Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The yetzer harah isn't all that bad

Ladybug 2010, Teneya Rehberg
It may be a bug, but it's beneficial

The yetzer harah, usually translated as the "evil inclination," has gotten a bad reputation over the years.  It's often equated with, or even used in a sentence in place of, HaSatan (the devil); as in, the yetzer harah made me do it.

Yetzirah is one of Hebrew's words for creation, along with bri'ah.  Bri'ah is like creating something from nothing, while yetzirah is more like something from something.  Yetzer is then the creative force inside of each person—that which enables us to continue the creation process with what G-d has already made—and is generally split in half and labeled as good (tov) and bad (rah).

Tov is a word you'll hear a lot in Hebrew: from boker tov (good morning) to lailah tov (good night), and all through the story of creation in Bereshit (Genesis).  After each day, G-d sits back and says it's all good.  A painter may not know what his work of art will look like in the end, but was G-d actually surprised that His finished product had turned out right?  I think not.  Rather, it was a declaration that each creation was complete and ready to fulfill its purpose in the world.

The first time that something is the opposite of tov, that it is bad, is man.  No, this isn't a feminist post.  Man and woman were still one at that time, joined at the hip…or ribcage, or whatever.  Just as G-d (masculine) and His Shechina (Divine Presence, a feminine word) are not separate entities, we were created in the full image of the Almighty.  But we couldn't take it, felt too alone.  So G-d split us into two bodies, with half our souls in each it seems.  Was man actually bad?  I think he just wasn't tov, couldn't fulfill his purpose in this world the way that all the other creations were ready to do.  So if rah is the opposite of tov, what does it really mean?
On Rosh Hashana, when we blow the shofar (ram's horn), there are three sounds that are called out and trumpeted for all to hear.  One of them, teru'ah, shares the same root as the word rah (in Hebrew, the letters resh and ayin: רע).  Following the strong, solid teki'ah, teru'ah is a broken blast, though less choppy than shvarim (lit. splinters).
Broken.  What do people do with broken things?  Usually throw them away, or give them to a thrift store for someone else to fix.  Your yetzer harah is broken, hollow, needy.  But don't think for one moment that you don't need it.
There's a story from the days of Ezra, when the men of the Great Assembly who had returned from exile hunted down and captured the yetzer harah.  They thought they would fix all the world's problems and that everyone would now only do good things.  Then they saw that people stopped building houses, chickens stopped laying eggs, no children were born; b'kitzur (in short), daily life was no good and they released it to roam the world once again.
Your yetzer harah says, "I'm hungry, I'm empty," and your yetzer tov makes sure that you're eating kosher, healthy food.  Your yetzer harah says, "I'm lonely, I need intimacy," and your yetzer tov searches for the other half of your soul and stays true to him/her.  Your yetzer harah drives you to do, touch, taste, feel, create while your yetzer tov is guiding these desires so that the outcome brings you closer to G-d and living in peace with others.
It's not a war between good and evil.  If you starve your yetzer harah though, it may turn into somewhat of a monster—ravenously searching for whatever it can get its hands on.  You have to feed it, to pat it on the back and say "thanks for helping me get to where I am in my life now."  Have you thanked your yetzer harah today?

Questions and apples

So the seder is done, yom tov is over, and now we're entering the blissful time of chol hamo'ed (the intermediary days).  For the first time ever, we had a family-only seder this year.  It was quiet and went by quickly, with a lot of focus on our children and their questions.  They were rewarded with walnuts for each one they asked.  I hope that they will always remain curious and eager to learn more.

Last week I came home with three large bags of apples but, with guests in the house all week, somehow ran out before I could make haroset and had to borrow apples from my neighbor.  Haroset symbolizes the adobe-like mixture that our ancestors used to make bricks while slaves in Egypt.  I chopped the apples into long, thin pieces that looked like straw.  Chopped dates with a bit of date syrup remind me of the dark, clay mud and even finer chopped walnuts are like gravel and sand.  I've mixed concrete before and couldn't make haroset without these key ingredients.  A splash of wine is for the blood and sweat that went into the work and then I leave it in a quiet corner of the counter (not in the refrigerator) all day to wait patiently for the dining room table.

The first of four cups at our seder was poured from a fairly skunky bottle of bootleg made in an amateur botique winery nearby.  It's still good enough for cooking wine, and debatabley better than the cough syrup known as Maneschewitz, but before the next round was poured we opened a new bottle.  Carmel has a new Private Collection line, and the Shiraz (2009) was on sale for Pesach.  This is a very fruity and fragrant, non-mevushal wine with an alchohol content of 13.5%.  Kosher Israeli wines are moving up in the global wine industry, thanks to bottles like these.

Puriel puts the afikomen (half of the middle matzah, which is saved and eaten at the end of our meal) over his shoulder and steps outside.  He comes right back in and we ask, "Who are you?"

"I'm the children of Israel," he answers with a big grin.

"Where are you coming from?" we wonder.

"From Egypt," he says, suddenly serious.

"Where are you going to?" we press for more details.

"To the land of Israel!" he declares proudly.

We are proud to be in the land of Israel.  After so many years of exile, may G-d answer the prayers from last night's seder, sung with hope by our people all around the world: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Getting lost in Tzfat

Rolling hills surround Tzfat
I got lost in the Old City of Tzfat.  It's pretty easy to do...or so some sympathizing soul told me.  I left the house early that morning to catch the bus.  It was the first day at my new job, and half an hour before my alarm went off I was already wide awake.  Before the bus came, one of my neighbors drove up in his car.

Red clover is delicious
"Do you want a tremp?" he asked.  Tremping is hitchhiking and is especially common where we lived before coming to the north.  In Tekoa it was considered a more reliable form of transportation than the bus, which only came every two hours.

Chamomile can be white or yellow
and often grows around
"little pokey things"
It took two tremps to make it into Tzfat, but when I got out of the car I realized that the bus may have been a better option after all.  The view was gorgeous, but I was at the bottom of a long hill and not exactly sure what would be at the top.  Dragging my wheeled shopping cart behind me to carry home the fruits and vegetables I would buy after work, I slowly made my way toward the top.  I stopped along the way, picking red clover and chamomile, slipping them into my pocket to save for a mid-morning cup of tea.

"Give me a sign!  Oh..."
I finally reach the maze of stone streets and centuries-old buildings, some beautifully renovated, some buried under dust and dirt, which make up the Artists' Quarter.  I would have turned in circles many more times than I did, if not for the signs.  There are definite advantages to working in a place that also has a visitor's center for tourists.
"Come here and give me a big hug,"
said the stones
I become aware that I am walking on a work of art.  Thousands of hands smoothed out ancient alleys and repaved them with stones and proper drainage.  Buildings which were buried in earthquakes and the passage of time are uncovered with buckets and brooms.  I pause to drink in the laughter of children in a park and open-air theater that were also created by energetic, young adults who came to their homeland for hiking and fellowship, wanting to do something nice for the residents during their stay in Israel's other Holy City.  It feels like the theater is opening its arms to me, embracing me.

Beautiful Birya
On the way home, I see Birya, a cozy yishuv nestled in the forest with larger plots than you'll find in the city.  Many people live here and make the five minute commute into town.  How did I ever live in the desert?  Well, I must admit that it does have its own form of beauty, but my spirit thrives on green.  I start humming a tune from childhood that my mother used to sing; green, green, rocky road...promenade in green...  I don't know if I've ever heard anyone else sing this.  Did she make it up?  What songs will my children remember from me?  Do I sing to them enough?  The forest is a great place to let your mind run free.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More edible weeds

I had passed it many times before, often nearly stepping on it.  Like rays of sunshine breaking through crowded trees, the little white and yellow flowers peeked out of the brick sidewalk.  Chamomile grows wild all over Israel and is well-known for calming irritated skin and upset tummies.  We picked some today to dry and use in tea during Pesach.  With all of that matzah, someone is bound to get indigestion.

There is so much repetition in life.  Travelling the same path to and from school or work, our surroundings tend to blur.  But today something jumped out of the background.  It was an almond tree, one that I hadn't notice before because only now has it begun to bud and blossom.  Even trees have their unique biological clocks and this one was a late bloomer.  Its branches stretched high into the sky, as if to say, "I may not have been as fast, but I finally did it."  It looks so proud and beautiful.

Wild asparagus grows in our forested park.  The shoots are as lanky and awkward as a teenager.  When asparagus is cultivated, the earth is mounded up around the plants (which are perennials, producing good shoots for twenty years or more) and they are harvested when young and tender.  I snapped off a tip and took a bite.  Bitter!  I wonder how many years of experimentation it took to discover the cultivation methods used now to make it more palatable.

When picking the daisy-like flowers for our tea, I reminded Puriel to leave some on each plant.  Aside from the courtesy of saving some for other people to enjoy, the annual wildflowers need to fade, go to seed, and fall to the ground in order for them to return next year.  We made sure to avoid the tomato weed, because I haven't figured out yet if it's poisonous or not.

We're halfway home and find a variety of wild peas, part of the Papilionaceae family, which derives its name from the butterfly-shaped flowers.  Tendrils are twirled around its next-door neighbor, barley, which is one of the seven species that the land of Israel is praised for.

"It is a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and honey-dates." Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:8

Barley is the first of the winter grains to ripen, marking the beginning of spring and the omer offering which connects the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot.  Its Hebrew name, se'ora is similar to se'ar (hair), referring to its hair-like spikes.  It was the grain of choice until the Second Temple period when it was replaced by wheat.  Wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats are the five grains that can be chametz.

Hemdiya has been helping me use up the last of our chametz.  I think he needs to find a new method.  When cleaning, make sure that toxic detergents aren't as accessible as the spaghetti and Honey Bunches of Oats were.  It's easy to get distracted and accidentally leave things within reach of tiny, curious fingers.

Yesterday I went out with a friend who has a car and did my Pesach shopping.  Matzah pizza is a favorite in this house and I always make coconut chocolate-chip macaroons.  I find myself singing the popular folk song:  Simcha raba, simcha raba, aviv higi'a, Pesach ba!  (Great joy, spring has arrived, Pesach is coming!)  Sing along with the Rechov SumSum (Sesame Street) version here:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Are haredim dangerous?

Came across an interesting article today.  It started off like this:  "University of Haifa report finds Haredim to pass 1 million by 2030; warns if current demographic trends continue, Israel may cease to exist."

I'm having a hard time with this kind of alarmism.  I am not haredi (ultra-orthodox) myself, but the article left a sour taste in my mouth.  I generally dislike being tossed into a box, but would be considered "religious" in Israel and "orthodox" in Western countries where the typical Ashkenazi categorizations are the most recognized.  In the Sephardi world, Jews are mostly mesorti (traditional) or dati (religious), with some hiloni (secular); the divisions of orthodox, conservative and reform are unfamiliar.

The article is based on a report by Prof. Arnon Soffer, who--in the 80's--was responsible for throwing world Jewry into hysteria over the demographic nightmare of an Arab take-over in Israel because of their high birth rate.  Jews across the religious spectrum took his words seriously and determined to do what they could to increase the Jewish population in Israel, both through aliyah and procreation.

I was in Haifa a couple of months ago, fumbling out of a bus with a baby on my hip and a diaper bag over my shoulder, struggling to pull the stroller out from the baggage hold under the bus.  A sweet savta (grandmother) strolling along in jeans and a sweater, listening to the music in her earphones, stopped to help--and to encourage.

"I'm really proud of you religious people," she said, surprising me.  "If it weren't for you we would be living in an Arab state by now.  You should have more children," she suggested, in the way that only a savta can get away with.

"I have three, bli ayin hara," I replied.

"Have another," she continued with a smile.  "I wish more of the young people in our city would settle down with a family instead of the lifestyle they have.  You datim are making up for them, kol hakavod."

The article is dripping with anti-religious sentiment that, in any other format would be considered discrimination.  Try replacing the word haredi with black or Hispanic and read the article.  Absolutely racist, isn't it?  But somehow it's ok for a university professor to heap trash on Jews who weave their religion into every part of their daily lives.

His report further states that more religious people in Israel "will lead to greater emigration of secular Israelis from the country, further degrading the quality of life in the country."  Does he mean that there won't be as many nightclubs (which in the Tel Aviv area are famous for their 3 a.m. knife-fights as the bars empty)?  Is the Israeli coastline ruined by a few "separate" beaches, where no one is trying to ask for your phone number and your husband isn't trying (possibly unsuccessfully) to keep from staring at the more-than-half-naked women who don't have your postpartum stretch marks?

It's important to remember, as Soffer points out in his report Israel: Demography and Density that only about 8% of the population is haredi.  He uses them as a scare tactic to talk about an eventual religious majority, but the national religious have the same high birth rate and would still greatly outnumber the ultra-orthodox as they do presently.  Even at a million people by 2030, the haredim would still only reach around 10% of the predicted population.  Hardly enough to take over the country with, especially since their numbers are mostly made up of children.

What's really funny is that in the middle of the article you'll find this:

There are two big myths about haredim which I have noticed lead the secular population to rage against them.  They are:

Myth #1:  Haredim don't serve in the military

Here is the website of an infantry group that is exclusively haredi, but not all haredim who serve opt for combat positions.  There are also haredi women who serve in the intelligence units, gathering information and breaking codes.  It is true that many defer their service while learning, but that is an option for any student enrolled in a formal education program.  For example, one of my brothers defered his service for four years while working on his university degree.  There are some haredim who actually want to continue serving but are not called up because they are already married and have children, so the army--by its own rules of compensation based on number of dependents--has to pay them more than the 800 shekels/month (about $220) that it gives to the single 18 year-olds who are serving.

Some Jewish mamas didn't used to like putting these boys in an environment where standard IDF health benefits for their fellow female soldiers include a few free abortions, but are proud of their uniformed sons who serve in special units designed for Torah-observant Jews.  Other initiatives in the religious world include programs in hesder yeshivas (where Torah study and army service is combined in a five-year program), run in cooperation with universities, which incorporate teacher training and allow young men to finish their service with a B.Ed. instead of only war stories.

Myth #2:  Haredim live off of government handouts

Because Israel is somewhat of a socialist country, with public health care and other services offered for its citizens' benefit, there is a child allowance.  According to the National Insurance Institute "The Child Allowance Law was enacted in September 1959 to help parents with the expenses entailed in raising their children."  This is a universal payment extended not only to Jews of all persuasions, but also to Israeli Arabs, Druze and all other citizens.  It is automatically deposited in the bank account of every mother/guardian each month and the same amount is given regardless of your income.  For one child, the allowance 169 shekels (less than $50) and a family with six children receives around 200 shekels/month/child.  Hardly enough to live off of.

Israel also prizes education of all kinds, and awards learning stipends to full-time students.  University students usually receive a higher stipend, especially if they live in what is considered a national priority area.  In the Galilee or Negev, stipends are about 2,500 shekels per month.  When my husband was studying full-time in yeshiva he still worked part-time and I worked some from home, making and selling cloth diapers and organic herbal oils because his stipend was only 1,500 shekels.  Once again, not nearly enough to cover all expenses for a growing family and let the parents sit on their bums.

I'll admit that not all haredim have learned the standard social graces of Western society, but I don't believe that this form of vilification is at all useful or productive.  It was reassuring to see that view echoed in the comments following the article.  I'm content in my colorful cotton skirts over the dark polyester variety and don't mind if my children watch an occasional cartoon at a friend's house.  I'm not here to advocate the haredi lifestyle or canonize them all as saints.  I'd just like to see this quirky and besmirched group--one of our own--cut a little slack in our progressive movements to accept and show tolerance for diverse cultures.  Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh, all of Israel is responsible one for another (Shavuot 39a).  And when we get involved in smear campaigns against any of our brothers and sisters, we give all of Israel a bad name.

Little pokey things

There is nothing quite like the love of a child.  Last year, I was walking in Jerusalem with four year-old Purieli when he noticed a patch of trees.

"Ima," he calls me mother in Hebrew, "did G-d make the trees?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Oh, I love you little trees!  And did G-d make the flowers?" he asked, pointing around the trunks of the trees where pretty spring flowers were popping up.

"Yes," I answered again.

"Oh, I love you little flowers!  Ima, did G-d make these?" he continues, pointing to some prickly weeds.

"Yes, sweetie-pie," I answered, wondering how many more questions would follow in the next few minutes.

"Oh, I love you little pokey things!  Ima, I love everything that G-d makes."

Anne of Green Gables liked to say that it takes all kinds of people to make up the world, but that there are some types we could all do without.  It seems that G-d didn't agree.

Some people that we know are like the trees: strong, supportive and consistent.  Maybe it's a sibling, a spouse, a parent or a very dear friend.  Even if you don't see them for a while, when you're back together it doesn't feel like much has changed.  Reliable and dependable, we all need people like this in our lives.

Others are the flowers.  These people may not share a significant slice of life with us, but they make it colorful and beautiful.  If we are focusing on the past or future too much, it's easy to miss out on these seasonal relationships.  They help us slow down, take a deep breath, or jump up and dance, and enjoy the moment.

Still there are the people who are prickly and uncomfortable to be around.  Maybe you have some of these in your life...and maybe we've each been one of these in someone else's life.  It's a challenge at times to love everything--and everyone--that G-d makes.  But that challenge has been handed to us and it's actually simple enough that even a child can do it.

Fast forward to five year-old Purieli, walking home from school with me and baby.  He suddenly stopped, his eyes got so big, and he pointed excitedly to the road that had just been paved into the new neighborhood of Kfar Shamai.  "Look Ima," he cried out, pointing to the construction workers, "they made a road!  They are so, so, SO nice...aren't they?"

How does a person get to that level of love and appreciation?  I'm just thrilled to have found such an outstanding teacher.  Maybe one day I'll catch up to him.