Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Linens and Things: Tazria-Metzora 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Are there passages in the Torah that seem too absurd to believe? Are they unbelievable to you because you can’t imagine them taking place in the modern world, or because you can’t imagine them happening at all?

For some, the idea that one’s clothes can contract the same skin diseases as humans do is a bridge too far:

The Pitch: “When an eruptive affection occurs in a cloth of wool of linen fabric, in the warp or in the woof of the linen or the wool, or in a skin or in anything made of skin; if the affection in the cloth or the skin, in the warp or the woof, or in any article of skin, is streaky green or red, it is an eruptive affection. It shall be shown to the priest; and the priest, after examining the affection, shall isolate the affected article for seven days.” – Leviticus 13:47-50

Swing #1: “Garment ailments, according to Leviticus, should be treated exactly the same way as skin diseases. So if your shirt suddenly develops an ‘eruptive affection,’ then the priest must be called to examine it, quarantine it, and diagnose it. Are your Levi’s suffering from a ‘malignant eruption’? Has your favorite silk blouse ever been afflicted with the dreaded ‘streaky green or red’ illness? I have no idea what this passage is talking about. Is there some deadly apparel plague that Burberry and the Gap have successfully hushed up?” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “Since the Jewish people never reached the standard of being worthy of this sign of Divine grace, there is no record of these plagues occurring in their dwellings, till our Sages maintained: ‘The infected dwelling never existed, and never will exist’ (Sanhedrin 71a).” – Sforno

Swing #3: “God exercises justice in the order of the divine plagues which are visited upon men. God begins first with a man’s house. If the man repents, the requirement is no more than that the stones of the house, stones discolored by the plague, be taken out. … If the man does not repent, the requirement is that the stones [and the house itself] be broken down. … Next, God begins on the man’s garments. If the man repents, the requirement is no more than that the part of the garment spotted by the plague be rent out. … But if the man does not repent, the requirement is that the garment be built. … Then God begins on the man’s body. If the man repents, [he will be cured of his leprous-like scales] and will be free to go where he likes; but if he does not repent, [stricken with leprosy], ‘he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be’ (Leviticus 13:46).” – Pesikta D’Rav Kahana

Late-Inning Questions: How are our commentators divided on whether to believe that a garment could contract a disease? Are there things that seemed plausible during biblical times which are also impossible today? Do we live in a time when fewer things are possible?

On-Deck at TBT: I’m excited to start a monthly learners’ service which focuses on specific aspects of the Shabbat morning service. These learners’ services, which will take place initially on Zoom, will be concurrent with the first hour of our Saturday morning services. The first will take place Saturday, May 15th, and will be accessed through this link.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of things that seem to be too unbelievable to be true, I’ve always been fond of the compliment paid to Cool Papa Bell, one of the greatest Negro League players, who was said to be so fast, he could turn off the light switch in his bedroom and be in bed before the room got dark.

Shabbat Shalom!

Death Becomes It: Shmini 2021

Note: I didn’t publish the previous two weeks due to my need to send different kinds of posts to my congregation on those Fridays. Welcome back!

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever shied away from someone simply because you didn’t wish to be associated with that person? When are such precautions necessary? Are there times when doing so is unfair to the other person?

As the Torah begins to explore the concept of ritual cleanliness, we learn of the consequences of coming into literal contact with a deceased animal:

The Pitch: “Anything on which one of them falls when dead shall be unclean: be it any article of wood, or a cloth, or a skin, or a sack – any such article that can be put to use shall be dipped in water, and it shall remain unclean until evening; then it shall be clean.” – Leviticus 11:32

Swing #1: “Objects like containers, tools, and musical instruments that come into contact with the carcass of these animals must be washed. The prohibition does not apply to surfaces like floors or tables.” – The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi & Andrea L. Weiss, ed.

Swing #2: “I might think that flesh which separates from a living creature confers tumah. It is, therefore, written ‘in their death.’ Just as death has no ‘replacement,’ so, a limb from a living creature has no replacement, (to exclude flesh, which does replace itself.) These are the words of R. Yossi Haglili. R. Akiva says: Just as death (involves) sinews and bones, so ever min hechai (to confer tumah, must involve) sinews and bones. Rebbi says: Just as a sheretz is flesh, sinews, and bones, so ever min hechai (must be) flesh, sinews, and bones.” – Sifra

Swing #3: “According to the plain meaning of the text it would appear that the words מהם במותם, ‘of them when they are dead,’ refer to what the Torah had written earlier in the context of בהמה טמאה, חיה, שרץ, mammals and all land based animals which are ritually unclean and cannot serve as food for Israelites, for why would the Torah mention ritual impurity affecting clothing as a separate subject, seeing that the same rules of impurity also apply to cadavers. Similarly, they all require the same qualifying symptoms in order to potentially be fit for consumption by Israelites. The Torah therefore is presumed to speak of all of these categories here.” – Tur HaAroch

Late-Inning Questions: What is the purpose of temporarily changing the status of something that comes into contact of certain dead animals? How should we evaluate a system that renders certain objects as “unclean”? Should we consider anything to be untouchable?

On-Deck at TBT: I hope you’ll join me in watching the Holocaust Resource Center’s Yom HaShoah remembrance program this Sunday at 11:00 a.m. You can still register here.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of refusing to associate with someone suspicious, there is still controversy whether Buck Weaver, one of the eight Chicago White Sox players permanently banned from baseball as a result of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, should have been punished, since Weaver met with gamblers but (unlike the other seven players) never agreed to take their money. Still, Major League Baseball still ruled that Weaver’s mere association with the gamblers justified his downfall.

Shabbat Shalom!

Finger-Dippin’ Good: Vayikra 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you have a favorite or lucky number? In what ways, if any, do you incorporate that number into your life?

As the text Torah describing Israelite sacrificial rites, symbolism is found everywhere:

The Pitch: “The priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the curtain of the Shrine.” – Leviticus 4:6

Swing #1: “[This ritual] does not contain any explication regarding the meaning of this specific subrite. However, during the Day of Atonement ritual, the same subrite is again used. … Clearly the sprinkling rite carries two distinct meanings within the same ritual context.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Swing #2: “The priest’s action is directed at the curtain. This is its purely physical direction. There is, however, a relational and ‘theological’ direction to the act. … While the curtain is identified in its relation to the outer room, the gesture directed at it is defined in relation to Yahweh’s manifest presence in the inner room.” – William K. Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power

Swing #3: “The number seven occurs on many separate occasions repeatedly in matters involving heaven. There are seven constellations of major stars, we speak of seven layers of the heavens … there are seven deserts mentioned in the Torah … the week has seven days, we count seven years of the sabbatical cycle, seven times seven for the Jubilee cycle. The candlestick in the Temple had seven lamps. Bileam, the sorcerer, built seven different altars.” – Chizkuni

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators understand the kinds of symbolism found in the act of sprinkling blood? Do you think this symbolism is understood by the people involved in these rituals, or are they meant more as symbols for God or for the reader of the text? How often do we find meaning in our actions as they are happening?

On-Deck at TBT: Drive up to Beth Tzedek on Sunday between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. to donate non-Passover food for those in need, sell your hametz, and receive a bag of Passover goodies!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of finding meaning in our actions as they are happening, one of baseball’s most endearing images of the last few years was when Mariano Rivera finished his final relief appearance. In front of a sold-out Yankee Stadium, Rivera wept onto the shoulders of his longtime teammates while the adoring crowd cheered in appreciation of his Hall of Fame career. It was nostalgia at its finest.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Straight and Narrow: Vayakhel-Pekudei 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you prefer to arrange the things you own in a symmetrical way? Or are you more comfortable with things scattered about?

As the Israelites finally build the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), we find numerous examples of spatial equilibrium:

The Pitch: “Fifteen cubits of hangings on the other flank — on each side of the gate of the enclosure — with their three posts and their three sockets.” – Exodus 38:15

Swing #1: “The idea is that the two sides mirrored each other.” – Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus

Swing #2: “Just as there [with regard to the Tabernacle, an entrance] five [cubits high] by twenty [cubits] wide [is considered a doorway], so too here, [with regard to the laws of Eruv, an entrance] five [cubits high] by twenty [cubits] wide [should be considered a doorway].” – BT Eruvin 2b

Swing #3: “‘On this side and on that side.’ These words apply to the previous two verses, each set of hanging curtains being on either side of the entrance gate to the courtyard.” – Chizkuni

Late-Inning Questions: Why do you think the design of the Mishkan is so symmetrical? Is God trying to make things as straightforward as possible for the Israelite builders? Or might God simply prefer a simple design for God’s own house? What are the advantages to keeping things simple?

On-Deck at TBT: We’re offering both Seders on Zoom this year. The first, on Saturday, March 27th, at 8:30 p.m., will be a Temple Beth Tzedek-run Seder; you can register for it here. The second, on Sunday, March 28th, at 6:30 p.m., will be run by TBT, Temple Beth Zion, and Congregation Shir Shalom; you can register for it here.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of simple designs, many baseball fans (myself included) prefer ballparks with asymmetrical outfields and fences of different heights, since this adds character to the structure and intrigue to the game. But I also wonder whether it’s strange to literally have an unlevel playing field. Could you imagine this in football, basketball, or hockey?

Shabbat Shalom!

Calf-Baked: Ki Tisa 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever used a far-fetched reason to defend your dubious behavior? Did the people around you believe you, or did they see right through you?

Aaron’s role in the building of the Golden Calf is difficult to explain — certainly to Moses — but that doesn’t prevent others from trying:

The Pitch: “Moses saw that the people were out of control — since Aaron had let them get out of control — so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.” – Exodus 32:25

Swing #1: “Aaron knows he is in trouble. The very salutation he uses to Moses [during this episode] — ‘my lord’ — is akin to the one used by Jacob to mollify Esau, whose birthright he had taken.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #2: “Aaron’s whole purpose [in leading the construction of the Golden Calf] had been to further God’s interests, to prevent a desecration of God’s name. Aaron was aware that the people had forfeited their lives already from the moment they had planned to make an alternate deity for themselves.” – Shenei Luchot HaBerit

Swing #3: “Anyone who answers [the Kaddish with]: ‘Amen, may God’s great name be blessed’ … they rip [up] his sentence. … even one who has within him a trace of idolatry [as in the case of the Golden Calf].” – BT Shabbat 119b

Late-Inning Questions: Why do some commentators seem eager to excuse Aaron in the matter of the Golden Calf? Even if he thought he was blameless, should Aaron have taken the blame for the incident in order to save the people from worse punishment? What stops us from taking ownership of our shortcomings?

On-Deck at TBT: We’re thrilled to be joined tomorrow by Apple Domingo, who will speak on behalf of Jewish Family Services of Western New York about Refugee Shabbat, a day when we pause to recognize the plight of millions of refugees around the world. Services will begin Saturday at 9:30am.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of never taking ownership, it will be interesting to see how fans (to the extent they’ll be allowed in ballparks) will react to the Houston Astros when they take the field in 2021. This will be the first opportunity for the public to approach many of the players implicated in the sign-stealing imbroglio that has tainted the team’s recent success.

Shabbat Shalom!

Dress For the Job You Want: Tetzaveh 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Have your fashion choices changed since the beginning of the pandemic? Are you relieved to wear comfortable clothes more often? Or do you try to wear the same clothes as usual in the interest of maintaining a sense of normalcy?

As the Torah describes the Israelite priests’ wardrobe, the vibe is anything but casual:

The Pitch: “You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs. They shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die. It shall be a law for all time for him and for his offspring to come.” – Exodus 28:42-43

Swing #1: “The sacred cults of Canaan had considerable display of sexual organs and of nudity. The worship of Yahweh was to be absolutely pure of such contamination.” – William Graham Cole, Sex and Love in the Bible

Swing #2: “The social order that [part of the Torah] conceives is one in which priestly power and ritual is exerted on a permanent basis. … The priestly rules are, likewise, a perpetual ordinance to be sustained by the Israelites.” – J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction

Swing #3: “And whence is it derived that he is liable only at the time of officiating (i.e., if he drank and then officiated)? From (‘you and your sons) with you.’ Rebbi says: It is written here ‘when you come (to the tent of meeting’) and elsewhere (Exodus 28:43): ‘when they come to the tent of meeting.’ Just as there, leaving is equated with entering, and the altar with the tent of meeting, and there is liability only at the time of officiating, the same is true here.” – Sifra

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators relate the priests’ dress with their work and their character? Is it significant that these rules are supposed to be permanent, immune to fashions that change with the times? Do clothes make the man and woman?

On-Deck at TBT: My friend Benny Zelkowicz is a man of many talents, and I’m excited that he’ll be presenting his new book, The Golem’s Gift, in an exclusive Zoom event for our congregation on Sunday, March 7th, at 4:00 pm! Send an email to rsvp@btzbuffalo.org to make your reservation.

The Big Inning at the End: There is a fascinating sub-culture that meticulously examines every aspect imaginable of baseball uniforms (and those of other sports as well). I find sites like uni-watch.com, as well as others, to be highly entertaining, albeit periodically obsessive. It’s just another way to celebrate the game.

Shabbat Shalom!

Goat-Busters: Terumah 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: What is the strangest creation you’ve ever made? Was the creation of your own invention, or did you get the idea from someone else? Were you able to take pride in what you made?

Assigned to create a holy structure in the middle of the wilderness, the Israelites are commanded to use all kinds of materials to complete the Mishkan, God’s portable sanctuary:

The Pitch: “You shall then make cloths of goats’ hair for a tent over the Tabernacle; make the cloths eleven in number.” – Exodus 26:7

Swing #1: “Goat hair can be spun into yarn and then woven into waterproof cloth. It has been used for tents in the Middle East for millennia.” – The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi & Andrea L. Weiss, ed.

Swing #2: “Here one gets the impression that ‘tent’ is being used to describe the cover that fits on the wooden structure of the Mishkan.” – James K. Hoffheimer, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition

Swing #3: “The purpose of what was called ‘Mishkan’ had not been to serve as a tent, but to assure that the cherubs would be surrounding the Shechinah.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Do you get the sense that it was normal for our ancestors to use many types of materials to create the things they needed? Do we make the most of the resources we have available to us today? What are the consequences if we don’t?

On-Deck at TBT: Purim is coming next week! Check out this link for all that we’re doing for the holiday.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of making the most of our resources, the 2019 Seattle Mariners set a record by using 67 different players in one season. Let’s hope that the continuing pandemic doesn’t cause that record to be shattered in 2021.

Shabbat Shalom!

Women and Children First: Mishpatim 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever needed to tell someone, “Do as I say, not as I do”? If so, did you feel hypocritical? Or did you reason that different people need different kinds of advice?

As God continues to reveal laws at Mount Sinai, the threats of anger and vengeance unseemly among people also appears to be Godly:

The Pitch: “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” – Exodus 22:21-23

Swing #1: “Since widow and orphans have no father, husband, or master to protect them, and since, in theory anyway, they cannot care for themselves, they are the direct responsibility of no one. Thus, in terms of covenant law, they are treated as outsiders, of the same category as non-Israelites. Protecting them is up to God.” – Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire

Swing #2: “[In the Mekhilta,] Rabbi Ishmael interprets this [phrase] to mean any kind of abuse, great or small. Thus according to Rabbi Ishmael’s reading, God promises, for any mistreatment, no matter how trivial, ‘I will kill you with the sword.’” – Chaya T. Halberstam, Law & Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature

Swing #3: “As for Hillel, because of his great modesty, no man could make him angry, for he who holds himself back from anger will acquire the qualities of modesty and compassion, while from wrath comes the quality of cruelty.” – Orchot Tzadikim

Late-Inning Questions: Is God’s threats of violence understandable given God’s promise to protect the vulnerable? Or do they seem excessive for a religion that also preaches tolerance and patience? How can we tell the difference between justified and unjustified anger?

On-Deck at TBT: We’ve almost reached the month of Adar, which means Purim is coming! Check out this link for all that we’re doing for the holiday.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of anger and wrath, Earl Weaver, the legendary Baltimore Orioles manager, once said that his tombstone should read, “The sorest loser who ever lived.” I’d be indebted to anyone who could show a picture of his actual tombstone …

Shabbat Shalom!

A Fire in the Sky: Yitro 2021

Pre-Game Chatter: Are you afraid of fire? If not, how did you overcome that fear? If you are, how do ou cope with tasks such as lighting a candle?

As God prepares to speak to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, a display of fire impacts the Israelites on multiple levels:

The Pitch: “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently” – Exodus 19:18

Swing #1: “The text uses … the adverb ‘very’ [violently] in the sense of an absolute superlative. The intention of the author/editor of this passage seems to be clear. Both people and nature (specifically, the sacred space of the covenant-making ritual) tremble equally before YHWH.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Swing #2: “I might think the place of the divine Presence alone [was in smoke]; it is, therefore, written ‘was all.’ … We are hereby apprised that the Torah is fire, that it was given from fire, and that it is comparable to fire, i.e., just as with fire, if one gets (too) close to it, he is burned, and if he is (too) far from it, he is chilled, so, (with Torah) one must ‘heat’ himself only by its light (and not by its flames).” – Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael

Swing #3: “Seeing that we are terrestrial human beings, bound to concepts which we can visualize, the Torah cannot describe matters of a spiritual nature except by using terms familiar to us from our daily experience on earth.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: How does the presence of fire make the scene at Mount Sinai more dramatic? How does it illuminate (no pun intended) the hopes and fears of the people? Which people and ideas cause you to light up?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: It’s not too late to register for our Klein Scholar lecture series, which will take place on Saturday nights at 7:00 p.m. throughout February. Email kleinscholar@btzbuffalo.org.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of fire, I love the story of New York Yankees Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez lighting a match before stepping into the batter’s box to face an intimidating pitcher. When the umpire asked Gomez whether he could see the pitcher, he replied that he could, but “I just want to make sure he can see me.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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!