Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Sorry, Still Sorry: Ha’azinu 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: In the evening service recited immediately after the end of Yom Kippur, there is a passage asking God to forgive our sins. Why would we recite this passage at that time, so soon after spending the previous 24 hours repenting? Is there no end to asking for forgiveness?

As we read Moses’s final song to the Israelites, sin and repentance are very much on his mind:

The Pitch: “Children unworthy of Him — that crooked, perverse generation — their baseness has played Him false.” – Deuteronomy 32:5

Swing #1: “As regards the transgressions to which he is driven by lust, man can plead inability to conquer the strong evil impulse which God Himself has created and implanted into man … but he can offer no such excuse for sins he has committed out of lack of faith, because sins of that sort are not caused by physical appetites.” – Ketav Sofer

Swing #2: “If any mitzvah becomes expendable in his eyes, God forbid, then the organ corresponding to that mitzvah becomes blemished in the end. For in the [sin] of speaking [evil speech] … ‘You shall not go talebearing among your people,’ most of which [sin] inheres in the mouth.” – Shemirat HaLashon

Swing #3: “When their [baseness] is in them, they are not His children. When their [baseness] is not in them, they are His children.” – Sifrei Bamidbar

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators understand to be the origins of our mistakes? To what extent are they caused by emotional, physical, or psychological struggles? Should repentance be a year-round endeavor? Is it realistic to concentrate on repentance that consistently?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Be sure to attend our congregational meeting on Sunday, beginning at 10:15AM, to hear updates on Synagogue activities and to participate in focus groups to share your thoughts about selecting its next spiritual leader. Stick around for lunch sponsored by Dr. Michael Kogan at noon, and then for a forum of candidates to represent Charleston’s 9th District in City Council starting at 1:00PM.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of apologies, on a recent episode of the podcast “Revisionist History”, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that the reason that Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte sounded so insincere when apologizing for taking steroids is because Pettitte didn’t think he had done anything so terrible to begin with. As baseball’s steroid scandal “peaked” more than a decade ago, should we reevaluate the ethics of those who used performance-enhancing drugs?

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Limits of Nostalgia: My 2019 Yom Kippur sermon

As I must do from time to time, I wish to assure all of you that even though there will be baseball content over the next few minutes, this sermon is not about baseball. But I’m confident we can agree that sometimes we need to illustrate a point by referencing something that is close to home for us.

In this case, as many of you know, I used to have a large baseball card collection. At its peak, I estimate that I had more than 16,000 cards, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. I have given most of these cards away in recent years, but there’s no denying that they were a big part of my childhood. Many hours were spent sorting the cards alphabetically by the players’ last names, then by the brand of card, then by the year the card was made. There was a time when I could quote the basic statistics of these players, having read through the backs of most of those cards. As you have no doubt concluded, I had no life. But I did have many moments of joy.

Today, baseball cards are far sleeker, glossier, and pricier than ever. But curiously, there has been some effort to recapture the relative innocence of the earlier eras of card collection — back when cards were sorted, traded, flippe, and placed in the spokes of bicycle tires, not hidden behind hard plastic shells and preserved for investment. One such attempt comes from the industry’s leading manufacturer, Topps, which publishes the Heritage series. These cards depict contemporary ballplayers, looking very much like their modern selves, but with the background designs of actual Topps cards from the 1970s and 80s.

Surely, nostalgic gimmicks like this are plentiful these days. Look no further than our synagogue; the theme of this year’s High Holidays, We Are The World, was inspired by 1980s nostalgia. But I wish to talk today about the limits of nostalgia, and how an over-reliance on a certain kind of nostalgia can prevent us from moving forward both personally and as a society.

But first, another word about the Topps Heritage cards, from another voice — sportswriter extraordinaire Joe Posnanski. He writes:

The [actual] 1970 cards feel different than the new ones because they weren’t nostalgic then. Now, sure. But then? They were real baseball cards with real players for real kid. Yes, the players did all the corny poses, but not for sentimental reasons. They did the poses because THAT’S WHAT BASEBALL PLAYERS DID ON BASEBALL CARDS. There was no irony in those cards. They didn’t pose ironically. They didn’t take the photos in front of terrible backgrounds ironically. They didn’t come up with the 1970s design ironically. It was real. Sometimes, the players were a little bit out of focus. Often they were a touch off-center. That was the deal. It was the best they could do.
“You can’t recreate that. You can imitate it, yes, but that’s not the same thing. The new Topps Heritage cards are made by a lot of people who are in on the joke. That’s OK. It’s fun. But it isn’t nostalgic. It’s like watching your kids have 1980s parties. You laugh. But you are not transported. And it always ends up being disappointing. …
“Nostalgia [like this] isn’t for THINGS. It’s for youth. You hear that song, you catch that television show, you see a photo and, for an instant, it all feels close enough to touch. But you find too quickly that it isn’t. … Nostalgia is a fleeting feeling, a brush against a stranger in a train station, a dream you barely remember and then lose in the morning glow. You cannot go back.

Posnanski makes a key distinction between celebrating the past and attempting to bring it back to life. Make no mistake: celebrating our history — especially history that we ourselves experienced — can be incredibly fun. We love to wax poetically about days gone by that seemed simpler, and more sensible. We take stock of our modern problems and remember a time when these troubles didn’t exist, and often conclude that the old days must have been better. But the danger of that is, when we reach that conclusion, we neglect to remember the other problems of yesteryear.  Instead, we would rather romanticize the past than finding new solutions for modern problems.

Indeed, there is a stark, and important, difference between honoring the past and being enslaved to the past. And perhaps no book of the Bible illustrates this better than the book of Jonah, which we will read at our Minha services this afternoon. As I have mentioned in previous years on Yom Kippur, the book of Jonah is much more than a story of a man who is swallowed, and then regurgitated by, a giant fish. He is an all-too-human example of someone who questions his life purpose, in no small part because he is imprisoned by the way things used to be — and, in his mind, the way things ought to be.

As many of us can recall from the first time we learned about it, Jonah first appears in his eponymous book when God commands him to warn the citizens of Nineveh of their imminent destruction. What a lot of us never learned is that Jonah appears, albeit briefly, in a different book of the Bible as well. He is mentioned in the second book of Kings, chapter 14 verse 25, and is referred to as God’s servant. The reason why this is important is that Jonah is not some random person God reaches out to when Nineveh is about to be destroyed; instead, Jonah has already served God in the role of a prophet, which makes his act of rebellion even more notable.

Jonah’s allegiance to God is further evident in the first chapter of the book, in which he hides on a boat, and is approached by his fellow passengers when a brutal storm arrives. These passengers rightly wonder whether a deity is causing the storm, and when Jonah realizes he’s being questioned about the storm’s origins, he doesn’t try to hide that it is God who is punishing him for his actions. His honesty in this scene shows that he acknowledges God’s supremacy and that he worships God.

In his philosophical treatise entitled Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik commented on the significance of this interaction: “It is good for a Jew when he cannot ignore his Jewishness and is obliged to ‎perpetually ‎answer the questions ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What is your occupation?’, ‎even when ‎extraordinary fear grips him and he does not have the strength or fortitude to answer ‎with true ‎pride, ‘I am a Jew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven’. The unrelenting ‎question ‎of, ‘Who are you?’ ties [Jonah] to the Jewish people.‎”

Jonah’s attachment to God does not cease after he is cast into the sea and is swallowed by the large fish. As he begs God to save his life, he says at one point, “I thought I was driven away out of Your sight: Would I ever gaze again upon Your holy Temple?” Now, you could argue that he says this just to curry favor with God, but based on what we already know, it’s fair to believe that Jonah’s nostalgia for his prior days as a prophet is genuine, and not mere pandering.

Understanding the story in this way helps us to make sense of Jonah’s behavior at the end of the book. Jonah is expelled from the fish’s belly and finally arrives in Nineveh to warn its residents of its impending doom, and when they repent, God forgives them and cancels their punishment. We next see Jonah alone on a hill, overlooking the city, feeling sorry for himself. Why? He explains to God that there was no point for him to go to Nineveh if God had just planned to forgive its residents all along. Jonah feels that, as a prophet, his usefulness has disappeared.

In this moment, Jonah is pining for the good old days, when he felt like an important instrument of God’s sovereignty on Earth. Now, he feels like a has-been, someone whose skills are superfluous in a new age. The irony of this is that Jonah is, unlike most Israelite prophets, incredibly successful. After he is cast into the sea at the beginning of the book, the other passengers on the boat give offerings to God for stopping the storm, and find new meaning in their lives. And Jonah’s eventual arrival in Nineveh allows an entire community to get a new lease on life. Most other prophets in the Hebrew Bible lament the people ignoring their eloquent and heartfelt words; Jonah, meanwhile, gets immediate obedience after doing and saying very little. It makes you wonder whether Jonah would have been happier if Nineveh had ignored his warnings and continued their sinful ways.

Jonah’s sadness at the end of the book illustrates the limits of nostalgia. He yearns for times that he remembers as being simpler, times when he understood his place in the world. Indeed, the world has changed around him, and it’s a little befuddling. Yet rather than trying to connect with new realities, he resorts to the past, a time that just made more sense to him. 

Jonah’s struggle reflects our own struggle as a society. It is human nature to attach ourselves to the past and to believe that anything new can’t possibly be as good as what came before it. A recent study by fivethirtyeight.com noted this about our favorite music. The survey revealed that most people’s musical tastes crystallize by their early 30s; meaning, any songs that come out from one’s mid-30s or later is deemed to be inferior. You see this on YouTube comments (which, I must say, you should only read at your own risk). A video for a song published in, say, 1997, inevitably is accompanied by comments like, “they don’t make music like they used to,” and “I’d rather listen to this than most of the junk on the radio.” I’m used to hearing that from people in my general age range; what’s amusing is when I hear similar comments about songs that came out five years ago. And of course, the music I listened to while growing up often was panned by people of my parents’ generation.

You see, everyone has a different point of view of when life was better, whether we’re talking about baseball cards, popular music, or, in Jonah’s case, prophecy. It’s so easy to think that the times in which we grew up were the golden years, and to conclude that modern times only tarnishes them. But as Joe Posnanski reminds us, you can’t recreate the past — you can’t go back. The most we can do is pay homage to the best of what came before us and then move forward with the confidence that our accumulated wisdom will guide us safely into the future. In other words, we must honor the past, but we must not be enslaved by it.

Today, on Yom Kippur, when we are asked to grapple with our past deeds and misdeeds, let us take this message to heart. Let us remember that while nostalgia can bring a smile to our faces, it cannot bring those times back to life. That goes for both the good moments and the ones we’d rather forget. The great thing about Yom Kippur is that there always is a chance for renewal, to know that while the good moments of the past can’t fully return, neither can the bad moments. The times before may have been great, but we have the power to make them better.

So as we make our way to the Yizkor service, when we remember loved ones who have helped us along the way, let us give them their proper due, knowing that we will be blessed by many good days ahead. Let us honor the past, but not be enslaved by it.

Lingering Memories: Vayelekh 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you believe that how you leave a room is just as important as how you entered it? What are ways that you can ensure that you leave a good final impression on others?

Our sages teach that this week’s Torah portion begins on the final day of Moses’s life, and one senses that he wishes to conclude appropriately:

The Pitch: “Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.” – Deuteronomy 31:1

Swing #1: “From one unusual phrase in the verse, ‘Moses went, and spoke these words,’ the Kli Yakar suggests a teaching about the urgency of seeking peace. The Torah states that Moses went, but there is no indication of his destination. Moses is 120 years old, reaching the end of his life; but, the commentator writes, he finds the energy to visit every tent where his people resided in order to urge them to make peace with each other and with God.” – Sheldon Lewis, The Torah of Reconciliation

Swing #2: “Moses wanted to show that though he was 120 years old and about to die he had the strength to say all the words recorded from here until the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. No one except Moses possessed the physical or intellectual strength to do this.” – Or HaChayim

Swing #3: “Moses left the encampment of the Levites, where the assembly had taken place, and went to the encampment of the Israelites, to show them respect and to take his final leave of them as on that very day he was to die on Mount Nebo. It is good manners not to take one’s leave without asking his host for permission to absent oneself, and Moses adhered to this time-honored custom.” – Tur HaAroch

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators believe is Moses’s strategy for leaving a good impression on the Israelites? To what extent do you think Moses is concerned about his reputation, and to what extent is he concerned about the lessons the Israelites will remember? What would you like to be remembered for?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Be sure to attend our congregational meeting next Sunday, October 13th, beginning at 10:15AM, to hear updates on Synagogue activities and to participate in focus groups to share your thoughts about selecting its next spiritual leader. Stick around for lunch sponsored by Dr. Michael Kogan at noon, and then for a forum of candidates to represent Charleston’s 9th District in City Council starting at 1:00PM.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of what we remember, when Henry Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s career home-run record, he faced scrutiny, anger, and sometimes racism by fans who didn’t want him to break the mark. Aaron, in his typical humility and decency, once mused, “I don’t want them to forget Ruth. I just want them to remember me.”

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Hatimah Tovah – may you be sealed for a good year!

History Has Its Eyes on Us: My 2019 Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon

When our synagogue chose the phrase “We Are The World” as our theme for this year’s High Holidays, we were intentional about recalling the 1980s, especially as we have begun the Hebrew year 5780. And so, as we begin the ‘80s once again, I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell a story from my experience during the ‘80s.

My family moved to Denver in 1981, just as I was about to enter kindergarten. I was the youngest kid in my class, and I showed an early interest in my schoolwork, especially social studies. I memorized the order of the American presidents in second grade, and I found myself perusing my family’s encyclopedia in my spare time. When other kids played together on the playground, I usually amused myself, or found one person to talk to at a time. I didn’t think any of this was weird; I was a first-born child without a trusted older sibling to advise me otherwise.

So I didn’t know what to do with myself when, starting around the third grade, I began getting teased. There was no single culprit, no bully leading the pack. But around that time, I began to realize that I was being excluded, that I was singled out for being different, and not in a good way.

My reactions to not being cool changed over time. Sometimes, I was sad and withdrawn. Other times, I was angry, and occasionally did mean things to get under the skin of the popular kids. Eventually, as a couple of boys came around to befriend me, I began to model their behavior to figure out how I was “supposed” to act, and it was then that I learned a basic but key lesson: the kinder I was, and the less judgmental I was to others, the more likely I would receive kindness in return. It was a while before that advice proved prophetic, as it sometimes takes a while for children to learn to prefer kindness over coolness. (Some people never learn it.) But as my elementary school days neared their conclusion, it became clearer by the day.

On my last day at that school, when I “graduated” sixth grade on June 7, 1988, I knew I wanted to share what I learned with my class and their families. Now, keep in mind, I was in a small Jewish Day School, and was one of only 13 students in my class, so every kid got to make a speech at Graduation. Most of my classmates named their speeches something like “Memories” or “My Favorite Project”. Meanwhile, mine was entitled, “The Search For Respect”. While my speech didn’t criticize anyone for teasing me in the past, I made sure to remind everyone of that key lesson I’d learned in recent years.

I don’t know whether this message resonated, but I know it impacted one person. My classmate Moriah was never particularly friendly to me while at school, and she was among the people who teased me the most. But that night, right after graduation ended, she handed me a note. It said:

Dear Adam,

When you read your speech about respect, I really felt bad and now I know how it feels. I’ll never do it again. I’ll never forget you.

Your Friend, Moriah

Moriah, who was born in Israel, returned there that summer, and I never heard from her again. I have no way of knowing whether she changed her ways and became a more consistently kind person. I’d like to think she did, whether I had anything to do with it or not. If anything, her note reminded me that an intentional life focused on respect and being non-judgmental is not only appealing, but also proper.

I realize that the message of respecting others seems so simple and obvious. But if it were, we’d be a lot better at it. If anything, as a society, we’re a bit worse than before, and I fear that this is happening at a crucial time in our history. So this Rosh Hashanah, during which our Torah readings focus on the triumphs and shortcomings in Abraham’s life, I’d like to talk about one of the last significant things Abraham does, in which he models the kind of behavior beneficial for not only his generation, but for many generations to follow.

I’m referring to the events in Genesis Chapter 23, just after the episode when God commands Abraham to bind his son Isaac to an altar, but then accepts a ram as a sacrifice instead of Isaac. Abraham returns home to Hebron to discover that Sarah had died, and for the first time, the Torah describes a person in mourning, as Abraham bewails his wife’s passing. After a short time, he seeks out the local authorities to purchase a proper place to bury his beloved. The give and take between Abraham and the Hittites is marked by a politeness that is at once refreshing and suspicious. The Hittites offer Abraham his choice of burial locations for free. Abraham instead offers to buy from a man named Ephron a cave in an area called Machpelah. Ephron himself then offers Abraham the cave and the land around it for free. Abraham, however, insists that he purchase the area for 400 shekels of silver. Ephron finally accepts these terms, and the account concludes by saying, “Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.”

During this negotiation, Abraham’s words and actions are respectful and deferential. But what’s curious about this interaction is how concerned Abraham is to ensure that he is the proper owner of Machpelah. The medieval Torah commentator Chizkuni claimed that once the sale becomes official, Abraham takes the town seal and attaches it to the official document registering the transaction, so the Hittite townspeople wouldn’t one day claim that Ephron didn’t have the legal right to sell the property. Chizkuni teaches that, even in this seemingly simple interaction, Abraham accomplishes multiple goals. First, he finds Sarah an appropriate resting place, but more than that, he establishes a legacy in which future generations will benefit. Indeed, not only is Sarah buried in the cave of Machpelah, but eventually, so is Abraham, as well as Isaac and Rebecca, and later Jacob and Leah. And he does this not with trickery or condescension, but with decency and humility. In spite of his great wealth and stature in the community, Abraham does not claim entitlement to the choicest burial spot in the land; rather he acts as a modest person with a simple task to complete.

Abraham’s actions send the message that being respectful and achieving one’s goals can work hand-in-hand. Showing respect doesn’t make you a pushover, and seeking what we need out of life doesn’t necessitate attitude or cynicism. That very lesson I learned in elementary school is modeled by the very first Jew, and therefore should be a foundational lesson for all who observe this beautiful tradition we call Judaism.

As the coming year unfolds, it is incumbent upon all of us to take this lesson to heart and to model it for our community. One example is how we talk to each other about Israel. It used to be that Israel was a common thread that bonded all Jews to one another, but right now, that simply isn’t the case. For those of you who had the chance to hear Rabbi Daniel Gordis speak in Charleston a couple of weeks ago, you know that the chasm between American Jews and Israelis has been widening for some time, even though we may have only begun to realize it recently. But it’s more important than ever to listen carefully when someone speaks passionately about the Jewish state, regardless of whether we agree or not. The multitude of issues facing Israel — a deadlocked political landscape, the threat of terrorism, the place of Palestinians and Arabs within Israel’s borders (however those borders are defined), and the gulf between some of its religious and secular factions — requires reasonable dialogue and an openness to hear different voices. Doing otherwise will only weaken Israel’s chances to make it through these turbulent times, and it will weaken the American Jewish community as well.

A second example of how we take this lesson to heart is how we maintain friendships and relationships during this divisive political climate in America. It’s one thing to observe the fractured jungle in Washington and to shake our heads in befuddlement; it’s another to see how infrequently citizens at home tend to interact with people of different political persuasions, as well as how explosive things can get when they do interact. With the possibility of impeachment in the air, not to mention a boisterous presidential election still more than one year away, the possibilities for further divisiveness seem endless. Abraham’s example of respectful, yet insistent give-and-take with neighbors who are quite different from him should be the model for how citizens can move forward calmly and rationally.

And third, it is vital to know how to deal with our Jewish neighbors where we live. It is often said that the Conservative movement, of which our synagogue subscribes, is a big tent; it’s a place where numerous forms of observance can coexist under one roof. This congregation fits that notion, and then some. There are some in this room who observe Shabbat strictly, others loosely, while others haven’t connected with the ideas of Shabbat at this point in their lives. There are some in this room who keep Kosher both inside and outside the home, others who do so inside the home but not outside the home, others who mix milk and meat but avoid eating pork and shellfish, and still others who haven’t found a meaningful way to bring the dietary laws into their lives. And yet, we are all in this room together, learning from each other and sharing with one another. Why? It’s partly because, I hope, of a common respect we share for the core traditions of a Conservative synagogue. It’s one of the wonderful things about this congregation, that no matter what your Jewish observance is outside this building, we can support the importance of this synagogue maintaining a Kosher kitchen, and we can understand the necessity of properly observing Shabbat and holidays when we are in this building. When we respect these guidelines, we are better able to accept one another in spite of any personal differences, and we are better able to be a community of holiness.

What’s more, this principle of respect is an important part of selecting a new spiritual leader, as I’m sure there will be many discussions of what kind of candidate will work best for this congregation. I, for one, am confident that the next person who has the privilege to be rabbi of this congregation will see the holiness and decency that lies within the hearts of all who are invested in this community, and will then shepherd it to even greater heights.

I don’t wish to speak of respect as if I’m an expert in the subject; I’ve certainly had many moments, from elementary school through present day, when I have fallen short of the ideals I’ve been stressing. Rather, my message today is aspirational, filled with hope that at this pivotal time in our history, both worldwide and locally, we can realize what my classmate Moriah learned back in the 1980s, which is how essential it is to make respect a foundational principle to achieving what we want out of life. Because in the days ahead, there is a lot at stake. I’m reminded of the phrase from the Broadway show Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.” Indeed, right now, history has its eyes on us. The state of Israel faces threats both internal and external — will all those who care for the Jewish state listen constructively, or will we drown in divisive rhetoric? American democracy is more perilous than it’s been in generations — will its stakeholders insist on listening to one another, or simply stay angry in their separate corners? Synagogues like this one face the challenge of making Judaism relevant to Jews with multitudes of observance — will we be open to diverse expressions of our tradition while still maintaining communal standards for all to respect?

Whatever choices we make, let us walk in the ways of Abraham, who showed both his generation and the ones that followed that showing respect and achieving success do not have to be separate goals, but can be one and the same. History has its eyes on us, and with that knowledge, may we show the generations that follow us that these ideals could guide us to a new year of sweetness.

A Wider Bridge: My 2019 Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

How old were you when you first felt connected to the rest of the world? When were you first able to understand the civilization around you, and felt you had an important role to play?

For me, the year was 1984. I don’t mean to stir up echoes of George Orwell. But it’s true: for most of my eighth year on the planet, I became dramatically more aware of the world around me than at any other point beforehand. I was fortunate enough to attend the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where I witnessed Carl Lewis run the 200-meter dash faster than anyone else ever had. I became a full-fledged baseball fan, collecting my first baseball cards, and embracing a team that almost made the World Series — and wouldn’t get that close again for another 32 years. I followed a presidential campaign for the first time, and saw Ronald Reagan win the largest electoral landslide in U.S. history.

I, indeed, was a child of the 1980s: A time of frizzy hair and synth-heavy pop music. A time when personal computers first made their way into classrooms. A time when MTV actually played music. A time when we thought Mr. T was cool. (I guess we weren’t all that enlightened.)

But if one thing stood out in my mind, that decade was marked by the growing contrast between the financially prosperous and the impoverished and destitute. One of the most emblematic moments of the ‘80s was a monologue in the movie Wall Street, when its villain, Gordon Gekko, unashamedly declared that “Greed is good.” Gekko wasn’t alone; corporate America thrived, sometimes at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Yet, if greed was so good, the hearts of many other people were even better. Perhaps nothing symbolized this better than mass movements to help those in massive need, from starving children in Africa to our neighbors suffering from the new scourge of HIV and AIDS. I remember being glued to the television one weekend, watching concerts for LiveAid taking place around the globe.

Tonight, we begin a new year on the Jewish calendar — a new decade, in fact. 5780 is upon us, and since we have entered the ‘80s once again, it makes sense to focus our energies on one of the most iconic phrases of the 1980s: We Are The World. You’ve seen this phrase in both English and Hebrew on our promotional materials for the fall holidays. Certainly, one of our goals at this time of year is to be cognizant of our responsibilities to efforts that benefit all people, not just ourselves.

But lest you think we’re simply going to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into an 80s retro-holiday, I wish to remind us tonight of another phrase involving how we see the world, this one from our Jewish tradition. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav inspired many in his lifetime as well as generations after him, most notably with his statement, “Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’ode, V’HaIkar Lo L’fachech Bo.” “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is to not be afraid.”

This phrase has been interpreted in numerous ways, but I’d like to consider it this way: Too often, we are afraid to take bold steps to improve ourselves and those around us because we resolve that the impact we’ll make is negligible. That the risks are too daunting to justify the potential rewards. That the odds of meaningful success are too narrow to justify not being afraid.

But don’t tell that to Jalandhar Nayak, a 45-year-old Indian man who spent two years single-handedly clearing a road through a mountainous area near his village to enable his sons a shorter walking path to visit him during school breaks. When local officials heard of his efforts, they agreed not only to finish the road for him, but also to pay him for the work he’d already done.

And don’t tell that to Charlotte Willner, an American woman who saw a photo of a crying immigrant toddler separated from her parents at the US-Mexico border, and created a Facebook fundraiser called “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child.” She hoped to raise around $1,500 for a Texas nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees. She exceeded her goal — by almost $20 million.

And don’t tell that to Daniella Benitez, a 14-year-old San Diego woman, who decided to build one house per year along with the nonprofit organization, Build a Miracle. Daniella and her friends raised $16,000 needed to provide a fully furnished home with running water, electricity, beds, and showers. She plans to personally help build, paint, and furnish the homes, as well.

As you can tell from examples like these, making a large impact on one’s community or beyond doesn’t necessarily require hardships or even great risks. Mainly, it requires time, commitment, and the perspective to remember that our actions have a ripple effect far beyond our immediate bubble. Obviously, not every well-intentioned attempt to cause social change works. But we tend to stop ourselves from even trying because we perceive that the bridge is to narrow to traverse, when in reality, many of them are far wider than they appear.

As we celebrate the start of a new Jewish year and a new Jewish decade, let us make sure that the giving spirit of the 1980s will be replicated in the 5780s. Because no matter how unlikely the path may seem, it’s always wider than what we fear. “Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’ode, V’HaIkar Lo L’fachech Bo.”

Get a Life: Nitzavim 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent does our society value human life? How does that priority manifest itself in our politics? In our lifestyles? In our personal choices?

As Moses’s last words to the Israelites reach their conclusion, it becomes clear that the choices the Israelites make will define their very existence:

The Pitch: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” – Deuteronomy 30:15

Swing #1: “In Chapter 11 … we are told only of a ‘blessing and a curse’. There is no mention of ‘life and good,’ or ‘death and evil.’ The reason for their being mentioned in this chapter and verse is that this section deals with the commandments of repentance. This commandment imposes a great responsibility on man, much greater than the commandments not to sin, for it affords man a way to repent. Failure to avail oneself of this opportunity is a greater sin than even the transgression of which one has been guilty. Hence, if the transgression alone carries a ‘curse’, then failure to repent of it would mean death itself. Therefore, ‘choose life’.” – Meshekh Hakhmah

Swing #2: “Look, it’s simple people! It’s a choice between ‘love and prosperity’ and ‘death and adversity’. All you need is ‘to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and keep His commandments, His laws, and his rules …’ That’s it. That’s all we have to do. I can imagine the Israelites muttering: Now he tells us! Why couldn’t he have said this before all those rules about lepers?” – David Plotz, Good Book 

Swing #3: “In reality, the undoubted truth of the matter is that man has full sway over all his actions. If he wishes to do a thing, he does it; if he does not wish to do it, he need not, without any external compulsion controlling him.” – Moses Maimonides, Eight Chapters

Late-Inning Questions: To what extent do you feel a sense of urgency when you make choices? How many of your choices are “life-altering”? What are the benefits of treating some of our choices that way? What are the downsides?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of valuing life, I hope that Major League stadiums will install netting from foul pole to foul pole starting next season. Too many fans have been struck by foul balls, and the risk of serious injury is real.

Shabbat Shalom, and very soon, L’Shanah Tovah!

Walk Back Like an Egyptian: Ki Tavo 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Does your life contain a lot of irony? How do you react when you encounter irony? Do you tend to think there are deeper meanings behind ironic moments, or do they seem more like coincidences to you?

In the voluminous list of curses laid out in our portion this week, the Israelites are told that if they don’t follow the commandments, among other things, they will need to go back from where they came:

The Pitch: “The LORD will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy.” – Deuteronomy 28:68

Swing #1: “Not even good enough for slavery! One stands in awe at the dark brilliance of this conclusion. … Deuteronomy 28, a warning to Israel, is also a terrifying revelation of the character of the Lord, Israel’s God. In the savagery of its detail, this vision greatly exceeds the flood. Is the Lord God capable of this? Indeed he is.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Swing #2: “The reference to ships is not entirely clear. Perhaps, since all this constitutes a reversal of the narrative of national liberation in Exodus, the idea of an arduous trek on foot up out of Egypt is contrasted by the notion here of a rapid voyage by sea along the Mediterranean coast back to Egypt.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary

Swing #3: “You [the Israelites] will begin to manufacture or make by hand all kinds of goods the host country lacks in order to secure your economic well being, but no one will buy these goods due to antisemitic reasons, as they do not want you to gain a foothold in their country.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Does the notion of being sent back to Egypt as slaves that no one wants seem like the ultimate punishment for an unfaithful Israelite nation? Do you read this threat as an example of God’s ability to be cruel, or do you see this as an exaggeration? Do you believe that what goes around comes around? If you do, is this text an example of justice or of something more harmful?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of irony, baseball history is filled with it, but a nice example took place this week when Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski threw out the first pitch before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park to his grandson Mike, who had recently reached the Majors himself … as a member of the opposing team.

Shabbat Shalom!

Carry That Weight: Ki Tetze 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever cheated another person? How did you justify doing so at the time? To what extent do you regret doing so?

The voluminous laws in this week’s Torah portion includes the command to be honest in our financial transactions:

The Pitch: “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that your God Adonai is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to your God Adonai.” – Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Swing #1: “According to Rabbi Levi, Moses intimated to Israel that the specific consequences of not keeping honest measures and balances are to be inferred … [that] if you do have diverse weights and measures, know that a wicked kingdom will come and wage war against your generation. And the proof? The [next] verse: ‘All that do such things … are an abomination unto the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 25:16). What warning against the abomination of using false measures and balances follows in the fourth verse? ‘Remember what Amalek did to you …’ (Deuteronomy 25:17).” – Pesikta D’Rav Kahana

Swing #2: “[Honest weights and measures] must certainly have been one of the most widespread form of cheating simply because it was difficult for the purchaser to detect or for the authorities to stamp out. Even standard weights employed in antiquity suffered considerable variation through wear and tear, besides which they may also have existed regional variations, since new weights were balanced from older, won ones. One of the most desirable benefits of official royal oversight of trading practices was a concern to enforce standard weights. Nevertheless, even with these efforts, it seems probable that the honesty of the officials was little superior to the dishonesty of the traders.” – The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2

Swing #3: “Whence comes this juxtaposition of greed and sanctuary defilement? One possibility is that an exegetical process lay behind this idea, though I know of no early ancient Jewish evidence for it. In Deuteronomy 25:13-16, the prohibitions against having unfair weights and measures leads to the general warning that [in verse 16] ‘all who do these things – who act deceitfully – are an abomination to the Lord your God.’” – Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators believe that having honest weights and measures is important? Why is this commandment necessary, given that we already have the command to not steal? Why does dishonesty come in so many forms? Why is it so prevalent in modern society?

The Big Inning at the End: Baseball’s history is filled with attempts at deceit, but perhaps the most ridiculous example I can think of is when New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, after being ejected from a game, reappeared in the team dugout wearing fake glasses and a fake mustache. While some applauded his creativity, I thought it was insultingly silly. I’m glad he was caught.

Shabbat Shalom!

De-Calf-Annated: Shoftim 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever suffered as a result of someone else’s misdeeds, even if you were not the target of said wrongdoing? How did it make you feel?

In one of the more curious laws of the Torah, we learn that the discovery of a homicide victim necessitates the Israelites to injure … a cow?

The Pitch: “If, in the land that your God Adonai is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known … The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. … Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of Adonai.” – Deuteronomy 21:1, 3-4, 9

Swing #1: “[The Mishnah implies] that if only one witness, male or female, testifies that the woman was defiled or who the murderer of the unidentified corpse is, this one witness cancels the ordeal of the bitter waters or the ritual of breaking the calf’s neck. Considered with other statements the rabbis made on these subjects, which indicate that they were interested in avoiding implementation of both of these rituals, these relaxed standards of testimony are not surprising.” – Judith Haupmtan, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Swing #2: “There is a great deal of wisdom in the notion that we need a way to cleanse our communities of wrongdoing, even when there is no one obvious to blame. As Jewish women, we see historic exclusion from significant roles and rituals; we encounter sexist rabbinic blind spots; we are troubled by painful narratives. We sense that the ancient rabbis were no worse on ‘women’s issues’ than other men of their time, and that in many cases they were ahead of their time – for example, in providing certain kinds of economic protection to women. But still, we feel hurt and anger when we encounter aspects of our beloved tradition that seem to undermine, limit, or even oppress women.” – Rabbi Susan Fendrick, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, editor

Swing #3: “‘They shall break the heifer’s neck’: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let a one-year heifer that has never borne fruit come and have its neck broken in a place that has never had produce in order to atone for the killing of one whom they did not allow to bear fruit.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: How can we make sense of inflicting harm on a cow upon the discovery of a person’s murder? Is there a slight bit of comfort to know that an animal is harmed rather than another human being? Or is this ritual repugnant in all ways? How do we reconcile our modern views on animal rights with the laws of the Torah?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are grateful that Hurricane Dorian, while harrowing and damaging, did not inflict as much wreckage on the Charleston area as initially feared. If you’ve made it back to town, please join us for Shabbat services tonight at 6PM and tomorrow at 9:30AM. We won’t be able to provide a full Kiddush on Saturday, but we can be grateful to be together, among other blessings.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of taking the blame for another’s misdeeds, I find it curious how often managers are ejected from games not because of their anger, but rather to prevent one of his players from losing his temper with an umpire. I guess this is one of the ultimate examples of “taking one for the team”.

Shabbat Shalom!

Taking Ownership: Re’eh 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent are you in control of your destiny? When you make big decisions, how beholden are you to other people, or other forces, before making your choices?

The Torah’s rules of Israelite slavery, especially given our ancestors’ servitude in Egypt, might seem jarring at first glance — and maybe after many glances as well:

The Pitch: “If a fellow Hebrew man – or woman – is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed. … Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and your God Adonai redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-13, 15

Swing #1: “[An Israelite slave must serve] also the son [of the owner]. One might think [he should serve] also one who inherits [him as a slave]. Scripture states, [however,] ‘… he shall serve you’. And not one who inherits. Just what did you see to include the son and exclude the inheritor? After Scripture includes expansively, it excludes. I include the son because he comes after the father in designating [the female Hebrew slave as his wife] and in redeeming the ancestral field. But I exclude the inheritor because he does not come after the father in designating [the female Hebrew slave as his wife] and in redeeming the ancestral field.” – Tanhuma d’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai

Swing #2: “Serakh bat Asher the Historian teaches: So central to Israelite culture was the legacy of its slave past … that it was woven into the very fabric of its moral code. … Hagar comments: Given the lot of female slaves in the ancient world, what woman would consent to remain a slave if she was free to leave? Even a life of exile is preferable to bondage.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “Unlike the regulations concerning Hebrew slaves in Exodus 21, where distinctions are made between the sexes, evidently because the case in view is one in which the young woman has been sold into slavery with the intention of her becoming a concubine, here male and female slaves are regulated by an identical set of laws. Grammatically, masculine gender remain dominant, so even though both men and women have been mentioned, the text goes on to speak of ‘he’ representing both.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary

Late-Inning Questions: Does the inclusion of women in these laws of Israelite slavery somehow temper the questionable nature of the laws? Do you agree that slavery was part of the ancient Israelite culture and erasing this part of the culture might have necessitated a longer process? How long should we expect to wait before creating a more just society?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It will be a pleasure to welcome the Koslow family back to Emanu-El to mark the 40th anniversary of the family fund that provides our weekly Saturday kiddush. The family will participate in services tomorrow, which begins at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of controlling one’s own destiny, the concept of “team control” has become a key phrase when discussing young Major Leaguers, whose trade value decreases when they approach free agency. How different would professional sports look if athletes could choose which team they could play for at any time in their careers?

Shabbat Shalom!