if you're so inclined can send an email expressing your response, here at the RHR website.

As a reminder: comments here are hand-moderated. If I'm not online at the moment when you comment, your comment will go into an invisible moderation queue, and will appear once I've approved it. Thanks in advance for your patience! Thanks in advance, too, for keeping the conversation cordial.