Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: August, 2015

Ki Tetzei 2015: Memory, Strangers … and Dogs?

According to one count, there are 74 different commandments mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. These rules mainly provide guidelines to counteract that which threatens the fabric of society: unfaithful spouses, unruly teenagers, irresponsible homeowners, financial cheaters, and nefarious enemies. It’s hard to know where to begin, but we’ll try nevertheless … 
Here are some texts from this week’s Torah portion, with commentary and topics for you to discuss: 
Text #1: “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

Commentary: “R. Yosi began to speak in praise of hospitality, expounding the verse, ‘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.’ Have we not here an argument a fortiori? If such was the reward of the Egyptians who befriended the Israelites only for their own purposes, as it says, ‘And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my lifestock [Genesis 47:6],’ how much more will it be for one who entertains a scholar in his house and gives him to eat and drink and allows him the use of his possessions!” – BT Berakhot 63b

Questions: The Talmudic tractate of Berakhot expounds on the verse in our Torah portion to point out the importance of not only refraining from hating the stranger, but also of being proactive in welcoming the stranger. But just because we don’t hate certain people, does that mean we should be so eager to invite them into our lives? Or, rather, can the imperative to welcome enable us to establish connections with those that we would have avoided had we only tolerated them and kept them at a distance?

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Text #2: “You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 23:19

Commentary: “One that is born from the side, the hire of a harlot or the price of a dog, is invalid. Rabbi Eliezer rules that it is valid, for it is written, ‘You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Lord your God’, while this was not brought into the house.” – Mishnah Parah 2:3

Question: A common understanding of this verse and this Mishnah is that “the price of a dog” refers to money stemming from male prostitution. If so, why is female prostitution referred to so directly, while male prostitution is mentioned only as an expression?

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Text #3: “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 24:9

Commentary: Remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember what happened at Mount Sinai. Remember the attack of Amalek. Remember the sin of the Golden Calf. Remember what happened when Miriam criticized Moses. Remember the Shabbat. – The Six Remembrances

Questions: The Six Remembrances represent the six times that the Torah specifically said to “remember” something. Some prayer books suggest that Jews should recite these passages daily following morning services. Are there other events or laws from the Torah that also should appear on this list, even if the Torah didn’t say specifically to “remember” them? Is there a common thread between these Remembrances? If we were to choose six statements to remember in modern times, what would they be?

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Emanu-El Happenings: Our synagogue’s USY chapter, COSY, is a source of immense pride to the congregation. This Shabbat, COSY will once again host a gathering of Conservative Jewish teens, as USY officers from across the southeast will meet for Ein Gedi’s Chapter President’s Weekend. These USYers will lead much of our Shabbat services this weekend. We welcome our guests and encourage our congregation to continue supporting these emerging Jewish leaders. 
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The Big Inning at the End: Since we spoke of the memory, it’s appropriate to bring up one of the most colorful men in baseball history, Casey Stengel. Stengel, who managed the New York Yankees during the team’s most successful era, is perhaps even more beloved for leading the New York Mets in the mid-1960s, arguably some of the worst teams in baseball history. Stengel’s memory – if we can call it that – adds to the lore surrounding the team’s early years.

As Janet Paskin wrote in her book Tales From The 1962 New York Mets Dugout:

“Lindsey [Nelson] did an interview with Casey Stengel in our first broadcast,” recalled Ralph Kiner. “He asked Casey to name the starters. And [Stengel] went on for 23 minutes by the clock. … After 23 minutes, Lindsey said to him, ‘Casey, you’ve mentioned everyone except who’s going to play right field.’ Well, Casey couldn’t think of his name. So he started out, ‘The fellow out there, he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds,’ and he went on and on, etcetra, etcetra. Finally, he said, ‘… and when he hits it he’ll ring a bell and that’s his name, Gus Bell.’”

Shabbat Shalom!

Shoftim 2015

It’s my pleasure to begin our Torah study with a portion, Shoftim, that emphasizes the pursuit of justice. From kings to commoners, from judges to miscreants, all Israelites must abide by a sense of fairness.

Here are some texts from this week’s Torah portion, with commentary and topics for you to discuss:

Text #1: “If a Levite would go, from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the Lord has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. He may serve in the name of the Lord his God like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 18:6-7

Commentary: “From where do we know that all the watches share equally in the sacrifices of the Festival? Scripture says, ‘He may do so whenever he pleases … he may serve’.” – BT Sukkah 55b

Questions: The Talmudic tractate of Sukkah seems to say that the relative freedom given to the Levite will result in an equal share in the responsibilities over the sacrificial system, regardless how much an individual Levite actually contributed. Likewise, successful organizations often find ways to enable all of their employees/volunteers, from the top to the bottom, feel an equal sense of pride in the organization’s success. What are some ways to accomplish this? What can we do to enable our organizations to instill a widespread sense of ownership of the success of the collective?

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Text #2: “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13

Commentary: “Yahweh demands that Israel ‘be wholehearted with the Lord’.” The expression is very typical of the religious thought of Israel which received its standards far less from ideas than certain conditions of fellowship. It is not moral and religious ‘perfection’ which is demanded of Israel, but rather an undivided commitment, without any reinsurance by consulting strange gods, spirits of the dead, etc., to the conditions of fellowship with Yahweh.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy

Questions: This comment on the Israelites’ need to be wholehearted appears in a section warning about the risks in trusting those who practice sorcery or witchcraft. What does it mean to feel something with our whole hearts? How do we recognize those moments? Do you agree with von Rad’s belief that wholeheartedness does not mean perfection, but rather perfect intention? Can someone who succumbs to the allure of idolatry nevertheless be described as having perfect intention?

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Text #3: “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you all the land that He promised to give your fathers …” – Deuteronomy 19:8

Commentary: “The third Temple which will be built in the future … will not be subject to strife and hostility from our neighbors. … God will expand the borders of our country as He has promised.” – Shelah

Questions: Given today’s political environment, the building of a third Temple might be unthinkable, at least for the immediate future. How can we reconcile Judaism’s traditional hope for redemption (in which a third Temple is clearly included) with making practical choices for Israel’s immediate future? Can the two coexist?

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Emanu-El Happenings: I look forward to joining both my congregants and members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim at our Shared Shabbat service. Tonight, we meet at KKBE (90 Hasell St., Charleston) at 8:00PM, and tomorrow morning, we’ll gather at Synagogue Emanu-El, with Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM and services starting at 9:30AM. This is the fifth annual Shared Shabbat, and I feel so privileged to live in a community where different synagogues can learn and worship together.

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The Big Inning at the End: Since our portion centers around justice, I thought it fitting to recall a story that Joe McCarthy, a Hall of Fame baseball manager, would tell about umpires – those moral arbiters everyone loves to hate.

McCarthy said he had a recurring dream in which he died and went to heaven, and was commanded by God to form a baseball team. He looked around him and saw Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and so many of the other legendary ballplayers from the past. Just then, McCarthy received a phone call from the Devil, challenging him to a game.

“But you don’t stand a chance,” McCarthy said, “I have all the players!”

“I know,” replied the Devil, “but I have all the umpires.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Welcome!

Welcome to the relaunch of this blog! I’d like to tell you a little more about me, and what to expect from my posts.

I am a Conservative rabbi, and I have started my seventh year as spiritual leader of Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston, South Carolina. I love teaching about Judaism, writing, and baseball, and I wanted to do something that could combine all three.

Each week, my post will include (a) a brief summary of that week’s Torah portion; (b) three sets of discussion questions based on a commentary on the portion; (c) an “Emanu-El Shout-Out”, promoting an upcoming happening at my synagogue (or recognizing one that just happened); and (d) “The Big Inning at the End”, a note of what the week’s Torah portion has to do with baseball.

I hope that you’ll feel free to comment on the posts, and hopefully create online discussions with old friends and new friends alike.

Additionally, if you’re not from Charleston, and/or not a baseball fan, no problem — feel free to skip the last parts of the post, no hard feelings. But if you fit into one of the above categories, I think you’ll enjoy these tidbits.

I hope you’ll enjoy this format, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Look for the first full post next Friday.

Shabbat Shalom!