Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: October, 2015

Hagar the Horrible? (The Sequel): Vayera 2015

Leadoff Questions: Why are we often unaware when we exclude people from our community? Is it because we pretend not to hear the protests of those who are excluded? Is it because they often refrain from speaking up about it? How do we react when we finally realize that we have excluded someone – do we try to rectify the situation, or do we assume that the situation cannot change?

Much like last week, Hagar (and, this time, her son Ishmael) is given very little latitude before she is excluded from Abraham and Sarah’s household, almost leading to two deaths.

Text: “Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. … Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slavewoman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’ … When [their] water was gone from the skin, Hagar left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.” (Genesis 21:2, 9-10, 15-16)

Commentary #1: “Hagar saw that her son was dehydrated and dying of thirst. She sat down, not realizing that this was the same place where she had earlier seen four angels (Genesis 16:7). She put her son down in the shade of a tree, and walked around two miles away [as far as the best archer can shoot an arrow]. She began to weep incessantly, saying, ‘Is this the promise that You made to me 17 years ago when I fled from Sarah my mistress? You said, “I will make your offspring numerous; they will be so many, they will not be able to be counted” (Genesis 16:10). Now he is dying of thirst, and it seems as though nothing will come of the promise.’” – Yafe Toar

Commentary #2: I am all the more uncomfortable knowing that in Genesis 21, Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are sent at Sarah’s insistence into the wilderness to die. It seems that if Sarah learns a lesson from her abusive behavior, it is this: Abuse can be repeated. If tolerated once, it can be wreaked again. I am deeply troubled that the Mother of faith, matriarch Sarah, can be so encouraged in outrageous behavior, by none less than God’s messenger. – Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics

Commentary #3: “There was great cheer in the world” that day [that Isaac was born], says Rashi, but not for Ishmael. We can imagine his distress, and his building anger. For all his first 14 years, he had been the center of his father’s attention. He must have anticipated that he himself would carry on Abraham’s legacy, but this new child, and all the fuss that was being made of him, suggested otherwise. “Fools,” he admonished the revelers, “I am the first born! And I will take a double inheritance.” – David Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism

Follow-Up Questions: Klinghoffer’s text notes that Ishmael is overlooked by his family. Visotzky focuses on what he describes as Sarah’s cruelty. Yafe Toar concentrates on Hagar’s distress at the possibility that everything she had once been promised is a lie (even though she and Ishmael are eventually saved).

Whether or not it happened intentionally, Hagar and Ishmael are not treated fairly. Who are the Hagars and Ishmaels in our lives? What do we need to do to invite them back to our communities?

Emanu-El Happenings: We don’t often get the chance to celebrate someone’s second Bar Mitzvah – it traditionally takes place around the time of one’s 83rd birthday, 70 years after the first Bar Mitzvah. Tomorrow morning, we’ll get the chance to celebrate with Bob Lovinger, one of our Adult Education teachers and an active member of our congregation. He and his family, both close and extended, will participate in services. Please join us starting at 9:30AM for a special morning.

The Big Inning at the End: This is the most bittersweet time of the year for a baseball fan. We know, on one hand, that a world champion will be crowned in the next week, which will bring vast expressions of joy from one team and their fans. But it’s difficult knowing that no more than five games remain until next spring. The lesson, of course, is to savor them when we can, even if your team isn’t playing in the World Series, and even if your team loses the World Series. To quote Jewish Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler, “To be ready is much, to have the capacity for waiting is more, but to be able to utilize the right moment is everything.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Hagar the Horrible?: Lekh Lekha 2015

Questions to Start: Have you ever been drawn into someone else’s conflict against your will? What are the risks of being in this situation? Are there ways to avoid being caught in the middle of such a conflict, or are there ways to protect yourself once you are locked in the middle?

It’s difficult to know what to make of Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden who bears Abram’s first child, Ishmael, because Sarai had been barren up until that point. But we can’t help but feel bad for someone who is faced with much more than she bargained for.

Text: “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Look, Adonai has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a child through her.’ And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. … He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she see that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. Adonai decided between you and me!’ Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.’ Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.” (Genesis 16:2, 4-6)

Commentary #1: Unlike the Mishnah, [Tosefta Yevamot 8:5] spells out what a man is required to do if he has no child after ten year of marriage — divorce his wife. But the Tosefta’s intransigent stand is rather puzzling. Why doesn’t it recognize that there is an alternative course of action, namely, to take another wife without divorcing the first? … Furthermore, the very next line of the Tosefta cites a verse from Genesis that says that after Abraham lived for ten years in Canaan (in which time Sarai did not give birth), she gave him her concubine saying, “Perhaps I will be ‘built up’ through her.” How strange for the Tosefta to learn from the Torah how long it takes to establish that a wife is barren, and even use a poignant phrase about surrogate motherhood first coined by Sarai, but still not recommend what Sarai recommended, that in these circumstances a man take another wife! This baffling omission leads me to suppose that the Tosefta, throughout its discussion of this topic, holds that women, too, are obligated to procreate. — Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Commentary #2: Although Sarai was hurt very much when she heard what Hagar was saying, she did not say anything to her, not wishing to lower herself to Hagar’s level. Instead, she complained to Abram. She said, “Let God judge between me and you because of the anguish that I am suffering.” This can be explained with a parable: Two men had been cast into prison. One day the king passed in front of the prison, and one of the inmates began to cry, “My lord the king, have mercy on me and free me.” The king had mercy when he heard this plea and he gave an order that the prisoner be freed. The second prisoner did not know that the king had passed by. When he heard that his cellmate was about to be free, he complained, “May God punish you. If you would have asked the king to free both of us, I would also be going free now. It is easier to ask the king to free two men at once than to make a separate request. The king only gives such an order once. You therefore causes me to remain in prison forever.” Sarah made a similar complaint to Abram: “When you asked God for children, you only asked for yourself.” — Bereshit Rabbah

Commentary #3: Abram replied, “Your maid remains in your possession; you can enslave her again and do what you want with her. She is so disrespectful she deserves to be a slave.” “Your advice is of no help,” replied Sarai. “Once I gave her to you as a wife, she is free. I can no longer sell her or even make her work for me. This is God’s law (see Exodus 21:8). All that I want is that you not see her and not have anything to do with her.” Sarai then made sure that Hagar remained secluded, never allowing her to be alone with Abram. She also began to beat her. — Targum Yonatan

Follow-Up Questions: Targum Yonatan sees Hagar as a victim of Sarai’s abject cruelty. Bereshit Rabbah isn’t necessarily enamored with Hagar, but sees Abraham as the insensitive one in this episode. To Hauptman, the ancient Sages doesn’t judge Hagar, but looks suspiciously at Sarai’s solution for her barrenness.

As is often the case, even our commentators treat Hagar, the one caught in the middle, as an afterthought. Why is this the case? If we were to press any of these sources for an opinion of Hagar, what do you think they would say? Does the fact that, later in this chapter, God promises to make great nation out of Ishmael mean that the Torah is sympathetic to Hagar after all? How can we give voice to those who are in the kind of position that Hagar is in?

Emanu-El Happenings: Tomorrow morning, we will be privileged to hear Sidney Strauss of World ORT. My mother was very active in ORT when I was growing up, and after years of overhearing many a meeting, I know that ORT is a wonderful organization bringing educational opportunities to Jews around the globe. Please join us at services beginning at 9:30AM to get the chance to hear and meet Sidney Strauss.

The Big Inning at the End: To reiterate my Facebook post from yesterday, a sincere congratulations to the Mets and their fans. I have the good fortune to know a lot of people who are passionate about their team, and even though the Mets’ legacy of misery isn’t as bad as that of my Cubs, I can relate to years of frustration of a favorite club falling just a bit short. Good luck to the Mets in the World Series … and just know that the Cubs will be back next year stronger than ever.

Shabbat Shalom!

Babeling: Noach 2015

Questions to Start: How often do you dream? Are the dreams you have as adults different than those you’ve had since childhood? Have you regretted giving up on any of your dreams?
The story of the Tower of Babel is a tale of dreamers who see their hopes dashed in quick and brutal fashion. It’s worthwhile to ask whether their dream had merit — and whether it still lives on.

Text: “And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’ Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that humanity had built, and Adonai said, ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:4-7)

Commentary #1: “Only when God is God can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organising the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the dignity of creation stops human beings [from] destroying themselves. Humility in the presence of divine order is our last, best safeguard against mankind arrogating to itself power without restraint, might without right. Babel was the first civilization, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell. A world of tov, good, is a world of havdalah, boundaries and limits.” — Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible

Commentary #2: “I was weeping on the ground and a man walked by. “We’re through,” I said. ‘It’s over!’ Babies were crying in the distance. Someone threw a handful of pebbles at the sky. The man sat on a rock next to me. He was wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette. ‘Do you speak English?’ I asked, even though that the first time I’d ever called it English. He shook his head. ‘Je ne comprends pas,’ he shrugged. He finished his cigarette and then lightly twisted it under his shoe. Then he reached into his pocket and unscrolled a parchment. He read it quietly for a while. Then handed it to me. I could not read a word of it, but mostly it was just a picture of a road. A long road into an open horizon, which matched the view I saw when I looked up. Everyone, a little alone, moving forward with suitcases and bags. Kicking the dirt. Crying. Sometimes reaching out a hand. Hugging. Beyond, the shimmer land, vast and wide and untapped.” — Aimee Bender, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Commentary #3: “In the many literary versions of the Tower of Babel legend, from its biblical beginning until its present configuration, man’s irrepressible, boundless, upward striving finds expression. Though this striving is often condemned as arrogance and defiance of the established order, it also mirrors the greatness of the human species, a species that is not content to stay within the bounds set for it by God or fate or the genetic code but rather that wills to build towers with spires reaching up to dizzy heights, even to heaven itself. Such towers may topple and fall, as did the first Tower of Babel, but upon the ruins new towers will be built again and again as sublime monuments of man’s indomitable spirit.” — Sol Liptzin, Biblical Themes in World Literature

Follow-Up Questions: While Liptzin speaks of the human need to continue dreaming, Bender focuses on the despair of a dream deferred. And, perhaps in a more moderate text, Rabbi Sacks acknowledges the good intentions of dreaming — even dreams that are not feasible or appropriate.

Is the story of the Tower of Babel a reminder of the limitations of humankind? Or does the story have a stubborn optimism that lies beneath the surface? At one point is ambition synonymous with egomania? Are the builders of Babel guilty of such egomania? Is a little bit of arrogance when we dream necessary to achieve great things?
Emanu-El Happenings: I wish to encourage all of you to be a part of a special program next Sunday, October 25th. We will observe the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the pivotal declarations by the Catholic Church that helped create an era of cooperation between Catholics and Jews. We will gather beginning at 1:30PM at KKBE and will hear from, among others, our very own Dr. Michael Kogan, who will speak about the significance of this decision.

The Big Inning at the End: My Cubs are four games away from their first World Series since 1945. I can’t say much more, for fear of jinxing it.

Shabbat Shalom!

They Might Be Giants: Bereshit 2015

Questions to Start: What are the origins of sin? Is sin a necessary part of human existence, or is it possible to eradicate it? Are we born with the potential for sin, or are we taught evil ideas by elders and peers? Does the Jewish idea that all of us our born with the potential for both good and evil make sense to you, or do your experiences indicate otherwise?

The Torah portion of Bereshit, from the beginning of the book of Genesis, includes a lot of “why things are” stories and anecdotes. Perhaps the most fascinating of these anecdotes attempt to explain why God chooses to destroy the earth and re-start with Noah. Depending on how we interpret this episode of these divine beings — or giants — we can understand more about what causes us to commit wrongdoings and take responsibility for our mistakes.

Text: “When humankind began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the [males among the] divine beings saw how pleasing the human women were and took wives from among those who delighted them. Adonai said, ‘My breath shall not abide in humankind forever, since it too is flesh; let the days allowed them be one hundred and twenty years.’ It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth — when divine beings cohabited with the human women, who bore them offspring. Such were the heroes of old, the renowned ones.” (Genesis 6:1-4)

Commentary #1: That sexuality is not seen in Genesis as a primal source of evil can be argued from the strange story that concludes this parasha, the account of the sons of God taking wives from the daughters of men. The Nephilim, the heroes of old and warriors of renown, are the offspring of these unions. … The unions between the Watchers and human women lead to a corruption of humanity further compounded by the Watchers teaching humans the arts of magic and warfare. This corruption of humanity and the created order is what leads to the Flood. References to this myth in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs compound sexual pessimism with misogyny by portraying the women as seducing the Watchers into sin. However, the brief Genesis version removes all these details and does not pronounce any condemnation on the sons of God, the daughters of men or the Nephilim. — Michael Carden, “Genesis/Bereshit”, from The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache

Commentary #2: “The story of the coupling of the sons of god with the beautiful mortal women reminds us of mythological traditions that were widespread in ancient cultures, including some that were Israel’s neighbors. Canaanite literature tells how the father of the gods, El, had relations with two women. Shachar and Shalem, the progeny of these unions, became gods themselves and joined the pantheon. Classical literature tells the tale of Zeus, the father of the gods, having relations with the mortal Alcamene and fathering Heracles, who ultimately gains divine status and immortality … One sense that the story in Genesis reveals only the bare bones of the tale, as though the writer was unwilling to elaborate.” — Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, From God to Gods

Commentary #3: “The sons of God were sent down to teach mankind truth and justice; and for 300 years did indeed teach Cain’s son Enoch all the secrets of Heaven and Earth. Later, however, they lusted after mortal women and defiled themselves by sexual intercourse. Enoch has recorded not only their divine instructions, but also their subsequent fall from grace; before the end they were indiscriminately enjoying virgins, matrons, men and beasts.” — Tanhuma

Follow-Up Questions: Our first commentary wonders what the divine beings did wrong at all; our second commentary indicates that whatever criticism against the divine beings that may exist has been muted; and the third commentary indicates that the divine beings were at fault for giving into lustful desires.

Do you prefer one commentary over another? Does it make sense that these divine beings led humanity astray to the point where God is ready to destroy the world? Or are they scapegoats to distract us from blaming humanity for its role in its downfall? When we commit wrongdoings, how quick are we to blame outside forces? What enables us to take responsibility for our actions? 

Emanu-El Happenings: A friendly reminder: Emanu-El University resumes this Tuesday night (7:00-8:30PM) – even if you haven’t registered yet, just show up and join us! My Talmud class, “A Touch of the Bavli,” resumes this Thursday from 9:30-10:30AM. Also, I invite you to take part in my new adult education initiative, “Torah A La Carte” – you pick the topic, I guide you to resources, and we can both arrange times and places to meet to learn what you’ve always wanted!

The Big Inning at the End: It’s always wonderful when the baseball playoffs coincide with the conclusion of the Fall Jewish holidays. Just like our Torah portion, this week has brought many new beginnings, including the first Chicago Cubs playoff victory in a dozen years. This fan is holding his breath … 

Shabbat Shalom!

A Grave Mystery: V’Zote Habracha 2015

Questions to Start: What do you typically do when you visit the graves of a loved one? Do you leave a small stone at the grave, or a different item? Do you talk with companions about the person buried there? Do you speak aloud to the grave? 

For many of us, periodic visits to the graves of loved ones can provide us with comfort and meaning. So why would God and the Israelites wish to hide the resting place of Moses, the greatest prophet in Israel’s history? Let’s explore below … 

[A couple of notes before we go further: First, I’m playing with the format of these weekly posts; let me know what you think! Second, V’Zote Ha’Bracha is not read on Shabbat – it’s read on Simhat Torah morning, which never takes place on Shabbat (we’ll do so this year on Tuesday morning). As a result, the portion often is overlooked. But there are still things to say …]  

“[Moses] was buried in the valley in the land of Moab in the valley opposite Beth-peor; and no one knows of his grave until this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) 

Commentary #1:
“He buried himself, for he entered a cave in the valley. … The matter is clear that the place where Moses died is the place that he was buried.” – Ibn Ezra 

Commentary #2:
“Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] donkey; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.” – Ethics of the Fathers 5:6 

Commentary #3:
“The note ‘in the valley opposite Beth-peor’ gives the impression that Moses’ grave was probably still well known in earlier days, but that in the course of time the knowledge of it was lost and that in the opinion of the narrator the grave ought never to be known to men.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy 

Follow-Up Questions: Conventional wisdom states that Moses’ burial place is hidden because God did not want the grave to become a shrine or a place for sacrificial offerings. This fits in with von Rad’s theory, but Ibn Ezra takes the idea of a hidden grave more literally. And the suggestion from the Ethics of the Fathers suggests that the grave is so essential that it is among the first items created by God. 

Which theory is most compelling to you? Would we be better off if we knew where Moses is buried? If so, what would you do or say if you were to visit his grave? If not, what are other ways to honor Moses’ memory? How would your life change if you could no longer find the graves of your loved ones? What is the ultimate value of a burial place to a family’s legacy? 

Emanu-El Happenings: Even though a rainy Sukkot has changed some of our plans, we won’t let it dampen our spirits as the fall holidays draw to a close. Certainly, we’ll be in a festive mood when we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah! Join us for a Back To the Future-themed evening Monday night beginning with Happy Hour at 6:00PM and followed by services, dancing, and unpredictable revelry … topped off at the end with ice cream. Our celebration continues Tuesday morning beginning at 9:30AM, which will include more dancing, as well as an opportunity to watch the congregation prank me while I’m trying to chant the Haftarah! 

The Big Inning at the End:
On the topic of remembering the past … I’ve had the privilege to visit numerous Major League stadiums, and I’m always interested to see how teams choose to remember distinguished players in the franchise’s history. Some have ballparks have small museums with memorabilia and photographs of the team’s important moments, sometimes with a team Hall of Fame. Every team has retired at least one uniform number of a former player. And some utilize the ballpark’s architecture to engrave names and faces of franchise legends – some stadiums even have life-sized statues with the likenesses of these players! What purpose(s) do these practices fulfill for the team and for the team’s fans? I’m not sure I know why … 

Shabbat Shalom! And Moadim L’Simcha – hope you have a great conclusion to the Fall holidays!