Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

And Not a Drop to Drink: Beshallach 2022

Pre-Game Chatter: Is it easy to recognize when we’ve complained too much? Is it possible to develop an internal filter to stop ourselves before we’ve worn out our welcome? Or do we need to rely on hints from the people we’re complaining to?

It doesn’t take long before the newly-liberated Israelites petition Moses to quench their thirst:

The Pitch: “The people quarreled with Moses. ‘Give us water to drink,’ they said; and Moses replied to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Lord?’” – Exodus 17:2

Swing #1: “The first half of the [Torah] portion was dominated by God’s nes [miracle], his triumphant miracle of the parting of the sea. The second half takes place in the shadow of the people’s trying behavior (nastam) when they don’t get what they want. When God doesn’t supply a nes, the people respond with nastam. If you haven’t got a triumph, you’re going to get a trial.” – Avraham Burg, Very Near To You: Human Readings of the Torah

Swing #2: “They transcended the norm. The ‘norm’ (in such a situation) is for a man to grumble in his house for the ‘benefit’ of his younger son, but here, they vented their anger at the highest. Thus, ‘And the people quarreled (with Moses)’. They transcended the norm.” – Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael

Swing #3: “They spoke to Moses and Aaron. There was no need to mention Aaron, for I have already explained that Moses spoke to Israel only through Aaron.” – Ibn Ezra

Late-Inning Questions: Are our commentators more concerned with the fact that the Israelites complain, or the way they complain? Is it strange that the people only complain to God once during slavery (Exodus 2:23), and then can’t seem to stop whining once they are liberated? Is complaining a contagious habit?

On-Deck at TBT: We have two collection barrels near our coat room. One will continue to collect non-perishable food to be donated to local food pantries. There is always a need. The second barrel will be used to collect items for our new Afghan neighbors. With our new partnership with Jewish Family Service, items will be collected regularly. To see the complete list of what is needed to welcome the evacuees to Buffalo, click here. Gift cards are valued, but please leave those with a member of the office staff, not in the barrel.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of water, I’m one of those rare baseball fans who thinks that every stadium (yes, even Fenway Park and Wrigley Field) should install a retractable roof to prevent rain delays and postponements. Sure, these unpredictable stoppages might be part of the game’s traditional “charm”, but for the amount of money fans shell out for a game, it’s only fair for the owners to ensure the contest will take place as scheduled. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Arms Control: Bo 2022

Pre-Game Chatter: What Passover symbol is the most confounding, and why is it the shankbone? All kidding aside, does it ever feel strange to fill a Seder plate with food and then add to it something you’ll never eat?

One interpretation of the shankbone is that it represents God’s mighty arm – and the arm carries an even greater symbolic significance:

The Pitch: “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the LORD freed us from Egypt.” – Exodus 13:16

Swing #1: “The implication is clear. By putting on tefillin, the Jew becomes engaged to God. He renews each weekday morning his fidelity to the ancient romance consummated on Mount Sinai.” – Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible

Swing #2: “There is absolutely no suggestion that firstborn sons, although they belong to God, were ever to be sacrificed or put to death. They had to be redeemed, but the means for redeeming them is not stipulated here.” – Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus

Swing #3: “It appears that the answer given to the simple child [mentioned during the Passover Seder] reflects the general purpose of the commandments including the Passover offering, matzah, and the sanctification of the first born. Since in his simplicity he could not differentiate between them, he said, “What is this?” Thus we see that he is answered out of his simplicity and not as a matter of enmity or heresy. That is what the Torah goes on to say: And it shall be a sign upon your arm and a reminder between your eyes that with a mighty hand God took you out of Egypt.” – Zevach Pesach on the Passover Haggadah

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentators reflect on a juxtaposition of ideas held in one verse: the command to wear tefillin, the responsibility to “redeem” our firstborn children, and the importance of teaching our children about the Exodus. While God’s arm is an instrument of destruction in the Exodus story, placing tefillin on our arms is a gesture of fidelity. What do we learn from symbols that mean different things at the same time?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Starting tomorrow, our Shabbat Learner’s Service will move from monthly to weekly. We’ll continue to meet on Zoom from 9:00-9:30 am. You’re welcome to join the discussion, whether or not you’re learning for the first time.

The Big Inning at the End: If baseball’s owners wanted to get an upper hand in winning public sympathy during the lockout, ridding esteemed journalist Ken Rosenthal from the MLB Network just because he questioned Commissioner Rob Manfred was not the way to do it. There isn’t a lot of optimism that there will be a new labor agreement anytime soon; then again, there’s a history of getting deals done at the very last minute.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tomorrow Never Flies: Vaera 2021 (2)

Pre-Game Chatter: How often do you forget what day it is? Do you need to check your watch, phone, or a wall calendar to remember? Why is it sometimes so easy to forget?

As God begins to rain down plagues upon the Egyptians, Moses delivers a heads-up to Pharaoh when the next one would come about:

The Pitch: “‘And I will make a distinction between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass.’” – Exodus 8:19

Swing #1: “The new element which enters in the fourth plague is the setting of a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The land of Goshen is set apart and does not experience the flies. Commentators are divided as to whether the sparing of Israel from the plagues was intended from the start.” – Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

Swing #2: “Sometimes tomorrow means the next day, and sometimes it means the time to come. … But the verse ‘Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass’ actually refers to the next day.” – Midrash Tanhuma

Swing #3: “Moses announced the timing so that Pharaoh would not attribute the phenomenon to mere chance.” – Rashbam

Late-Inning Questions: Why is making a separation between the Israelites and the Egyptians so important to God? Might this have something to do with the reason God warns Pharaoh about this plague? Is God trying to tell the Israelites to take cover while the Egyptians are punished? Or is there a desire for God to appear distinct from Pharaoh? What are the best ways to make ourselves distinct?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Starting January 8th, our Shabbat Learner’s Service will move from monthly to weekly. We’ll continue to meet on Zoom from 9:00-9:30 am. You’re welcome to join the discussion, whether or not you’re learning for the first time.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of distinction, many baseball fans oppose requiring the pitcher to throw a pitch within a certain number of seconds, because they take pride that baseball is a game without a clock. But I contend that modern viewers, with our shorter attention spans, will no longer tolerate games that often extend past 3½  or even four hours.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Secular New Year!

At First Glance: Shemot 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you like to keep track of the many “firsts” in your life? How about (if you have them) your childrens’ lives? How might that activity add value to our lives?

In this first portion of the book of Exodus, God promises that nothing will interfere with the people God cares about the most:

The Pitch: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’” – Exodus 4:22-23

Swing #1: “Ties between a deity and his or her worshipers, a king and his people, human treaty partners, members of professional classes, and friends are all shaped, at least in part, by the rhetoric and/or presuppositions of idealized familial relations according to our texts. Yhwh, a father to Israel his firstborn son, ought to be honored as a father is honored by his son.” – Saul M. Olyan, Friendship in the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “The question posed … in what sense could Israel be God’s ‘firstborn son’? – engendered two rival motifs, ‘God’s Thought of Israel First’ (found only in Jubilees) and ‘Firstborn by Dint of Discipline.’ According to the latter motif, Israel was not born Israel’s firstborn at all; that is, God’s assertion … was not intended in any genetic or chronological sense. Instead, ‘firstborn’ here was a title that Israel received after it was already in existence, in consideration of its special standing with God.” – James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and his Children

Swing #3: “The magic tricks that Moses was empowered to perform with the rod of God – turning a staff into a snake and water into blood – were feeble when compared to the terrible fate that God had already decreed for Pharaoh … So Moses rode on, perhaps comforted by the knowledge that God intended to back up his promises with blood, but not suspecting who the first target of God’s bloodthirstiness would turn out to be.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Moses: A Life

Late-Inning Questions: Why is it important to God for Israel to be God’s “firstborn”? How is the firstborn motif carried throughout the story of the Exodus? Given how often firstborns are passed over in the book of Genesis, why would God frame the Israelites in this way? Why do we focus so much on birth order?

On-Deck at TBT: Starting January 8th, our Shabbat Learner’s Service will move from monthly to weekly. We’ll continue to meet on Zoom from 9:00-9:30 am. You’re welcome to join the discussion, whether or not you’re learning for the first time.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of firsts, it’s possible that, for the first time in a while, the Baseball Writers Association might not elect someone to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the second year in a row. This is a residue of the steroid era; many journalists don’t wish to be in a position to evaluate the historical place of players from that time period. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

Shabbat Shalom!

110 Percent: Vayehi 2021 (2)

Pre-Game Chatter: Why is Joseph not included in the typical listing of the Patriarchs? Is it because he doesn’t have a direct conversation with God, unlike his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather? Is it because he has too many brothers for him to be singled out (regardless of how hard Jacob tried to do so)?

The span of Joseph’s lifetime is described in the Torah somewhat differently than those of his ancestors:

The Pitch: “So Joseph and his father’s household remained in Egypt. Joseph lived one hundred and ten years. Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were likewise born upon Joseph’s knees.” – Genesis 50:22-23

Swing #1: “[The text] reports Joseph’s age as 110 when he expired. As long ago as 1864 it was recognized that this figure represents the ideal lifetime in Egypt that influenced the author of the biblical Joseph story. Clearly, the life span 110 was not an Israelite ideal. Rather, seventy is held up as a normative life span and eighty years as the ideal.” – James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition

Swing #2: “The word ‘likewise’ is meant to include Ephrayim and his children in what is described in this verse. How are we to understand this in practice? Joseph only saw Ephrayim’s grandchildren, whereas he did live to see Menashe’s great grandchildren.” – Chizkuni

Swing #3: “In spite of this, Ephrayim was more fruitful and multiplied more than Menashe, as Yaakov had said: ‘his younger brother will become greater than he.’” – Rashbam

Late-Inning Questions: Why do you think Joseph’s lifespan is a fair amount shorter than those of his ancestors? Should that matter, especially since it is a longer lifetime than the typical Israelite? Does an ideal lifespan length exist? To borrow a phrase from Satchel Paige, is age simply mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We have two collection barrels near our coat room. One will continue to collect non-perishable food to be donated to local food pantries. There is always a need. The second barrel will be used to collect items for our new Afghan neighbors. With our new partnership with Jewish Family Service, items will be collected regularly. To see the complete list of what is needed to welcome the evacuees to Buffalo, click here. Gift cards are valued, but please leave those with a member of the office staff, not in the barrel.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s fascinating that the San Francisco Giants, one of MLB’s oldest teams (in terms of players’ average ages), had the best record in the National League in 2021, while the Tampa Bay Rays, one its youngest teams, finished at the top of the American League. But as we saw, neither extreme necessarily led to postseason success …

Shabbat Shalom!

Say it Ain’t So, Joe: Vayigash 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we evaluate otherwise admirable people who make a prominent mistake? Does it depend on the mistake? Does it depend on how much we admire them?

Joseph is successful, intelligent, God-fearing, and forgiving – but his decision to make the Egyptians serfs of Pharaoh is a blight on his resume:

The Pitch: “And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s.” – Genesis 47:26

Swing #1: “Joseph provides short-term relief in the midst of a ghastly famine, but he also systematically and relentlessly strips the people bare. There is something to be said for administrative aptitude, but it is sobering to realize that it can be coupled with profound shortsightedness. It is also a great virtue to behave honestly and honorably with our superiors. But the greatest test of character may lie elsewhere – in the empathy we display toward those who stand powerless before us.” – Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus

Swing #2: “Joseph out-Pharaoh’s Pharaoh, acting toward Pharaoh’s people as the later tyrannical Pharaoh (who knew not Joseph) will act toward Joseph’s people and, not incidentally, toward the Egyptians. … Joseph’s sagacity is technical and managerial, not moral and political. He is long on forethought and planning but short on understanding the souls of men.” – Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

Swing #3: “‘Into a land law’ – without repeal.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: Joseph’s decision to essentially make Egyptians into debt slaves is not commonly discussed when we reflect on his life. Does this change the way you feel about his character? Do you think he does this because of the desire for power, or because of an ill-conceived desire to help the Egyptian people? Do our decisions get worse when we’re granted more power?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We have two collection barrels near our coat room. One will continue to collect non-perishable food to be donated to local food pantries. There is always a need. The second barrel will be used to collect items for our new Afghan neighbors. With our new partnership with Jewish Family Service, items will be collected regularly. To see the complete list of what is needed to welcome the evacuees to Buffalo, click here. Gift cards are valued, but please leave those with a member of the office staff, not in the barrel.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of poor decisions by the powerful, MLB’s decision to literally blot out the faces of modern players on its website has only infuriated the players at the start of the lockout. The owners need to realize that baseball is nothing without its players and can’t take them for granted.

Shabbat Shalom!

Goblet of Fear: Miketz 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever been caught “red-handed”? How did you react? Were you able to acknowledge your misstep, or did you try to find some way to blame someone else, or to deny what other people could clearly see?

As Joseph’s brothers’ return to Canaan is foiled by the discovery of a royal goblet in Benjamin’s luggage, Joseph has a specific punishment in mind:

The Pitch: “But [Joseph] replied [to his brothers], ‘Far be it from me to act thus! Only he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave; the rest of you go back in peace to your father.’” – Genesis 44:17

Swing #1: “It was God’s will that [Joseph’s brothers] be punished because of their real crime – selling Joseph into slavery. They bear the actual guilt and not the one in whose saddle bag the goblet was found. But Joseph pushes the issue; he wants to repeat the scene: He insists that Benjamin remain alone in Egypt as his slave, while the other brothers return in peace to Canaan. Benjamin, the extension of Joseph, will suffer as he did.” – Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives

Swing #2: “Here is the most important part of the test which Joseph made his brothers endure: he wants to isolate them from Benjamin; he wants to prove them, to learn whether they will seize the opportunity to go free without Benjamin. Now they could again return to their father and announce to him the loss of a son; they could even justify themselves, for so far as they knew Benjamin alone was actually guilty and the balance of power was completely unfavorable to them.” – Gerhard von Rad, Genesis

Swing #3: “Seeing that the Torah focuses on the ten brothers and the grievous wrong they had done to their brother Joseph, it is not surprising that the Torah also uses this opportunity to hint at the historical consequences of the brothers’ behavior at the time. Our sages in [the Talmudic tractate of] Pesachim go so far as to say that the acceptance of God’s decree by the ten martyrs who died a cruel death at the hands of the Romans for a crime committed over fifteen hundred years earlier put these people into a class by themselves, one that could not be matched in piety/faith by anyone else previously.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators understand this verse in the context of the narrative of the book of Genesis? In the context of Jewish history? Knowing that Joseph planted the goblet in Benjamin’s luggage, is Joseph’s behavior justifiable? Is the book of Genesis just stories of one deception after another? What do we make of the idea that this formative text is filled with trickery?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Families are invited to join us tomorrow night starting at 5:15 p.m. for “Havdallah, Hanukkah, and Hash Browns” – featuring candle-lighting, songs, food crafts, and latkes!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of trickery, it’s obviously difficult to create a labor agreement between players and owners when either side doesn’t trust the other. Let’s hope this lockout, at the very least, doesn’t lead to any games being cancelled.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

Why So Blue?: Vayeshev 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: How many times a day are you asked some version of, “How are you?” How often do you give a thorough answer? How often do you give a truthful answer?

In the depths of an Egyptian prison, Joseph asks a type of this question to two of Pharaoh’s incarcerated servants – leading to a conversation that changes Joseph’s fate forever:

The Pitch: “[Joseph] asked Pharaoh’s courtiers, who were with him in custody in his master’s house, saying, ‘Why do you appear downcast today?’” – Genesis 40:7

Swing #1: “Besides Joseph’s many outstanding qualities, which we ought to try and emulate, in this rather simple passage Joseph reminds us to be genuinely interested in other people’s well-being. And that it should not be beneath our dignity – nor should we be inhibited – to make an honest and sincere enquiry as to their condition. Who knows? It may not only change their lives, but ours.” – Rabbi Yossy Goldman, From Where I Stand: Life Messages From the Weekly Torah Reading

Swing #2: “It is interesting that Joseph was concerned about their welfare. The incident hints that Joseph had something of the healer in him, a quality that goes along with [his] shamanistic type of personality.” – John A. Sanford, The Man Who Wrestled With God

Swing #3: “His master had entrusted the [prisoners’] well-being to him … If it had not been for this, it would not have been appropriate for Joseph to enquire into the private affairs of these ministers awaiting their final sentence.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators believe that this seemingly mundane moment of conversation is included in our text? Do you get the sense that Joseph asks the question out of sincere concern, or just to make small talk? How do we know when small talk becomes something bigger?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Please join us virtually to light candles each night of Hanukkah! Times and the Zoom link are on the TBT website.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of small talk, it can be amusing to watch opposing baseball players schmooze on the basepaths between pitches. It’s a heartening reminder that, even in the heat of competition, these athletes can see each other as more than simply opponents.

Shabbat Shalom!

Separation Anxiety: Vayishlakh 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: How often do you make decisions “just because”? Have you ever made a major life decision because of a whim, or at least without a major reason why?

After Jacob declines his brother’s proposal to have their families dwell near each other, Esau has a clear reason to pack up and move elsewhere:

The Pitch: “Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob.” – Genesis 36:6

Swing #1: “Most of the second half of the Book of Genesis presents the story of Jacob and his sons as the ancestors of all Israel. Yet the right of Jacob and his descendants to possess the land was apparently contested by closely related groups of people represented by Jacob’s brother Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites. Genesis 36 focuses entirely on Esau and his descendants. In so doing, it mentions his daughters as well as his sons, wives, and other household members. The sons and wives have names elsewhere in the chapter, but not so the daughters. Perhaps they are included in the description of Esau’s household to parallel the presence of daughters in Jacob’s family.” – Women in Scripture, Carol Meyers, ed.

Swing #2: “[The end of the verse is] either ‘from the presence’ or ‘on account of’ [Jacob].” – E. A. Speiser, Genesis: A New Translation and Commentary

Swing #3: “Esau had to leave Eretz Yisrael because that land ‘vomits’ people who behave in a grossly incestuous manner. Isaac was the model of refinement in every respect. The reason God blessed him in such an extraordinary fashion was to demonstrate the fact to one and all that sexually pure conduct unlocks all the bounty of the land of Israel to those who dwell in it.” – Shenei Luchot HaBerit

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators believe that Esau’s departure from Canaan says more about him or about Jacob? What might have happened if Esau and his family had stayed in Canaan, against Jacob’s wishes? Does Esau have good enough justification to leave Canaan? How many of our decisions require justification to others?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Our next Drive-Up event, which will take place Sunday, November 21st, from 10:30 am-12 noon, will solicit items to help new Afghan refugees moving to Buffalo.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of justifying our decisions, assuming the MLB owners lock out the players at the beginning of next month, it will be interesting to hear the owners explain their reasoning. Will the public believe that the players make too much money, given how much wealthier the owners are? Or will fans be frustrated at both the owners and the players, like they were in 1994 and 1995?

Shabbat Shalom!

Statues of Mystery: Vayetze 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: What’s the sneakiest thing you’ve ever done? Do you regret it now? Or is the story of your heist a jolly anecdote you like to tell?

Knowing that both her father and husband are both tricksters doesn’t stop Rachel from joining the fray:

The Pitch: “Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols.” – Genesis 31:19

Swing #1: “These [idols] are icons which may relate to ancestor worship. Ancestor veneration was common in Israel at least until the reign of King Hezekiah. King Josiah burns teraphim [idols] along with other items related to communicating with the dead in II Kings 23:24.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #2: “These statuettes or amulets were probably small and made of clay or metal. We are given no hint why Rachel wanted them. Perhaps they were made of valuable gold or silver and would provide her with her missing endowment. Perhaps she still worshiped them. In any case, they must have played an important role as guardian deities and good-luck pieces in the religious life of Laban’s household, for their disappearance angers him more than anything else.” – W. Sibley Towner, Genesis

Swing #3: “I believe that the teraphim are human images made to draw power from above. I am not permitted to explain this any further [lest people learn to make them]. … The most likely reason that Rachel stole the teraphim was that Laban, her father, was an astrologer, and Rachel feared that he would look at the stars and discover which way they fled.” – Ibn Ezra

Late-Inning Questions: Do you have a theory as to why Rachel wants Laban’s idols? Does her theft seem consistent with the other things we know about Rachel? Does one clever trick deserve another?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’ll be leading another Learner’s Service this Saturday, but please note that it will start a half-hour earlier than prior sessions. Join us here from 9:00-10:00 a.m.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of trickery, there is an air of mistrust at the beginning of the offseason as baseball’s owners and players may be just weeks away from the game’s first work stoppage since 1995. While posturing is a key aspect of labor negotiations, the two sides need to be careful not to push it too far; the game’s popularity hangs in the balance, and baseball can’t afford another string of bad public relations.

Shabbat Shalom!