Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Don’t Stand Idol-ly By: Ekev 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever burned or broken a relic of a time in your life you came to regret? To what extent was such an action cathartic? To what extent was it counterproductive?

Our Torah portion encourages the Israelites to delete any sign of past idolatry:

The Pitch: “You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to the Lord your God. You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be proscribed like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, for it is proscribed.” – Deuteronomy 7:25-26

Swing #1: “It may come to pass that silver and gold which you have taken from an idol will bring you great profit in commerce. This may lead you to wonder whether your good fortune is not due to the power of the idol from whom you have taken them. And thus the gold and silver which you took from the idol may lead you into idol-worship.” – Sforno

Swing #2: “Abhorrence and detestation are emotions. They belong to another tradition, where argument depends on appeal to feeling. In the Hellenistic period the dominant reading could easily have been on these lines.” – Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature

Swing #3: “Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: ‘Whoever possesses a presumptuous nature is like one who serves idols; for it is said, “An abomination of the Lord is everyone that is proud of heart [Leviticus 16:5],” and the following passage reads, “You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house.”’” – Ein Yaakov

Late-Inning Questions: To our commentators, what are the dangers of maintaining the memory of past idolatrous practices? Why is the idea of idolatry so much more loathsome to the biblical writers than most (if not all) other wrongdoings? What kinds of idols do we construct today? Are we doing enough to tear them down?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We have updated links to our Adult Education offerings, which begin next week — click here for the details.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of idols, have the professional athletes attempting to compete during the time of COVID-19 earned even more of your admiration? Or are these endeavors only making these athletes seem more human?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

The One and Only: Vaethanan 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: What sentences in Jewish prayers are most familiar to you? What makes them particularly memorable?

The last line of the prayer known as “Aleinu” is particularly well-known to Jewish worshipers, frequent or occasional, but it also is based on a pivotal quote in this week’s Torah portion:

The Pitch: “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and one earth below; there is no other.” – Deuteronomy 4:39

Swing #1: “It is not sufficient merely to ‘know’ it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart, so that your will and your virtues both should function in conformity with what you know. This task constitutes the entire ‘worship’ incumbent on the Jew.” – Rabbi Israel Salanter

Swing #2: “Considering that Jews took monotheism to the top of the charts, the Bible has so far been surprisingly weak on the concept. But now we get the full-throated endorsement of one and only god that we’ve been waiting for.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #3: “One of the primary goals of [Deuteronomy] is to inculcate a sense of total loyalty to him. The emphasis on Yahweh’s uniqueness leads to the conclusion that he alone is able to bless the people and guarantee their security and prosperity.” – Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reapprisal

Late-Inning Questions: Does it surprise you that strict monotheism was not a vital concept in the earlier books of the Torah? Why would there be a shift in tone in Deuteronomy? Is it problematic for other religions to claim a different name and identity for their deity (or deities) and then to say that “we’re all praying to the same God”? If not, are we really strict monotheists after all?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’m looking forward to starting Adult Education classes in a couple of weeks. Keep your eye out for information on how to take part!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of praying to one God, it’s amusing that many sports fans have “religious experiences” when praying that their favorite team succeeds. (Not that I’m speaking of personal experience …) But in all seriousness, it’s certainly reasonable to pray for the speedy recovery of ball players who tested positive for COVID-19 — and to hope that it doesn’t spread even more.

Shabbat Shalom!

I Hate It When a Plan Doesn’t Come Together: D’varim 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever needed to give a motivational speech? What strategies did you employ in your speech? To what extent were you successful?

Most of the book of Deuteronomy is a lengthy motivational speech by Moses to the Israelites, in which the information usually matches previous sections of the Torah — but occasionally, it doesn’t:

The Pitch: “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.’ I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.” – Deuteronomy 1:22-23

Swing #1: “At this time Moses found even this a cause for remonstrating with the people, for when there is an opportunity to hear the Law expounded, it would be entirely proper to want to crowd around the master, pushing others aside in order to be able to hear every word.” – Rabbi Isaac Meir of Ger

Swing #2: “[In Numbers] it seems clear that God commanded Moses to send out the spies; the initiative certainly was not Moses’. … [But in Deuteronomy] the decision to send the spies is made by Moses at the people’s urging; God has no role in the decision. So which was it? Some interpreters decided that the latter was most likely the case, for surely an omniscient God would not have ordered that the spies be sent only to become angry later at the reaction to their ill report.” – James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was

Swing #3: “Reish Lakish says: [The implication of these words is that it seemed good] ‘in my eyes,’ but not in the eyes of the Omnipresent.” – BT Sotah 34b

Late-Inning Questions: What version of the story of the scouts makes more sense to you: the version in which God asks Moses to send the spies, or the one in which the Israelites and Moses make the decision? How does either version of the story alter our view of the story, if at all? Are small disagreements about facts really big disagreements in disguise?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Tisha B’Av commemorates numerous calamities in Jewish history, as well as our enduring spirit. Join us for meaningful teachings and services next week: Wednesday at 8:30pm for Ma’ariv, a teaching, and the reading of the book of Lamentations; Thursday at 7:15am for Shaharit and Kinot (songs of lamentation) and at 2:00pm for Minha.

The Big Inning at the End: Happy Opening Day … and speaking of disagreements about seemingly small facts, does it matter whether Babe Ruth really pointed to the outfield bleachers before his home run in the 1932 World Series? Or does the true story of his “called shot” — whatever it is — impact how we should feel about the Sultan of Swat?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

The Blame Game: Matot-Masei 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: When have you been let down by people you’ve looked up to? How did you reconcile your disappointment with the positive feelings you’ve had for them, and still might have?

As the book of Numbers nears it conclusions, Moses — who so often takes the burdens of the people upon himself — is uncharacteristically willing to cast blame and seek vengeance:

The Pitch: “‘Yet [the females] are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every [Midianite] male among the children, and slay also every [Midianite] woman who has known a man carnally …” – Numbers 31:16-17

Swing #1: “Balaam bears a message for Moses about the fate of leaders. Both Moses and Balaam are named to leadership. Both are ambivalent; they wish to go but are fearful. … After passing a test signifying obedience to God’s will by identification with the people entrusted to their care, a test carried out by a female (Zipporah and the she-ass), each fulfills these obligations, only to be beaten in the process.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #2: “The words of Moses to his army were ominous but rich with irony. He had many Midianites relations of his own, and yet the fact that the women and children of Midianites had been spared seemed to move him to a terrible rage.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Moses: A Life

Swing #3: “During [Moses’] anger the Holy Spirit departed from him. Hence you may learn that the impetuous man destroys his wisdom.” – Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer

Late-Inning Questions: Moses is known in the Hebrew Bible as a man of humility and loyalty, but also with a periodically hot temper. Does this side of Moses surprise you? Should we look at Moses more as a hero with flaws or as an ordinary man reacting to extraordinary challenges? How much are our opinions of others dependent on expectation rather than reality?

On Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Be sure to wish loved ones a happy new year by sending them honey — contact Marcia Goldstein at by July 20th. In a year with so many challenges, we could all do with a little more sweetness.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of how we form opinions of others, it’s interesting to see the wide discrepancies of reactions to great ballplayers accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs — for instance, many people feel differently about Mark McGwire than they do about Barry Bonds. Is this due to our opinions of the players’ personalities, or perhaps whether or not the players have confessed?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

The Iron Lady: Pinhas 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Does (or did) your family have a matriarch? If so, how does (or did) this woman impact subsequent generations?

The Hebrew Bible’s matriarchal characters are sometimes mentioned in passing, and this week, we find an all-too-brief reference to Serach, whose impact goes far beyond the Torah text:

The Pitch: “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serach.” – Numbers 26:46

Swing #1: “Serach not only lived a long life on earth, she never died. She is one of several righteous people who are said to have entered the Garden of Eden alive.” – Targum Yonatan

Swing #2: “Moses went to [Serach] and said to her: ‘Do you know anything about where Joseph is buried?’ She said to him: ‘The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile River so that its water would be blessed. …’” – BT Sotah 13a

Swing #3: “[Serach] had a large family which was called her name and which was included in the tally of the families of Asher’s descendants.” – Nachmanides

Late-Inning Questions: How many of our commentators’ stories about Serach were familiar to you before today? Does it make you curious to learn more about her? Why are seemingly minor literary characters the inspiration for creative storytelling?

On Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’m grateful to be a part of this warm and welcoming synagogue in Buffalo, NY, and I’m glad to promote its activities. Let’s start with this: Be sure to wish loved ones a happy new year by sending them honey — contact Marcia Goldstein at by July 20th. In a year with so many challenges, we could all do with a little more sweetness.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of people mentioned briefly, it’s fascinating that a man with a scanty entry in The Baseball Encyclopedia — Archibald “Moonlight” Graham — turns into a pivotal character in W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, which was the basis for the film Field of Dreams. Baseball, like the Torah, is the basis of remarkable midrash.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Irreplaceable: Hukkat-Balak 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: What people in your life possess a unique skill or gift? How would you compensate for those qualities when those people are not available to you?

Jewish tradition teaches that the Israelites had water in the wilderness due to the merit of Miriam, and her death gives the reader a moment to recognize how special she was:

The Pitch: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” – Numbers 20:1

Swing #1: “In our own day, Miriam’s well has become for us a symbol of Jewish women’s creativity, spirituality, collective experience, healing, and wisdom.” – Ellen Frankel, Ph.D., The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah

Swing #2: “With regard to Miriam it is not written: ‘By the mouth of the Lord’ [as with Moses’ death]. Rabbi Elazar says: Miriam also died with a kiss.” – BT Bava Batra

Swing #3: “[Miriam’s death was recorded in the Torah] only to show that Israel later sinned. Israel had no water there without Miriam, and [her days and years] were not specified when describing her death, as was done for Sarah.” – Zohar

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to think that Miriam is given proper credit for her role in the Israelite community? Is it our responsibility to emphasize Miriam’s contribution to the Torah narrative? How can we best celebrate our ancestors whose stories are too brief?

Shabbat Shalom, and wear a mask!

Give Peace a Chance: Korah 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Which people in your life have a way of smoothing out difficult situations? What qualities do they possess that enable them to be peace-makers?

When Korah and others directly challenge Moses’ leadership position, Moses’ response speaks volumes:

The Pitch: “Then [Moses] spoke to Korah and all this company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen.’” – Numbers 16:5

Swing #1: “We do not judge each other; that is God’s task, and we are not God.” – Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

Swing #2: “One who is concerned merely with ‘winning the argument’ will go to any extreme to come out on top. This attitude caused the downfall of the 250 leaders who joined Korach, rather than acknowledge the truth of Moshe’s declaration” – Si’ach Yitzhak

Swing #3: “‘Now (this hour of the day)’ — [Moses] meant — ‘is a time of excessive drinking, and it is therefore not proper to appear before Him’. But his real intention in postponing the matter was that perhaps they might repent (abandon their opposition).” – Tanhuma

Late-Inning Questions: How does Moses’ behavior deliberately contrast with that of Korach and his followers? From this and other examples in the Torah, does Moses seem to have an inclination toward peace, or do other examples suggest otherwise? Must one always incline toward peace to be considered a peaceful person?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I have been touched by recent tributes in my honor, most notably at last night’s Zoom Toast. Thank you to everyone who was a part of it. I plan to say a little more at our 5:00PM Kabbalat Shabbat virtual gathering tonight, which I will lead from our synagogue sanctuary.

The Big Inning at the End: There are still many unanswered questions regarding health and safety, but if we’re going to have a 60-game baseball season, may it bring us joy. PLAY BALL!

Shabbat Shalom, and WEAR A MASK!

The Bad Ol’ Days: Shelakh Lekha 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Why do we tend to look back at the past in an oversimplified manner? Is it because we can’t remember enough details to recall the nuances of past days? Or is it because we prefer to ignore such nuances?

Upon hearing negative perspectives about the Promised Land, the Israelites suddenly see slavery in Egypt as a preferable option:

The Pitch: “‘Why is the Lord taking us to the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” – Numbers 14:3

Swing #1: “The catastrophe of the narrative of the spies is conveyed through the imagery of ‘falling.’ They complain of a destiny, in which any claim to vertical stature will be doomed.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire

Swing #2: “[The Israelites] do not deny God directly, but by impugning the leadership of Moses they imply a deception. … This makes sense, if leaving Egypt behind meant also leaving behind the magic that liberated them from Egypt. If God (or Moses) is not a magician, He (or he) may be a seducer or a deceiver.” – Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Numbers”, from Congregation, David Rosenberg, ed. 

Swing #3: “They thought that these present troubles were all retribution for the abominable things they had been doing while in Egypt, or on account of some other cause they were not aware of which had caused God to hate them. ” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: In what ways do our commentators believe that the Israelites are misremembering Egyptian bondage? In what ways might the Israelites’ reaction seem reasonable? How do contemporary matters obscure our understanding of the past? How can we reclaim historical clarity, especially on events like Juneteenth which illuminate our modern need for racial justice?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Next week will be my final set of classes for Emanu-El; I invite you to tune in to Judaism 101 on Tuesday at 8:00PM, Lunchtime Torah on Wednesday at 12 noon, and Virtual Danish & D’rash on Wednesday at 7:00PM. The synagogue website includes links to register if you haven’t already done so.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Hair, There and Everywhere: B’ha’alotkha 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Should our bodies be artistic expressions of what we believe? Do we ever have the right to criticize others for treating their bodies in an artistic way that we find objectionable?

Our Torah portion this week speaks of how the Levites’ bodies need to be altered for the Divine service.

The Pitch: “This is what you shall do to [the Levites] to cleanse them: sprinkle on them water of purification, and let them go over their whole body with a razor, and wash their clothes; thus they shall be cleansed.” – Numbers 8:7

Swing #1: “God’s abhorrence of body hair continues. In Leviticus He praised bald men and ordered healed lepers to depilate. Now He mandates that His tabernacle servants purify themselves by shaving off all their body hair. (And on the eighth day, the Lord created the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.)” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “The need for this was due to people who had been contaminated through contact with the dead of the people who had been executed due to their involvement in worshiping the Golden Calf.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Swing #3: “When speaking of the process of purifying the Levites … the reason [is] that ‘hair’ symbolizes clothing, and clothing is something that separates between one’s essence and contact with something from the outside.” – Kedushat Levi

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentaries for this verse vary wildly; did you find a deeper meaning in it, or did you react to it more sardonically? Is it difficult to understand ancient rituals as products of their respective places and times, or can you find some universal meaning in them? Would you ever alter something on your body for another person or for a cause?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It’s a little bit belated, but I want to congratulate Bob Greenberg for being hired as Synagogue Emanu-El’s Executive Director. I’ve enjoyed talking to him in recent weeks and I believe he’ll be an excellent addition to the synagogue staff. I’m sure the Emanu-El community will reach out to enable him to feel at home.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Shema Yisrael — It’s Time to Start Listening

As we approach Shabbat after a horrific week of violence and unrest, I wish I could put proper perspective on the experiences of those in this country who live every day in fear. But sometimes, talking isn’t the answer — listening is. Instead, this week, I’ll let others talk, and encourage everyone (myself included) to listen. This week, of all weeks, may we take the words “Shema Yisrael” — “Hear, O Israel” —- to heart.

Here is an interactive site that details police brutality in the United States.

Here is a TED talk on deconstructing racism.

And here is a good summary of our need to stay active during this turbulent time.

It’s not much, but it’s a start. Wishing everyone a tranquil and meaningful Shabbat.