Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Call me a radical, right-wing, scaremongering overoptimist

I remember when those of us who, in protest against proposed Israeli territorial concessions fifteen years ago, distributed maps like this one were derided, scorned and mocked as hysterical, scaremongering radical right-wing extremist nuts.

But even we didn't dare suggest a threat map like this, or this, or this, or this. That would have been certifiably insane.

So, after all these years, it pains me to admit how wrong we really were. All we right-wing extremists, clutching to scaremongering scenarios of doom should Israel hand over strategic territory to our enemies, were way off base.

Turns out we were at least an order of magnitude too optimistic. The small comfort is that they haven't managed to get rockets into the "West Bank". Yet.

(Doesn't that 20.4km Katyusha range look quaint?)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mitzvot that crack my back

1. Sleeping in the sukkah - can anyone recommend a good portable mattress? I've tried sleeping bags, folding cots and air mattresses (which are better), but I still wake up pretty stiff.

2. Standing in shul on Yom Kippur. (Not exactly a mitzvah, but still!) From my shoes to G-d's ear, I hope.

3. Pesach cleaning - specifically crouching to clean the oven and fridge.

Am I missing any?

Chag sameach, and farewell to the sukkah for another year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I won't be voting this year

As a dual US-Israeli citizen, I usually make it a point to cast my ballot in the American elections. It's my legal right and (arguably) civic obligation, so long as I retain the rights and obligations of an American citizen.

But this year I don't plan to vote.

A Zionist epiphany? A bout of political disillusionment? Dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates?

No, none of that. I retain my Republican sympathies and, with all his flaws, I'd like to see McCain move in to the White House next January.

But I can't work up the motivation to go out of my way to engage in a meaningless gesture.

As an overseas resident, I cast my vote in the state of my last legal residence. As it happens, it's about as left-leaning as a state can be without being in Europe. It hasn't voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1988. If it were even conceivable that it would break Republican, it could happen only if (as in 1988) the Republican candidate were so far ahead nationally that it wouldn't matter anyway.

Which means my lonely absentee ballot would be about as influential as Hillary's roll call vote, but without the symbolic significance.

If I were visiting the old hometown anyway, I'd stop by the polling center to cast my vote. No big deal.

But to have to fill out an absentee ballot request, post it at my expense overseas, wait expectantly for the ballot, seal it in the requisite number of envelopes and signatures and attach another round of airmail stamps - just to cast a vote which won't change a thing? Not this time.

Maybe next time there will at least be a close race for Congress. Otherwise, I'm sorry I didn't live in Pennsylvania or Florida.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Yom Ha'atzmaut is political

Yom Ha'atzmaut is political, they say, and thus has no place in our religious liturgy.

They are half right: Yom Ha'atzmaut is indeed political.

Furthermore, the story of Avraham is political.

The stories of Yitzhak, Yaakov and Yosef are political.

The story of Moshe is certainly political - Pesach is political.

The books of Bamidbar and Devarim are political.

Sefer Yehoshua is political, as are Shoftim, Shmuel and Melachim.

The latter prophets were political too.

The first Rashi on the Torah is political. So is the first Ramban.

Rosh Hashana is political. (Read the middle brachot of the Amidah.)

Purim is political.

Chanukah is political.

Tisha B'Av is political. As are Shiva Asar B'Tamuz, Asarah B'Tevet and Tzom Gedaliah.

The books of Ezra and Daniel are political.

The benching is political. So is the daily Amidah.

The rabbis of the Talmud were political. Some of them were even politicians.

Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva were political.

The mission of the Jewish people, from Abraham on, has been to develop a sovereign nation in its own land which sets an example for mankind - a light unto the nations - by worshiping God according to the Torah. Our story has been one of steps forward towards that goal - events of redemption - and of unfortunate failures and defeats - events of destruction and exile.

Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrates the most significant accomplishment towards our national mission in some 2000 years: reestablishing Jewish sovereignty over our homeland, a necessary prerequisite for the possible fulfillment of our national destiny. Its achievement on the heels of one of our greatest tragedies in history made it all the more miraculous.

We don't know what the state will bring in the long run. Will we fulfill our highest visions, or once again, God forbid, lapse into failure and ruin? We can't know that, any more than newlyweds can know whether their marriage will thrive or wither. That's no reason not to celebrate the achievement and thank God for making it possible.

Yom Ha'atzmaut is political. It is a major milestone in the achievement of our timeless national purpose as set out in the Torah. To leave it out of our religious liturgy would be a sign of ingratitude and historical blindness.

Chag sameach!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Make matzah, not chametz

What's the difference between chametz and matzah?

Don't all answer at once.

Seriously, bear with me here. What's the basic, chemical, cookbook-recipe difference between chametz and matzah?

Simple. To make chametz, just mix flour and water and leave the dough alone. After a modest amount of time (halachically, we assume 18 minutes), the dough will begin to ferment as invisible yeast cells found naturally in the environment get to work on it. The surface starts to glisten and crack. Voila, chametz! (Interestingly, the first recorded evidence of leavened bread comes from ancient Egypt.)

To make matzah, bake the dough thoroughly before it has time to ferment.

Chametz, then, is the natural end result of the process begun when flour and water are mixed. Flour + water + time = chametz.

Matzah, on the other hand, is the result of a deliberate intervention to prevent the fermentation process from developing.

If you've ever visited a matzah bakery, you know how much easier it is to produce chametz than matzah. Chametz happens. Matzah must be made. The natural progression of dough into chametz must be stopped.

We can see this intervention into the development of chametz as a metaphor for divine intervention into history. The midrash famously describes the Israelites in Egypt as having descended over the years of assimilation and slavery into the 49th and lowest level of tumah (impurity or depravity); any longer and they would have been beyond redemption. So God intervened, taking them out of Egypt so they could be rededicated to His service.

The flour of Israel had spent a dangerously long time fermenting among the waters of Egypt. It had to bake in the fiery desert before it irreversibly became chametz.

Or we can see the creation of matzah as a metaphor for our personal spiritual lives. It is easy for us to go with the flow, to persist in harmful patterns of behavior or life situations, even though they will naturally worsen until they cause us irreversible damage. "Baking the matzah" is intervening in our lives or those of our loved ones to fix those errors before it's too late.

You can't turn chametz back into matzah. Chametz is natural, it's easy, it requires no effort on our part to create. Only benign neglect and the passage of time.

Making matzah requires alertness, careful action, prompt intervention into a developing process. It's much harder than making chametz. It needs some assistance from heaven.

Hey, no one ever said Pesach was easy.

Update: I forgot one last point:

You can't make matzah without making dough. Matzah is not simply non-chametz; it is almost-chametz. Unless you start with flour and water made into dough, you can't end up with matzah any more than you can end up with chametz.

The same goes for the Israelites in Egypt. They were enslaved, both physically and spiritually. No one would have chosen their situation voluntarily and consciously. Given more time, they could have been forever doomed. Yet it is only as a result of their sojourn as slaves in Egypt that they could emerge as the newly-born nation of Israel. They could never have become matzah had they not been at palpable risk of becoming chametz.

And in many ways, that is the essence of Jewish national identity to this day. We are the anti-slaves, anti-enslavers, dissidents to tyrants throughout history. We freely worship the one God who created all men as equal reflections of his divine image. Could the Jews be who we are today had we not endured slavery ourselves?

Without the potential of chametz, you can't make matzah.

My annual surge

My, has it only been a year since my last post? It seems like so much longer. (I suppose it has been much longer since I've been blogging regularly. And I'm not planning to start now.)

So what happens to a dormant blog whose barely-relevant title happens to refer to an actual annual event? The answer is below:

You can hardly tell that April 18 was the date of biur chametz this year, can you? (Well, technically it was the 19th, but that was Shabbos.)

Chag sameach!