Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Exposition Tradition: Bo 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you know the origins of your family’s traditions? Have some of the reasons behind these traditions been lost to history? Are there differences of opinion as to how some of these traditions came to be?

On the verge of the Exodus from Egypt, God notes that this experience will be the reason for traditions for years to come:

The Pitch: “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’, you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ The people then bowed low in homage.” – Exodus 12:24-27

Swing #1: “In his command that the Israelites recount the story to their children and grandchildren, God seems to acknowledge that the stories of his great deeds on behalf of his people are a narrative that binds the people together as a cohesive religious community. The command to tell these stories to each generation is, in a sense, a self-fulfilling command that constructs the cultural identity of its primary audience.” – Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “All of the story now has a point: the rituals by which the people Israel remember their debt to God for their liberation from bondage. … It is one thing to eat a roast lamb with the family, it is another thing entirely to eat it as the Paschal Lamb, over which the memory of freedom is ritually invoked.” – Burton L. Visotsky, The Road to Redemption: Lessons From Exodu on Leadership and Community

Swing #3: “[The Israelites] are acknowledging their desire for a particular kind of narrative, one in which they will be involved in tasting the Passover offering. They are acknowledging the questioning that will follow an event that is yet to happen.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture

Late-Inning Questions: Is it strange that the Israelites agree to remember the Exodus before it actually happens? Does it show a faith in God, or simply a hope that God will fulfill the promise of liberation? What lessons does this passage teach us about remembering history? Should we be more deliberate in how we memorialize the past?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We look forward to celebrating Tu Bishvat on Thursday, January 28th, from 6:15-7:00pm, following evening minyan. Drive by the Temple on Sunday the 24th between 11am and 1:00pm to pick up Tu Bishvat goodies and to drop off non-perishable food for those in need, and then join us for our Seder on the 28th by logging onto the weekday minyan Zoom link.

The Big Inning at the End: Henry Aaron was not only a great baseball player, but also a great American, displaying dignity and decency until the very end. May he rest in peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thicker Than Water?: Vaera 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever needed to send someone a message to prove that you “mean business”? How did you send that message?

The first of the 10 plagues is meant to send Egypt the message that the Israelites wish to be liberated from slavery — and that God will do what it takes to make it happen:

The Pitch: “Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood.” – Exodus 7:20

Swing #1: “For Egypt as a nation dependent on irrigation, the Nile with its fresh water is literally a lifeline. Blood in the Bible is imagined in radically ambiguous terms — the source and substance of life, an apotropaic and redemptive agent, the token of violence and death. It is manifestly the third of these meanings that is brought into play here, as the first plague symbolically anticipates the last one and deprives Egypt of life-sustaining water.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary

Swing #2: “[This plague] is a water event par excellence. … [It] foreshadows the ultimate water catastrophe, the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the pharaoh’s forces.” – Carol Meyers, Exodus

Swing #3: “This was a big boost for Moses’ stature that Aaron, merely his messenger, was able to accomplish this and use his staff on a regular basis.” – Rashbam

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators believe this first plague is executed in this way? How does the contrast between blood and water symbolize the Israelites’ demand for life, and a life of dignity? Can a demand for respect be communicated with a disrespectful act?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We look forward to celebrating Tu Bishvat on Thursday, January 28th, from 6:15-7:00pm, following evening minyan. Drive by the Temple on Sunday the 24th between 11am and 1:00pm to pick up Tu Bishvat goodies and to drop off non-perishable food for those in need, and then join us for our Seder on the 28th by logging onto the weekday minyan Zoom link.

The Big Inning at the End: Baseball always has been and always will be my favorite sport, but there’s no denying where our sports energies will be directed after Shabbat … GO BILLS!

Shabbat Shalom!

The Accidental Tourist: Shemot 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you ever get lost on purpose? Do you like to wander without a particular destination, for the sake of discovering new places and things?

It’s hard to know why Moses drives his flock toward the Burning Bush, but like many journeys, it is the turning point to everything that follows:

The Pitch: “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” – Exodus 3:1

Swing #1: “The text appears to suggest that Moses was merely searching out a fresh supply of fodder for his flock. Flavius Josephus, however insisted that the locals feared and shunned the place despite its superior pasturage ‘because of the opinion men had that God dwelt there, the shepherds not daring to ascend up to it.’” – Jonathan Kirsch, Moses, A Life

Swing #2: “The reason it is ‘Horeb’ (i.e. dry) is because of the great heat, for rain did not fall there, because it was close to Egypt, [only] a three day’s walk, as Moses spoke.” – Ibn Ezra

Swing #3: “חכמה (wisdom) is also known as חרבה (or, Horeb) … [the Psalms] define the basic ingredient of wisdom as reverence for God. This is the deeper meaning of Moses having been afraid to ‘look’ at God.” – Kedushat Levi

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators see Moses’s arrival at Horeb as intentional or accidental? Do you get the sense that Moses believes something interesting would happen at Horeb, even if he can’t predict what exactly it would be? Must we seek the unknown in order to grow?

On-Deck at TBT: I’m resuming my Wednesday evening classes with a mini-course called “Megillah Midrash Madness!” starting January 13th from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join us as we explore some of the craziest stories based on the already-astonishing Book of Esther. You can pre-register here.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of getting lost on purpose, I always love the story of how Jimmy Piersall, upon hitting his 100th career home run, ran around the bases backwards. But Piersall brought us more than just comedy; he was one of the first people in the public eye to speak of mental health awareness, especially by sharing his own personal struggles.

Shabbat Shalom!

Devoted Until the End: Vayehi 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Do old habits truly die hard? Have you tried to give up a bad habit, only to resolve that it would take too much effort to actually succeed? Does it make you more or less likely to make New Year’s resolutions?

Whether or not Jacob ever tried to stop treating Joseph as his favorite son, he shows in his final breaths that Joseph remains Number One in his book:

The Pitch: “The God of your father who helps you, and Shaddai who blesses you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches below, blessings of the breast and womb.” – Genesis 49:25

Swing #1: “Joseph is … described in water images and blessed with ‘the blessings of the deep that couches below’ — the symbol of female sexuality and fertility, moistness, and receptivity. Water, connoting impulse, sexuality, release, is now not a negative image, but a figure of erotic and procreative force.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire

Swing #2: “Joseph would receive his father’s greatest material blessings, far surpassing those which even Jacob himself received; the blessings of heaven and earth. Joseph, though not to hold the mantle of rulership like Judah, would be seen as the elect of his brothers.” – Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle & Change

Swing #3: “Separated from his brothers.” – Commentary of Shabbat Siddur Sefard Linear

Late-Inning Questions: Should we have expected Jacob to treat his sons more equally, even after he learns that his uneven treatment had led to Joseph’s longtime separation from the family? Can we attribute his final blessings as an admission of what he’s always felt? How should we react to an authority figure who treats us unfairly?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We’re excited to go on another Virtual Tour of Israel on Sundays, January 3rd and 10th, at 10:00 a.m. Go to the Temple website to register.

The Big Inning at the End: According to Forbes, the main reason why Clint Hurdle was a longtime Major League manager was not because of his in-game strategy; it was because he went to great pains to not play favorites and to spend one-on-one time with each of his players and coaches. One wonders how the story of Jacob’s sons might have been different had Jacob employed a Hurdle’s strategy.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Secular New Year!

Family Ties: Vayigash 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we show comparable respect and love to family members without playing favorites? How do we manage loving each individual in the way they need to be loved?

As Jacob journeys to Egypt to live near Joseph once again, a stop along the way tells us he is thinking of more than just his children:

The Pitch: “So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-Sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.” – Genesis 46:1

Swing #1: “[The Rema writes:] There are some that say a person is not obligated to honor his grandfather, but this does not appear correct to me. Rather he is obligated in the honoring of his father more than that of his grandfather (and we can see that from this verse …).” – Shulchan Arukh

Swing #2: “He did this because Isaac had previously built an altar there when God appeared to him.” – Rashbam

Swing #3: “Alternately, these offerings were because he set out once more to leave the Holy Land and he was not certain that God approved of what he was doing. He used the offerings hoping to receive guidance from the Almighty.” – Tur HaAroch

Late-Inning Questions: The Torah tells us little about Isaac and Jacob’s relationship. What does this verse tell us, if anything? Does Jacob honor his father more after his father’s death than when his father is alive? How do we best honor our loved ones after they’ve passed?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’d just like to share a note of appreciation for our Temple’s staff, many of whom are celebrating Christmas with their families right now. They do so much to ensure that we can enjoy our many holidays throughout the years, and of course, they’ve once again come through during these complex days of pandemic. We wish them only joy and light during this important time.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of honoring loved ones, there may never have been a more moving moment on the baseball field when the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, at the start of the first game after the death of his teammate and friend Jose Fernandez, hit a leadoff home run and cried his way around the basepaths. We know Gordon would have traded every home run in his career just to have Fernandez back.

Shabbat Shalom!

Sack Exchange: Miketz 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever been gifted something you didn’t feel you deserved? How did you address that feeling? Did you offer to return it, pay it forward, or simply accept it?

Upon leaving Joseph in Egypt the first time, his brothers notice that their bags are filled with the food they need, as well as the money they had used to pay for it:

The Pitch: “Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, return each one’s money to his sack, and give them provisions for the journey; and this was done for them.” – Genesis 42:25

Swing #1: “The return of their money is … ambiguous: a gift and yet possibly a trap. The final clause must leave the reader, with the brothers, still wondering: Just what has been done to them and why?” – W. Lee Humphreys, Joseph & His Family: A Literary Study

Swing #2: “Joseph is the only figure in the book of Genesis described as ‘wise’. … Joseph’s wisdom is … expressed not only in his ability to interpret dreams, but in his character: patient, optimistic, modest, and of good disposition.” – James L. Kugel, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times

Swing #3: “[Joseph] wanted to convince the brothers that he had no hostile intentions toward them provided they could prove that they had spoke the truth. He gave them these extra provisions in order to enable them to bring their youngest brother to Egypt.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: Joseph is indeed being generous, but he’s also playing mind games with his brothers, who still don’t realize his true identity. Are Joseph’s actions with his brothers more motivated by the prospect of revenge than an incoherent strategy? Is it ever right to play mind games with others in order to prove a point?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Starting next Saturday night (December 26th), we will say Ma’ariv (evening service) on Zoom just before reciting Havdallah. This way, we’ll hopefully provide a minyan for that evening, and hopefully get to spend more time together.

The Big Inning at the End: Even though it might not relate to today’s lesson, I wish to say how pleased I am that Major League Baseball finally recognized the Negro Leagues as official major league. While it doesn’t right the wrongs of the past, it’s at least a step to further appreciate the struggles and triumphs of those who have been overlooked in the past.

Shabbat Shalom!

Outlaw In-Laws: Vayeshev 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we best advocate for the mistreated in our society? What does it take to make those in power change their pattern of mistreatment?

Tamar had married two of Judah’s sons in the hopes of having a child, only to see each of them die; so after Judah refuses to allow her to marry his other son, Tamar takes matters into her own hands:

The Pitch: “When Judah saw [Tamar], he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road and said, ‘Here, let me sleep with you’ — for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. ‘What,’ she asked, ‘will you pay for sleeping with me?’ He replied, ‘I will send a kid from my flock.’ But she said, ‘you must leave a pledge until you have sent it.’” – Genesis 38:15-17

Swing #1: “So, sitting at ‘the eye-opening,’ Tamar is playing a dangerous game. She must close Judah’s eyes in the present, or else he won’t sleep with her, but she must provide a way to open them in the future, or she will be in serious trouble. So when he propositions her, she acts like a prostitute.” – Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

Swing #2: “[Judah’s] commerce in this fashion was reported without any moral judgment.” – William Graham Cole, Sex & Love in the Bible

Swing #3: “The young lion [Judah] sinned with Tamar at Enaim; when he confessed his sin, You inclined the scale to justify him. Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return.” – Selichot Nusach Ashkenaz Lita for the Fast of Gedaliah

Late-Inning Questions: How are Tamar’s actions far riskier for her than they are for Judah? How should we characterize the courage that she shows? How much rule-breaking is necessary to tip the scales of justice properly?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: You don’t need to light your Hanukkah candles alone — join us on Zoom each night to light with your TBT friends! Tonight, since we need to light our Hanukkah candles prior to lighting Shabbat candles, tune into our “Shabbat Is Here!” program on our Temple livestream at 4:00 pm so we can lead you in the blessings.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of “proper” rule-breaking, here’s what you shouldn’t do: When Bobby Valentine managed the New York Mets, he once was ejected from a game, only to return to the dugout a bit later sporting sunglasses and a mustache, in the hopes that the umpires wouldn’t notice. It didn’t work, and just made him look silly.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

I Would Do Anything For Love — Even That!: Vayishlakh 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: What would you do for a Klondike Bar? In other words, how far will you go to get something you desperately want?

After Dinah is raped by Shechem, his people invite Jacob and his family to dwell among them. Jacob’s sons agree as long as the other men become circumcised — and the men agree:

The Pitch: “‘Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.’” – Genesis 34:23

Swing #1: “As oddities, the Philistines could be compared to everyone else, who, like the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, also circumcised. The story of the rape of Dinah paradoxically confirms this shared Canaanite attitude: the men of Shechem did not hesitate to circumcise when asked, nor did they identify circumcision as particular to Jacob and his sons.” – Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex & Desire

Swing #2: “Rashi is answering the question: The verse seems to imply that the sons of Jacob asked for consent to live with them. But it was just the opposite!” – Siftei Chachamim

Swing #3: “The emblematic rite of circumcision is employed not only for literary effect (‘measure for measure’) but also to signal the utter religious distinction between Israel and Canaan, focusing on sex. The Shechemites invite Jacob’s clan to assimilate through peaceful intercourse, in all senses. To them the demanded ritual still has its older meaning as preparation for marriage. But by using circumcision as a ruse to frustrate that Canaanite enticement, the covenantal author reminds the reader that it is through the Word, not through sex, through transcendence, not immanence, that Israel will take possession of the land.” – Stephen A. Geller, Prooftexts, January 1990

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators make of Shechem’s people and their willingness to be circumcised? Do they think that such an action is a small price to pay for the prospect of prosperity? Or are they overwhelmed with guilt over Shechem’s crime? Do we always need to have a good reason to do something out of the ordinary?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’m very much looking forward to our initial “Shabbat is Here!” young family service, live-streaming at 4:00pm today and future Fridays. Just go to the services live-stream link on the Temple website to join.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of doing things out of the ordinary, Charlie Kerfeld had a brief career as a Major League relief pitcher. He was perhaps best-known for signing a one-year contract with the Houston Astros for $110,037.37 — plus 37 packets of orange Jell-O. And, yes, his uniform number was 37.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Ungrateful Dad: Vayetze 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Are you gifted in the art of persuasion? If so, what methods work best? How often, if at all, to stretch the truth for the sake of getting what you need?

As Jacob seeks to leave Laban’s home after 20 years of servitude, he first needs to persuade Laban’s two daughters – who also happen to be Jacob’s wives:

The Pitch: “Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field, where his flock was, and said to them, ‘I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past. But the God of my father has been with me.’” – Genesis 31:4-5

Swing #1: “The figure of Jacob is here almost without moral offense. … Above all, the whole thing has now become a pious story in which much is said about God and his relationship to Jacob.” – Gerhard von Rad, Genesis

Swing #2: “The apparent piety is suspect. The truth of the matter is that Jacob has made no appeal to God during his years in Haran. Relying on his own skill and cunning, he has lived solely by the maxim of self-help, at most perhaps believing that God helps those who help themselves.” – Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

Swing #3: “Jacob invited his wives to give him a reasonable sounding explanation for their father’s recent hostility toward him. In the event that his wives would justify their father’s attitude by the fact that Jacob had become wealthier than their father, Jacob added ‘God was with me.’ He told them that his new wealth was a blessing by God, not the result of competing with their father.” – Or HaChaim

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to see Jacob more as a trickster or more as a clever truth-teller? Is there a tangible difference between the two? Is Jacob using some of the same methods he had used on Esau years before? Once a trickster, always a trickster?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We’ll start our live-streamed Tot Shabbat service, entitled “Shabbat is Here”, next Friday at 4:00pm. All you need to do is click on the synagogue livestream. These programs should take about 20 minutes per session, so make sure to invite the young families you know to tune in!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of smooth talking, one common critique of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is that he isn’t smooth enough. Anyone who saw his trophy presentations at the end of this year’s World Series could tell that he was not made for the spotlight. Should he prioritize improving his public persona for the good of the game?

Shabbat Shalom!

Game On!: Toldot 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Whom do you admire more: someone who is clever, or someone who is kind? How challenging, if at all, is it to appreciate the skill of someone who is clever but not kind?

Rebecca’s plot to ensure that Jacob receives Isaac’s blessings is clever enough, but, at least at first glance, not kind:

The Pitch: “[Isaac told Esau,] ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with the Lord’s approval, before I die.’ Now my son, listen carefully as I instruct you. Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids, and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes. Then take it to your father to eat, in order that he may bless you before he dies.” – Genesis 27:7-10

Swing #1: “It would have been well to say just ‘and I will bless you,’ but since [Isaac] added ‘before God,’ the Throne of Glory of the Holy One then trembled and said, Could it be, that the serpent is freed from these curses, and Jacob remains subject to them?” – Zohar

Swing #2: “Even though Jacob is now blessed, most of the blessings of material benefits of this world accrue to Esau and the lesser portion accrued to the children of Jacob for only a few years. Therefore, it appears that all of this effort was for nothing, and Jacob suffered tremendously as a result of this because he needed to run away and be afraid of Esau.” – Beit HaLevi

Swing #3: “How do [we know] it was Passover? It seems the answer is: Isaac was born on Passover. And God completes the days of the righteous – they die the same day they were born.” – Siftei Chachamim

Late-Inning Questions: How might you rank the characters of this story in terms of dishonesty and miscommunication? Do Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob, and Esau all share some of the blame? How might this episode have been different if everyone had simply been honest? How often does trickery lead to good outcomes?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We’re very proud of our Lifelong Learning students, who will lead us in Havdallah tomorrow night. Tune into the Havdallah Zoom link (found on the TBT website) starting at 5:45pm.

The Big Inning at the End: Why does it seem that baseball embraces trickery? Do you think it has something to do with our celebration of a successful “stolen” base?

Shabbat Shalom!