Thursday, January 29, 2009

Parshat Bo: The Thing which Matza is Not.

ויאפו את הבצק אשר הוציאו ממצרים עגת מצות כי לא חמץ כי גרשו ממצרים ולא יכלו להתמהמה וגם צדה לא עשו להם

They baked the dough that they brought from Egypt [into] unleavened cakes, for it had not risen, because they were kicked out of Egypt and could not tarry and also did not make provisions for themselves.

We know about Matzah. Hard, dry, square things that come in a box from Manischewitz or Streit's. It was on my family's seder table all the time I grew up.

I recently switched to Shmurah matza for the seder. Big round things, not real uniform, without the perforation or machine-cuts of the Streits' stuff. It feels closer to what this verse describes. Flour and water, hastily baked by a nation in flight. It really gets to the bone of what matza is. But we are missing something, I think.

What is this matzah not? By which I mean, if it had had the time to leaven (sour, really. The root חמץ means "went sour" more than it means "leaven") and rise and be baked properly, what would the product have become? One thing I'm certain of - it would not have become Wonder Bread, nor Baguettes, nor Challah.

What it would become I learned the week before last passover, where I stopped into a place called "Queen of Sheba" thinking to get some falafel or something, only to discover that it was and Ethiopian cafe. Well, having gone in, and perused the menu, I settled on a boneless lamb stew. I knew that I would betray a horrible American-ness if I used the flatware that was condescendingly placed at my table. When the food arrived, there was the stew, and there was this huge, round, soft, flat bread pockmarked with bubbles. I ripped a piece of it and used it to pick up some of the stew. It was a sourdough. Made of teff. Really absorbent. Injira.

I was delighted. I knew, in a deep down knowing that this was the thing the shmurah matza was not. It was חמוץ - sour. It was tender. And it was perfectly suited to picking up stewed meat with one's fingers. I sat eating it thoughtfully - this was the meal that Abraham served the visitors, these the "cakes" that Sarah prepared. And the shemurah matzah? The unleavened cakes that Lot had on hand.

When I sat down at the Seder, I knew precisely what I was missing - a tangy crepe like bread replaced by bread that shatters. And I may have acquired a new custom - to eat Ethiopian in the week before pesach.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Because it seems remiss not to . . .

This is a religious blog, not a political one. I did not create this space for the habitation of my righteous indignation, but rather for my theological, and philosophical reflection. That said, it seems that having a JBlog and not saying something about Gaza are mutually exclusive.

As complete a statement as you can hope for of my theology can be found at the top of this blog. The bit of it that is relevant to the current situation is "Human nature being what it is, things sometimes get ugly, and sometimes booty needs kicking in order to create space in which kindness can prevail."

I will now subject you, patient reader, to the exegesis of my own words. Your patience is to be commended.

There are two parts to the statement. "Booty needs kicking," and "kindness can prevail." While Israel is currently doing what is necessary with respect to the first bit, it is my fervent wish that it will follow through with the second bit by reoccupying Gaza for the purposes of rebuilding its infrastructure, creating an education system that does not teach hatred, and extending a thousand kindnesses to the population there so that no organization like Hamas can get a foothold there again. This is a decades long project, and not likely to meet the world's approval, but the success of the Marshall Plan in Germany and Japan shows how well such an approach can work towards the creation of lasting peace and prosperity. On the other hand, if Israel leaves Gaza an impoverished smoking heap of rubble, as Germany was left in the wake of WWI, it should not be altogether surprised if there are similar results.

I hope that Israel will pursue such a rebuilding effort, and I hope that it will enjoy the full support of the incipient Obama administration in such an effort.

While it is tempting, in my cynicism, to note that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, I will instead conclude with these words from the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah - עוד לא אבדה תקותנו - still our hope has not passed away. May we see the space created where kindness can prevail on both sides of the Gaza border, and may it do so.