Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Fruit of the Oops!: Bereshit 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How old were you when you first made a decision that greatly impacted the rest of your life? Were you aware of the importance of that decision when you made it? Do you wish you could have been a different age when you made it?

Our tradition teaches that Adam and Eve hadn’t been on Earth for more than 24 hours when they make the most pivotal decision of their lives:

The Pitch: “When the woman saw the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” – Genesis 3:6

Swing #1: “[Eve] originally thought that God warned against eating it because it was poisonous and bitter, but now she saw that it was healthy and delicious.” – Ramban

Swing #2: “After man’s disobedience … when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites … he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed.” – Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed

Swing #3: “[Eve] did not ‘tempt’ or ‘seduce’ her husband into eating, as Christian theology has maintained. She simply handed him some fruit to share it with him, and he followed, silently and unquestioningly, much like any man will eat the dinner his wife puts before him. Once [Eve] realized she was going to die, she gave some of the fruit to her husband so that he would not remain alive and be alone or take another wife. She also gave some to the animals.” – Judith S. Antonelli, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah 10-11

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to think of Adam and Eve as naive? If so, do they excuse their naïveté? Are we too quick to judge those who make uninformed decisions?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: If you haven’t done so already, make sure to return any borrowed mahzorim to the Temple on Sunday the 18th between 10:00 a.m. and 12 noon. There will be another opportunity for you to drop off food donations for Operation Isaiah and, if you haven’t already, to get your flu shot.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of uninformed decisions, Astros manager Dusty Baker prefers to make his game-time decisions based on his gut, resisting data-driven strategies of sabermetrics. Baker has led five different teams to the playoffs but has never won a World Series. Might his record have been even better had he relied on statistics just a little bit?

Shabbat Shalom!

Master of Nun: Vezote Habracha 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: When have you had big shoes to fill? How did you go about trying to fill them? What challenges did you face along the way?

When we read the Torah’s final portion on Simhat Torah morning, we’ll be reminded that Joshua had the double-edged responsibility of following Moses:

The Pitch: “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.” – Deuteronomy 34:9

Swing #1: “Who can say whether the [second half of this verse] is intended to be ironical. … If the people were to treat him as they did his predecessor, Joshua had his work cut out for him.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #2: “[God] said, ‘In this world, [only] individuals have prophesied, but in the world to come all Israel shall become prophets.” – Bamidbar Rabbah

Swing #3: “[Joshua is] full of the spirit of wisdom [because] Moses had laid his hands upon him.” – Ibn Ezra

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to feel that Joshua is up to the task of following Moses as leader of the Israelites? Do they seem to feel that the Israelites will give him a fair opportunity? How much of a “grace period” should a new leader receive?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Circle Sunday, October 18th on your calendars; from 10AM-12PM, you’ll have the opportunity to return any borrowed mahzorim, make a food donation to Operation Isaiah, turn in your Israel Bonds pledge cards, and get a flu shot — all without leaving your car!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of big shoes to fill, it’s tough to think of Hall-of-Famers who consecutively played the same position on the same team … but it has happened (Ted Williams/Carl Yastrzemski/Jim Rice in left field for the Red Sox; Joe DiMaggio/Mickey Mantle in center field for the Yankees).

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Talk is Sheep: Sukkot 2020

The dominant ritual of Sukkot is waving the four species, commonly referred to as the lulav and etrog. The rabbis who compiled the Talmud explored reasons for both how and why we wave them. They describe that, during the time of the Temple, the priests would wave sheep brought for sacrificial offerings. You read that right: a priest would take an entire sacrificed sheep between two pieces of bread (apparently, thin-sliced deli meat had not yet been invented), hoist it in front of him, then in back of him, then toward the sky, then toward the ground.

Keep in mind that waving this sheep sandwich was not the primary part of the ritual – the primary part was the actual sacrifice of the animal. Yet, another rabbi mentions something important: although waving the sheep conglomeration was not the essence of the commandment, it is the process by which we ask for forgiveness and for pardon. The commentator Rashi adds that God’s forgiveness was best achieved through the actual spilling of the blood of the sacrificed animal, but if all one did was wave the animal, it would still be enough to ask for forgiveness. This passage shows that waving not only summoned the power above us, but also was a key way to express our prayers.

The importance the rabbis placed on waving the sheep sacrifice – even if it was a secondary aspect of the ritual – indicates that Jewish rituals are sometimes best observed when we are careful to follow even its marginal aspects. In the case of a lulav and etrog, our rabbis are quick to point out that the main part of the commandment is to actually take these items into our hands. But by waving the lulav and etrog, we display and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation in a place in which we worship God. Waving the lulav and etrog helps make the commandment, and indeed the holiday of Sukkot, a beautiful part of our Jewish observance.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach!

V For Vexation: Ha’azinu 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you find it difficult to be equally inclusive of others? Are such difficulties unintentional, or do you wonder whether you may have been influenced by your biases?

For once, God describes in this week’s Torah portion of being equally upset with all Israelites:

The Pitch: “The Lord saw and was vexed, and spurned His sons and His daughters.” – Deuteronomy 32:19

Swing #1: “This is the only place in the Torah, and one of only two places in the Bible, where the daughters of Israel are named and made visible in their own right and not simply folded into the phrase ‘children/sons of Israel’.” – Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin in The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

Swing #2: “If a person transgresses the Torah that transgression ascends before [God] and says, ‘So-and-so made me.’ And [God] appoints it to remain before Him so that He will lay His eyes upon it and remove the person from the world. This is the meaning of the verse, ‘The Lord saw and was vexed’; ‘The Lord saw’ — the transgression standing before Him.” – Kav HaYashar

Swing #3: “The women as well as the men offered incense to the idols.” – Abraham Ibn Ezra

Late-Inning Questions: When we make missteps, does the process of repentance cause them to “stand before us,” to borrow from Kav HaYashar? How difficult is it to admit our shortcomings to ourselves? How do Yom Kippur services and rituals enable us to put our shortcomings in perspective?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Adult Education is on a brief hiatus, but we’re coming back in October! For your convenience, here are direct links for you to pre-register:

Jewish Views on Citizenship

Pscintillating Psalms in Pservices

Lunchtime Talmud

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of putting shortcomings in perspective … this is not usually one of a professional athlete’s strong points. Though few players were quite reportedly as arrogant as Alex Rodriguez, who was rumored to have a large painting in his house that depicted him as a centaur.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Hatimah Tovah!

Change: Rosh Hashanah 2020

The Internet is filled with amusing pictures of the absurdities of modern life. One such collection is entitled: “Wonderfully Sarcastic Responses to Well-Meaning Signs.”

An example from this collection is a picture of a vending machine; there is a small sign on it that says, “Not Accepting Change.” Below that sign, there is a Post-It note bearing the words, “Change is inevitable! Get used to it!”

Even though the vending-machine operators clearly are talking about coins, the response is vital to remember. It is impossible to think that society can or should remain stagnant when new and unanticipated scenarios come to the fore. Just as importantly, we as individuals are constantly changing, and therefore, it is irresponsible for us to think that we can always live the exact way we used to, or to think that we cannot adjust our long-held patterns of behavior.

Change is inevitable, and as our High Holiday journey commences, it behooves us to get used to it.

Shabbat Shalom and L’shanah Tovah!

Need Not Be Present To Win: Nitzavim-Vayelekh 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Is 80 percent of success just showing up, as the saying goes? Or do we need to add far more than “just” our presence in order to make a true impact?

With all of Israel gathered near the end of Moses’s life, the people learn that they didn’t necessarily need to show up at all:

The Pitch: “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing with us this day before Adonai our God and with those who are not here with us this day.” – Deuteronomy 29:13-14

Swing #1: “You will therefore have to explain to these unborn generations in due course that you yourselves only received this land on the understanding that subsequent generations of Jews would remain loyal to the terms of your acceptance. They will continue to inherit the land from you only on that basis.” – Sforno

Swing #2: “I’m confused about this covenant business. … Now they’re signing yet another agreement, just as they’re about to cross into Canaan. How many drafted covenants does one divinity need, especially since they all say virtually the same thing?” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #3: “R. Isaac said: All the prophets received the inspirations for their future prophesies at Mount Sinai. How do we know this to be so? … “Standing with us this day” refers to those who were already born, and “with those who are not here” alludes to those who were to be born in the future.” – Tanhuma Yitro

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators understand the importance of marking important days for posterity? On this day of national remembrance in America, are we well-equipped to communicate the lessons of the September 11, 2001 attacks to future generations? How can we ensure that history provides lessons and not just stories?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We’re excited to kick off the High Holiday season with Selihot on Saturday night, September 12th. Join us for a Zoom discussion at 9pm with Rabbi Rosenbaum and Congregation Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein at 9pm (register here), and then switch to the TBT livestream at 10pm for services with Cantor Spindler and Rabbi Rosenbaum (follow along with the Selihot book here).

The Big Inning at the End: Mazal Tov to Dean Kremer, the first Israeli to play in — and win — a Major League Baseball game this week.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Tithe After Tithe: Ki Tavo 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: When you make donations, are you motivated more by a sense of obligation or a sense of kindness? Should it matter what your motivations are?

In the Torah, as well as Judaism in general, giving to those less fortunate is considered a law first and foremost:

The Pitch: “When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield – in the third year, the year of the tithe – and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements …” – Deuteronomy 26:12

Swing #1: “A.A. Anderson recalls that the widows, orphans, and foreigners share in the tithes and in the offerings at the annual festivals. They are shown kindness according to the principle, ‘Share because you have already received (cf. Psalms 142:7).’” – Andre LaCocque & Paul Ricoeur, Thinking Biblically: Exegetical & Hermeneutical Studies 195

Swing #2: “And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even [bringing it into the] courtyard determines [its status as having completed the production process and obligates the produce to be tithed,] as it is written [in the confession of the tithes: ‘And I have given to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow,] and they shall eat in your gates and be satisfied.’” – BT Berakhot 35b

Swing #3: “Give them sufficient to satisfy them. From here [the Rabbis] derived the law: one must give the poor in the barn no less than half a kab of wheat or a kab of barley.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: While our commentators concur with the importance of tithing, the reasons and methods are in question. Can our obligation to give be quantified? When do we know when we’ve given enough?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We’re excited to kick off the High Holiday season with Selihot on Saturday night, September 12th. Join us for a Zoom discussion at 9pm with Rabbi Rosenbaum and Congregation Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein at 9pm (register here), and then switch to the TBT livestream at 10pm for services with Cantor Spindler and Rabbi Rosenbaum (follow along with the Selihot book here).

The Big Inning at the End: Since we have been speaking of generous souls, it is appropriate to note the death this week of Tom Seaver, an all-time great pitcher who also became known for his generous and kind character. You didn’t have to be a Mets or Reds fan to know that Seaver was special both on and off the field.

Shabbat Shalom!

Grappling with Inequality: Ki Tetze 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: In what ways does the Torah text properly address inequalities in ancient society? In what ways does it fall short?

There is no doubt that some of the rules in this week’s Torah portion are not congruent with modern ideas of equality and decency:

The Pitch: “If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father 50 [shekels of] silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.” – Deuteronomy 22:29-30

Swing #1: “Legally, virgins were the highly prized responsibility of their fathers.” – Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex & Desire 57

Swing #2: “Married to the man who raped her?! Presumably, hopefully, this means that the choice was hers as well as her father’s.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #3: “The sin of the Jewish people at the episode of the golden calf was akin to that of the rapist. We, who have been told ‘You shall not have any other God,’ have subjected God to the pain of our making another god for ourselves.” – Shnei Luchot HaBrit

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentaries seem to feel uncomfortable with these rules of the Torah? Or are they trying to make sense of them? Is it blasphemous to say that modern Judaism has improved some upon Torah laws?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: In the interest of safety, our High Holiday services this year will feature very few people in the pews. But you can help fill up our seats by making a donation and submitting a photograph of yourself and/or a loved one, which will be turned into Foamcore cutouts and placed in the otherwise empty seats! Contact or 716-510-1990 for more details by September 4th.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of potentially improving rules, which new baseball rule this year (Designated Hitters in the National League, seven-inning doubleheaders, placing a runner on second base at the beginning of each extra inning) has the best odds of enduring after the COVID crisis concludes? I’m guessing it’s the DH in the NL, but who knows?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Getting Blood From a Stoning: Shoftim 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you react when you hear negative talk about someone you know? Under what circumstances would you spread that talk to others?

The Torah tells us that idolatry is a serious enough accusation to inform the authorities — but punishment is not automatic:

The Pitch: “[If] you have been informed or have learned of [someone worshipping another god], then you shall make a thorough inquiry. If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel, you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death.” – Deuteronomy 17:4-5

Swing #1: “Deuteronomy’s rhetoric demonstrates a confidence in the ability of courts to ascertain the truth in criminal cases and identify the guilty party. … Deuteronomy does not provide a legal standard of evidence, such as ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Instead, one must investigate until the truth is uncovered.” – Chaya T. Halberstam, Law & Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature

Swing #2: “Most passages in the Torah do not make a point of saying ‘a man or a woman,’ but use either adam (‘human being’) or ish (which can mean ‘person’ as well as ‘man’). In the penalty for idol worship, however, both sexes are specifically stated, as if to emphasize women. Why was this done? ‘Because of light-mindedness, the woman can be enticed to witchcraft by signs and wonders done before her,’ Nachmanides asserts.” – Judith S. Antonelli, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah

Swing #3: “[If he is a man, they stone just] him, without his clothes, but [if the condemned party is a woman, they stone] her with her clothing.” – BT Sanhedrin 45a

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators describe both fairness and unfairness in ancient Israelite justice? Has our society progressed in terms of judicial fairness, or have we only changed our judicial methods? Why is it so difficult for justice to be achieved?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Pursuant to the recommendation of the TBT reopening task force, we are, on a trial basis, augmenting our Livestream Shabbat services with an in-person minyan for Friday night, August 28th; Saturday morning September 5th; and Friday/Saturday, September 11th-12th, by reservation only, for up to a maximum of fifteen family units (no more than 20-25 people) wearing masks and maintaining a distance of twelve feet. Please see the Temple website for further details.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of justice, we’re now a dozen years into the new rules punishing players for using performance-enhancing drugs. Do you get the sense that these rules have deterred steroid use, or are players simply better at getting away with using?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Location, Location, Location: Re’eh 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you feel when a place which holds nostalgic value for you is altered? Do you think of it as a natural part of the march of time, or are you frustrated that a place looks nothing like it did when your cherished memories were made?

The Torah text from this week seems to address this by preferring to keep important ritual moments in one place, rather than multiple locations:

The Pitch: “Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like, but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you.” – Deuteronomy 12:13-14

Swing #1: “Deuteronomy, in contrast to Exodus [20:24], commands a centralization of the cult, one consequence of which would have been a regularization of religious practices in the service of a consistent monolatry propagated by the center.” – Steven Grosby, Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient & Modern

Swing #2: “The idea of centralization, which is expressed here, means a concentration of political and religious power in the capital. The concentration of religious power in Jerusalem required the cultic unification of the national deity Yahweh.” – Thomas Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical, and Literary Introduction

Swing #3: “The Torah speaks in general terms without specifying in whose tribal territory this place will be located. It turned out to be the territory of Benjamin.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: How might it be significant that the location of sacrifices is located in the territory of Benjamin? Might this be because Benjamin is Jacob’s favorite son (other than Joseph, whose descendants’ territories are split between his two sons)? Or might this be consolation for Benjamin being the youngest of Jacob’s sons? How do we choose the places that mean the most to us?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Pursuant to the recommendation of the TBT reopening task force, we are, on a trial basis, augmenting our Livestream Shabbat services with an in-person minyan for Friday night, August 28th; Saturday morning September 5th; and Friday/Saturday, September 11th-12th, by reservation only, for up to a maximum of fifteen family units (no more than 20-25 people) wearing masks and maintaining a distance of twelve feet. Please see the Temple website for further details.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of choosing significant places, is it bothersome that the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York – the hometown of Abner Doubleday – when it’s all but certain that Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball? Or is it more fun to maintain the myth?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!