Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Poetry in Motion: Vayelekh 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What kind of writing do you prefer to read? Are you more interested in prose that is straightforward and to the point, or something more flowery and “artful”?

As Moses’s life draws to a close, he is asked to recite a poem as a final message to the Israelites:

The Pitch: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 31:19

Swing #1: “The poem is the entire Torah from beginning to end. And this was the purpose of the commandment, that each man should write a complete Torah scroll for himself, including the poem within it, so that nothing shall be missing from all the things that are in the Torah.” – Ralbag

Swing #2: “The meaning of the words ‘this poem’ is the poem which I am about to recite for you now, and that refers to the Torah portion Ha’azinu, and it is called a poem because Israel will forever recite it as a poem and a song, and also because it was written as poetry.” – Ramban

Swing #3: “But does God require a witness? Rather, the poem was to remind God not to judge Israel too harshly. For, through knowing their nature (Deuteronomy 31:21), God still chose them to be the covenanted people.” – Malbim

Late-Inning Questions: Is it significant that the Israelites needed to hear a poem at this moment in their history? Whom, do our commentators believe, most benefit from this form of communication? What kinds of words impact us the most? Can we remember the importance of words as we approach Yom Kippur, and hold ourselves accountable for the words we say and hear?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: As of this writing, Hurricane Florence does not appear to be as threatening to Charleston as was once feared, but we certainly hope for the safety of anyone in harm’s way. I am greatly appreciative of the many synagogues across the Eastern United States that have offered us hospitality and help during a scary time.

The Big Inning at the End: Ten years ago today, Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter against the Houston Astros … in Milwaukee. Why were they playing there? Because Hurricane Ike was threatening the Houston area, so the game was moved to a neutral site. Again, here’s hoping that Hurricane Florence’s threats mainly do not come to fruition.

Shabbat Shalom!

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“One Tribe”: My 2018 Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon

I need to give you a disclaimer: this sermon is really not about baseball. But I ask that you follow me for a couple minutes through a few baseballic elements, and then we’ll turn our attention elsewhere.

I decided to root for the Chicago Cubs when I was seven years old for a fairly obscure reason: my father liked them, not as much other teams, but he had fond memories of a Jewish pitcher in the 1960s and 70s named Ken Holtzman. It also didn’t hurt that, in 1984, when I first discovered baseball, the Cubs almost made the World Series. I decided then and there that I would be a fan of the team for life. And so I have. My son, Jonathan, on the other hand, likes the Cubs, but his favorite team is the Arizona Diamondbacks, because when he was three years old, I bought him a hat with the Diamondbacks logo, and he likes the hat. That’s all it took — his allegiance, seven years later, is to the Diamondbacks.

My reason for picking a favorite team is no better or worse than my son’s reason, or anyone else’s reason, for that matter. In fact, the absurdity of choosing a favorite team was famously summarized by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who noted that we continue to cheer for our chosen teams no matter how they perform on the field, and no matter who plays for them: “It’s different guys every year,” he said. “You’re rooting for clothes, when you get right down to it. We’re screaming about laundry.”

Usually, rooting for laundry is harmless; picking one sports franchise over another is not a reflection of our characters. But what if it were? In recent years, as our society has become more attuned to the ethical triumphs and failings of famous athletes, fans have begun to ask if there ever is a time when we should abandon our favorite teams. Several weeks ago, the Houston Astros traded for Roberto Osuna, an excellent relief pitcher who was suspended for 75 games earlier this year due to domestic abuse charges. Osuna, unfortunately, is far from the only athlete with ethical failings, but now that we know more about the people on the field, it raises the question whether we can or should support a team that seems to place winning over decency.

The matter was summed up well recently by Atlanta Braves pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who wrote on Twitter, “Tribalism in sports, when it comes to protecting the wrongdoings of their own, is strange because fans know that it doesn’t have to be that way. … Sports fans are used to the loss of their favorite [players] and are always excited to see what’s next. Why doesn’t this apply when their favorites turn out to be bad people? … What’s the fun in rooting for a bad person? Sure, [your team] might get a few more wins but you know they feel hollow. You always have to qualify your fandom against the bad person’s actions.”

Like I said, this sermon is not about baseball. Rather, it’s about the behavior McCarthy describes: tribalism, the tendency to pick a side and then defend that side no matter what, regardless of consequences, regardless of logic, and sometimes, regardless of values.

But i don’t want to claim that tribalism is always a bad thing. It’s a natural instinct, very much a part of our psychological makeup. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale University, wrote in her recent book Political Tribes that people generally want to be in a group, and we sort ourselves into groups whether we realize it or not. She cites a study in which a group of children were randomly given shirts to wear — half of the shirts were red, and half of them were blue. Once these kids put on their shirts, they went to a computer and were shown images of other people wearing both red and blue shirts, and then were asked a series of questions. The results were striking; the kids wearing red shirts consistently said that they believed the people in the pictures wearing red shirts were smarter, better-looking, and kinder than the people in the pictures wearing blue shirts. And the kids wearing the blue shirts thought the opposite.

So it’s no surprise that tribalism comes easy to us. And there are many times when we’re glad it does. There’s a lot of comfort in being a part of a group of people we trust, a part of a group with similar interests or beliefs. Being here today, at a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, is an act of tribalism, and I’d say it’s a good one — the instinct to connect with a common group of people and a common set of beliefs, or to support someone who does, reassures us that we are not alone, and provides a connection with others at a time in history when so many of us worry about feeling isolated. It feels good to be in a tribe.

But I also worry about tribalism to the exclusion of all other concerns. We see it in the political arena, in which discussions of issues quickly devolve into a horse race of sorts, in which the only thing that matters is giving our party of choice a so-called “win”. And these days, it’s astounding to witness the remarkable mental gymnastics used to defend someone in their tribe, sometimes to the exclusion of common sense. The desire to do or say almost anything for the sake of their political tribe has stymied the legislative process and has turned many of us cynical about the actions and motives of the so-called “other”. It’s no wonder that in his final statement to the American people before his death, Senator John McCain wrote, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”

We see the negative effects of tribalism in the Jewish world, too. We continue to be caught up in rivalries between movements; while there are plenty of examples of collaboration, there also remains too much focus on labels of observance rather than frank discussions on how multiple methods of following God enrich us rather than weaken us. We continue to read of ways that religious authorities in Israel marginalize non-Orthodox practice, both at the Western Wall and throughout the Jewish State. And the state of Israel itself is now the subject of growing tribal rivalries within Jewish communities, fostering divisiveness and suspicion based on whether we agree or disagree with the decisions of the Israeli government.

Whether we like it or not, tribalism is part of the human experience, whether we’re separating ourselves based on the shirts we wear, on our sports teams of choice, or on topics far more consequential. The question is, how can we utilize the teachings of our tradition to see past our tribal instincts, and to recognize, when it comes down to it, we’re really all a part of one tribe?

One approach is to consider the meaning of this day, of Rosh Hashanah. We commonly speak of Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world, but that’s not exactly true; today, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is understood in our tradition as the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation — the day, we are taught, that God created most animals, including human beings. And so, on this anniversary, it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of the question asked by the Mishnah centuries ago: Why, when creating humanity, did God start with just one person? The prevailing answer is that it gives all of the same common ancestor, so that no one can legitimately say that they come from better stock than someone else.

Still, it’s one thing to say that we all are part of one tribe; how do we live with that in mind? For that answer, it’s useful to look at the life of Abraham, the subject of today’s and tomorrow’s Torah readings, for a proper example. First, it’s in his name; “Avraham” means father of many nations. The Midrash claims that 30 different nations could claim Abraham as their common ancestor. What’s more, we forget sometimes that Abraham was not only the first Jew, but for many years, pretty much the only Jew. The commentary Yalkut Shimoni describes Abraham spending many days wandering through many nations, making him accustomed to their ways and beliefs. All the while, he deftly manages to be both unique and cooperative. When he knows it’s time to separate from his nephew Lot, he offers Lot a choice piece of land in exchange for his distance; and even then, he doesn’t forget Lot, but rather negotiates with God his rescue from the city of Sodom. He is celebrated for fighting in a war fought between nine different tribes, emerging from it victorious, but more importantly, respected. And, when Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah for a burial ground, he insists on paying for it so there’s no doubt that it’s his, but still does it in a way that doesn’t alienate the seller.

Indeed, these are all so-called “wins” for Abraham. And I suppose that since we, as Jews, tend to be on “Team Abraham”, these stories represent success for the Jewish people as a whole. But we should also note that these “wins” do not come at the expense of other people’s humanity. For the most part, Abraham works with his neighbors, not against them. Abraham’s descendants wound up founding many tribes, but Abraham himself teaches us a thing or two about not being overly tribal.

During these coming days, our tradition asks us to look within ourselves and to account for our behavior over the past year. Ideally, that process concludes on Yom Kippur, when we ask forgiveness from God. As we seek out others to make amends, let’s be kind to those in our tribes, but don’t forget those outside of them. For it is on us to recognize we aren’t only defined by the tribes we’re in. Regardless of your favorite shirt color, your favorite sports team, political party, or method of Jewish practice, we are equally responsible to act in the way Abraham does so often, knowing that rules of discourse and basic humanity transcend tribe. May we remember that we were all created in the image of God, as part of one tribe.

“The Middle Way”: My 2018 Erev Rosh Hashanah d’rash

This past spring, when my thoughts began to turn to the High Holidays, I created a project to improve one aspect of my life. Since I have periodically struggled to implement healthy personal habits, I set a few goals for myself for the summer. I limited them to three, hoping these would be attainable and meaningful.

My first goal was to eat at least four servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day. My second goal was to drink at least eight cups of water per day, and coupled with that, to avoid drinking anything with calories. My third goal was to have at least five active days per week — measured, at least in part, by walking 10,000 steps per day.

I am grateful for the many encouraging words I received from congregants and others since announcing these goals in June. And I stand before you today to announce … partial success.

I stuck to the fruits-and-vegetables goal for the first three weeks of the summer; I tailed off after that. I had a fair number of active days, but not nearly as many as I had hoped. The one goal that I reached involved what I drank; with the exception of a couple of weekly sips of grape juice while making kiddush, I only drank water and other non-caloric beverages.

So, how can we best evaluate how I did? How can we measure my level of success or failure? It would be easy to lament that I only went one for three, that I couldn’t reach goals that I thought would be within my grasp. On the other hand, it would be tempting to pat myself on the back, to see only the positives, to celebrate that I was able to avoid apple juice and regular soda for three months.

I’d like to suggest a third way, a path suggested by Rabbi Tarfon from the Ethics of the Fathers, one of our tradition’s oldest and most revered collections of wisdom: “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to abstain from it.” Rabbi Tarfon understood that many tasks seem too gargantuan to achieve … sometimes, because they are. When it comes to personal goals, we’re often our worst enemies, expecting too much from ourselves, often in too small of a time frame. On the other hand, if we never set our sights high, we won’t accomplish much of anything. That’s why Rabbi Tarfon urges us to take this middle way, to make big goals without the illusion we’ll achieve them all, but to get so much done just by starting.

As we begin the Hebrew year 5779, as we examine past deeds and resolve to improve our future deeds, we are tempted to dream big. After all, there’s nothing like a clean slate, a new beginning, to get our minds racing about all we can accomplish and all we can be. And then, inevitably, we’ll encounter obstacles, and our optimism might turn quickly to cynicism, making us wonder why we even bother. Whatever your goals are for the coming year, I urge you to take the middle path that Rabbi Tarfon advised — not to get too high or too low, to not focus too much on whether we are succeeding or failing, and, instead, to keep moving.

Looking back on this past summer, I’m not satisfied with the personal progress I’ve made. But I’m not ashamed of it either. Rather, I’m going to take these next 10 days, and then many days after that, to rededicate myself to being a better version of myself, and to help our congregation and community be the best they can be. I urge you to join me, to start the journey and to see where it winds up. “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to abstain from it.”

You’ll Be Back: Nitzavim 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What kinds of things are much better the second time around? And what kinds of things are only worthwhile doing once?

As Moses winds down his farewell address to the Israelites, he predicts the people will turn away from God, only to return:

The Pitch: “You, however, will again heed the LORD and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day.” – Deuteronomy 30:8

Swing #1: “Only after the first steps of teshuvah does [one] begin to fathom the enormity of the damage [caused by] his sin: how he sinned, against whom, and so forth and so on. And in this way one ascends from level to level. And on each level one increases in teshuvah. For this reason, it is said earlier, ‘And you turn to the Lord, your God …’ (Deuteronomy 30:2), but later on, once one has made a beginning, and drawn oneself near to God, does the person come to the second rung, ‘And you will turn …’ (Deuteronomy 30:8). Each time more. Without interruption. Ascending from one level to another level. Through the heights of return, teshuvah.” – Joshua Sheinfeld

Swing #2: “The situation of Israel is very different [here] when compared with that in the earlier parts of Deuteronomy; behind the speaker there lies the period of disobedience and of judgment. The curses in Deuteronomy, which is here understood predominantly as law, have been fulfilled. From this standpoint the speaker looks to the future and announces a redemptive activity by which God himself creates for his people the prerequisites for complete obedience.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy

Swing #3: “Not from the root ‘to return’, but from the root ‘to dwell’, i.e. you will sit at ease, undisturbed.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that Israel’s return to following God’s commandments will be more satisfying after ignoring them? Is it better to learn from our mistakes or to never make the mistakes in the first place? How might the answer to that question help us as we approach the High Holidays, when we face up to our missteps and dedicate ourselves to improvement?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Our services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah will feature several differences from those of previous years. We will have a sermon from Shai Bibas, Charleston’s new shaliach (Israel emissary); the Torah reading will be introduced by a skit; the Haftarah will be introduced by a story told to children sitting on the bimah; and some prayers will be streamlined in order to make time for the other changes. Even if you don’t typically go to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, consider joining us this year on Tuesday, September 11th.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of satisfying returns, in the 1970s, Robin Yount was a ballyhooed prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers, but he struggled in his initial year with the team. He responded by staying away from baseball entirely for a few months, communing with nature and trying new things. It paid off; Yount later won two Most Valuable Player awards and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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

Declaration of Dependence: Ki Tavo 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you best express yourself? Are you best at writing, speaking to someone over the phone, speaking to someone in person, or making a public speech? Or, perhaps, are you best at non-verbal communication?

Even though the book of Deuteronomy is mainly one-sided — almost entirely consisting of Moses speaking to the Israelites — our portion this week refers to one occasion when we hear from the Israelites:

The Pitch: “You have affirmed this day that the LORD is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him.” – Deuteronomy 26:17

Swing #1: “The Hebrew term he’emarta, ‘you have declared’, is in the causative inflection of the verb ‘to say,’ implying that ‘by reason of the good deeds you have performed, you cause the Lord to say that He will be your God.’” – Abraham ibn Ezra

Swing #2: “The recollection of the moment in which Israel affirmed that YHWH would be her God remains as a sign of the freedom in which she chooses to serve him. The re-presentation of that moment of choice keeps alive the element of human autonomy in the dialectic of divine suzerainty. This is the element that distinguishes covenantal theonomy from theocratic tyranny.” – Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence

Swing #3: “In Exodus 6, God establishes a relationship with a people already in existence. Therefore, He can legitimately say, ‘You are my people.’ However, in the time of Abraham, there is as yet no people, so in Genesis 17 when the Lord makes a covenant with Abraham, He simply says of Abraham’s children, ‘I will be their God’ (Genesis 17:8). … However, even though both sides are represented, all the initiative is God’s. After a period of maturation, the formula [in Deuteronomy] becomes two-sided.” – Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators understand the Israelites’ declaration of fidelity to God? To what extent is this declaration made out of free will? How do we best declare our commitment to our  most cherished ideals?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Typically, Selichot is a service done late Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. It helps us prepare for the upcoming High Holidays by exploring themes of faith and repentance. As we did last year, we will incorporate a brief form of the Selichot service at a Sunday morning minyan. Please join us at 9:00AM on Sunday, September 2nd.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of public expression, some of the most creative encounters between a baseball player and the press took place throughout the 1990 season, when Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Don Carman posted a list of 37 cliches on his locker, which he used to answer reporters’ questions. Among them: “I’d rather be lucky than good,” “That’s the name of the game,” “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” and “I know you are but what am I?”

Shabbat Shalom!

Foreign Relations: Ki Tetze 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we best resist making overgeneralizations about those who are different from us? Why is it tempting to draw inaccurate conclusions about how everyone in a particular group acts?

While the Torah doesn’t always take kindly to those in some foreign nations, a passage in our portion this week gives two groups the benefit of the doubt:

The Pitch: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” – Deuteronomy 23:8

Swing #1: “The expression Edomite (deriving as it does from adom; ‘red’) may be taken as an allegory for sin, for it is written in the Book of Isaiah (1:18): ‘Though your sins be red like crimson …’ Hence the Scriptural verse may be interpreted as follows: ‘Do not regard your sins as wasted threads of crimson, for you can turn them into your brothers by transforming them into merits through true repentance, and they will speak in your favor, as the Sages say: “Acts of insolence will become as merits for him.”’” – Yesod HaTorah

Swing #2: “On the subject of Edom, Bruce C. Cresson says that ‘it is scarcely hyperbolic to say that never a kind word is spoken about Edom in the Old Testament’ … Bert Dicou contends that Edom assumes the position of the representative of foreign nations deserving of divine judgment … [Roger] Syren classifies only Deuteronomy 2:4-6 and 23:7-8 as positive.” – Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story

Swing #3: “The word [ger] may be used of individuals or groups. Abraham was a ger at Hebron, and Moses in Midian. A man of Bethlehem went with his family to settle as a ger in Moab. The Israelites were gerim in Egypt.” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to think that we need to make a special effort to welcome those of other nationalities? Are human beings instinctively suspicious of those who are different than us? Can this verse from the Torah be applied to the way that we treat foreigners, immigrants, and diverse populations within the United States?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: This Shabbat will be our second annual “Camp Shabbat”. On Saturday, August 25th, feel free to dress casually for services — ideally while wearing a t-shirt from a Jewish summer camp! We’ll be singing songs and doing other rituals to remind us of the best moments of the camp experience.

The Big Inning at the End: Welcoming the foreigner has benefited the game of baseball greatly. This year, a record-high 27 percent of Major Leaguers were born outside the United States.

Shabbat Shalom!

He Reports, You Decide: Shoftim 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you prefer to follow the news? Do you use the internet the most, or do you rely more on television, radio, or even print media? How do you determine which news sources you trust?

As he continues his farewell speech to the Israelites, Moses recalls when the people insist to hear God’s words through a prophet — not from the direct source:

The Pitch: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear the voice of the LORD my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.’ Whereupon the LORD said to me, ‘They have done well in speaking thus.’” – Deuteronomy 18:15-17

Swing #1: “Once a person accustoms himself or herself to hearing the voice of God issuing from everything, the supernal meaning now comes that has eluded the person, and this spiritual wisdom. For certainly, concealed and hidden spiritual wisdom contains divine meaning. Moreover by means of getting in the habit of paying attention to the voice of God issuing from everything, the voice of God is revealed now [even] in spiritual wisdom. Until finally, in the spiritual wisdom itself, one finds the true appearance of God. And everyone who continues to search and philosophize increases the holiness of faith and cleaving [to God] and the light of the holy Spirit.” – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Swing #2: “Given the already-observed tendency in Deuteronomy to look to the distant future while addressing the Moab generation, it is likely that what is envisioned here is a succession of prophets who will serve to mediate Yahweh’s word to the people, rather than a single individual.” – Peter T. Vogt, Deteronomonic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

Swing #3: “The prophet whom God will raise up must be ‘from among your own people’ (Deuteronomy 18:15). This means also that he must arise in the Land of Israel.” – Sifrei Deuteronomy

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators believe are the  proper qualifications of a prophet? To what extent is a prophet expected to simply be a messenger for God’s words, not necessarily someone who predicts the future? How is this role similar to that of the modern media? How do we determine whether all, or parts, of today’s media are unbiased messengers of truth?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Next Shabbat will be our second annual “Camp Shabbat”. That Saturday, August 25th, feel free to dress casually for services — ideally while wearing a t-shirt from a Jewish summer camp! We’ll be singing songs and doing other rituals to remind us of the best moments of the camp experience.

The Big Inning at the End: These days, talking about sports media and the way that sports news is reported is an industry unto itself. Should people who report and talk about sports be celebrities, or is it better for them to fade to the background and to make sure the games take center-stage?

Shabbat Shalom!

The Boy Who Cried “God”: Re’eh 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How good are you at predicting what will happen in the future? Do you know people who seem especially skilled at predictions? If you do, do you think they’re especially intelligent, exceptionally lucky, or both?

Our portion this week reminds us that just because a prediction comes true makes that person a prophet:

The Pitch: “If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, “Let us follow and worship another god”—whom you have not experienced—even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the LORD your God is testing you to see whether you really love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.” – Deuteronomy 13:2-4

Swing #1: “The Kotzker rabbi once was asked, ‘Berachot 56b-57a teaches that “if one sees an elephant in a dream, miracles will be done for him … and if one sees a myrtle in a dream, he will have good luck with his property [like a myrtle, which has numerous leaves].” Well, I saw an elephant in my dreams and I saw a myrtle and no miracle happened for me and business didn’t prosper at all.’ Replied the Kotzker: ‘One who eats like a Jew and drinks like a Jew and sleeps like a Jew and lives like a Jew, dreams like a Jew. But if you gorge yourself like your enemy and you get drunk like your enemy and you sleep with animals like your enemy and you live like your enemy, do you expect the interpretation of your dreams should then be like a Jew?’” – Chasidic Anthologies

Swing #2: “YHWH was intolerant of the gods to the point that he continually warns his votaries against situations in which they might be led away from him. For example, Deuteronomy 13:2-19 warns against following a prophet or diviner, even one who works miracles, if he advocates the service of any deity other than YHWH. Note that nothing in Deuteronomy 13 suggests that the other gods do not exist. The fear is not that Israel will be led into philosophical error, but that another deity will claim her service …” – Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible

Swing #3: “According to my religious teaching, miracles are not the distinguishing marks of Truth and do not provide moral certainty about the divine mission of the prophet. For seducers and false prophets too can perform signs, whether through magic, secret arts, or perhaps a misuse of a gift given to them for a good purpose.” – Moses Mendelssohn

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, how does much should a person’s character determine the degree to which they should be trusted? How should we treat a “boy who cries wolf” when that “boy” actually is correct? How much truth must one person speak before we believe him/her again?

Summer Training: Even though it’s still the first half of August, it feels like summer is rapidly coming to a close. I’ll be reflecting on my health initiative during my sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah, which I will then post on my blog following the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of those who make predictions – and profit from them – count me among those who are extremely concerned that sports betting will soon be legal nationwide. Maybe the conditions that caused the 1919 Black Sox Scandal have changed, as Major League players make a lot more money than they used to, but even successful players can be lured by gamblers offering even more cash, thus potentially compromising the outcomes of games. Just ask Pete Rose.

Shabbat Shalom!

Throwing Stones: Ekev 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: When we try to fix what is broken, how often do we focus on the cause of the break, and how often do we focus on the solution? Under what circumstances should the cause of the break matter?

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering, he mentions in vivid detail one of the low moments of their journey:

The Pitch: “Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.” – Deuteronomy 9:17

Swing #1: “Only the stone tablets which were ‘before your eyes’ were broken. The letters which had been engraved upon them flew away and remained whole.” – Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin

Swing #2: “It says: ‘There is a time to every purpose under the heaven … a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5). This is applicable to Moses: there was a time for him to cast away tablets and a time to hew new ones.” – Deuteronomy Rabbah

Swing #3: “The word [for ‘I threw them’] is spelled defectively, without a yud. [This indicates that the letters inscribed into the tablets of] the Ten Commandments flew away from them [i.e., from the broken tablets].” – Baal Turim

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators appear to minimize the impact of Moses breaking the original tablets of the Ten Commandments? Do they see the damage of his action as unfortunate or necessary — or both? When do acts of destruction lead us to moments of wholeness? How can that happen?

Summer Training: Spending the week in high altitude makes drinking water even more essential, and makes every step tougher. I’m told that, after two weeks, the bodily effects of high altitude are neutralized. But I won’t be here long enough to test that out …

The Big Inning at the End: One of the funniest recent baseball stories was when White Sox pitcher Chris Sale took a pair of scissors and destroyed an admittedly awful uniform he was expected to wear. It’s amusing when so-called professionals do something far below their maturity level.

Shabbat Shalom!

“Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, God”: Vaethanan 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: If you could define yourself using only a few words, what words would you use? Is it easier for you to do so while describing other people that you know?

As Moses recounts the Ten Commandments for the new generation of Israelites, we take note of the words God uses to introduce God’s self:

The Pitch: “I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside Me.” – Deuteronomy 5:6-7

Swing #1: “The utterance ‘I am’ precedes the utterance ‘You shall not have.’ And upon careful reflection on the ‘I am, the anochi,’ — with sure faith in God’s perfection — one is saved from [violating] ‘You shall not have’ and protected from all kinds of impediments to the service of God. Our sages taught in Midrash Tanhuma that for every commandment one fulfills, there is made for that person a guardian angel. Measure for measure. Israel received all the commandments through Moses, our teacher, an intermediary. And on account of this an angel was assigned to them to watch over them. But the ‘I am’ and the ‘You shall not have’ Israel heard directly from God [without any intermediary, without any guardian]. And for this reason, [as] the reward for fulfilling the ‘I am’ God, God’s Divine Self protects a person from violating the ‘You shall not have.’” – Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin

Swing #2: “The texts of Exodus and Deuteronomy do not speak about a general understanding of community but of the formation of a particular community whose identity as a people is evoked by their relationship to the Lord and is inextricably tied to that relationship. There is a logically prior relationship to those of kingship, geographical proximity, shared experience, and the like — though these are also dimensions of this particular neighborhood as often of others — that constitutes this community. That is the relationship articulated in the initial words of the community-constituting act.” – Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord

Swing #3: “The suffix [referring to your (singular) God, not your (plural) God] refers to Israel collectively, and at the same time to each Israelite individually. The Midrash says: Even as thousands look at a great portrait and each one feels that it looks at him, so every Israelite at Horeb felt that the Divine Voice was addressing him.” – J.H. Hertz

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, why does God choose to start the Ten Commandments this particular way? What kind of “first impression” does God wish to convey? To borrow a line from an old television commercial, should it matter that we never get a second chance to make a first impression? How do we stay open to reevaluating people who genuinely try to be better than a poor first impression?

Summer Training: Surviving Tisha B’Av is usually the toughest health challenge of the year; it doesn’t get much tougher than going without food and water for 25 hours at the peak of summer. Somehow, it wasn’t quite as bad this year as in past years. Maybe drinking more water in the days leading up to it helped?

The Big Inning at the End: Traditional baseball scouts evaluate players based on what they see and hear; statistically-based baseball analysts rely more heavily on numbers from a player’s on-field production. The so-called “statheads” have become more prevalent in recent years. Which approach seems more reasonable for the modern game?

Shabbat Shalom!