On Israel and the Gaza Freedom Flotilla
Another mother poem: first day

Returning to coffee & the Sfat Emet

There's a group of Jewish clergy who meet on Wednesday mornings to study Torah at one of the local coffee shops. It began as a hevruta of two; then I was invited to join; and over time the circle continued to expand until it reached its current configuration. The last time I attended the group was sometime shortly before Thanksgiving and before Drew was born. This week, for the first time in more than six months, I made it back.

We had some catching up to do, and of course I enjoyed introducing Drew to the members of the group who hadn't met him or hadn't seen him since he was tiny. We talked for a while about the flotilla incident and how to approach it pastorally in our communities. And then we moved into studying our text -- the first couple of commentaries on this week's Torah portion in The Language of Truth, R' Art Green's compilation of teachings by the Sfat Emet.

The first teaching talks about how the mitzvot (commandments) shine light into everything we do. "There is no deed that does not contain some mitsvah," writes the Sfat Emet (in Green's translation.) "But before doing anything, you have to offer up your soul as an emissary, gathering together all of your own desires in order to negate them, so that you can fulfill only the will of God." That sparked a great conversation about bittul ha-yesh (the annihilation of self or ego) in the service of others.

I talked a little bit about how parenting an infant is a perennial practice in bittul ha-yesh. As parents of a baby, we're called to put our own needs and desires aside in order to tend to the needs of another; surely that is a rich and deep spiritual practice, or at least it can be. It's one way of understanding what it might mean to set my own will aside in order to serve God -- or, to frame it differently, to attempt to align my will with the will of another, finding value in the practice of service.

It also strikes me that historically women have been expected to set aside their own desires in order to serve their children, and men (in this religious paradigm) have been expected to set aside their own desires in order to serve God. But in a world where women too want to serve God, and men too want to be present to their families, we need new ways of thinking about all of this. And yes, of course working in the world to make the money to keep a roof over one's head is a way of serving the family -- and changing diapers and doing laundry can be a way of serving God -- but too often, I think, we buy into a binarism which suggests that these two modes of service are separate, and that one partner (or one gender) inevitably has to be locked in to one or the other.

Anyway. It felt fantastic to return to the coffee shop and to the Wednesday morning learning, now with Drew on my lap. I love that he's going to grow up thinking that learning Torah is a perfectly ordinary thing for his mama to do with her time -- and that it needn't be rarefied, but can happen anywhere, even in a busy coffee shop on a weekday morning.