Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: November, 2015

Burying Isaac: Vaylishlakh 2015

Leadoff Questions: What are the best ways to cope with unfinished business? Must we make an effort to create a sense of closure? When closure is impossible, is it possible to find positive outlets to prevent such unfinished business from haunting us?

Two Torah portions ago, Isaac attempts to create closure by doling out blessings to his sons. When that plan goes awry, the implications can be felt for a generation – and perhaps longer.

Text: “And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old when he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age; and he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob.” (Genesis 35:27-29)

Commentary #1: “Next we read of the death of Isaac, who had, apparently, lingered on his deathbed for 20 years, blind, feeble, and immobile – a graphic image of the decline of the patriarchate. After their father’s death, Esau and Jacob parted company. The narrator tries to give the impression that it was an amicable separation, explaining that the twins were too rich to share the same territory. But Esau’s departure to Seir, the mountainous region to the southeast of Canaan, shows that the emotional reconciliation of the brothers had come to nothing. Jacob could neither live with his brother nor with his own shadow self. He did not achieve the psychic healing of blessing. – Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis

Commentary #2: “Isaac’s death is narrated as following on Jacob’s return to Padan Aram. His ‘deathbed’ blessing to Jacob, masquerading as Esau, occurred 22 years earlier. … Consciousness of mortality is a feature of Isaac’s ‘inscape,’ but his time of real death arrives without rehearsal and without declaration of will or blessing. – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

Commentary #3: “Jacob and Esau continued at peace for the next 18 years – their father Isaac died and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Only then, some say, did Esau tell his sons of the bartered birthright and the stolen blessing; yet still restrained their jealous rage, saying: ‘Our father Isaac made us swear to live in peace with one another.’ They answered, ‘While he lived, that was well enough. But now let us gather allies from Aram, Philistia, Moab and Ammon, to root Jacob out of the land that is rightfully ours!’ Eliphaz, being an upright man, dissented. Esau, however, keenly remembered the injuries Jacob had done him, and felt ashamed to be thought a weakling. He therefore led a huge army against Jacob at Hebron, but found the entire household in sackcloth and ashes, mourning Leah’s death. When Jacob took offense at this unseemly breach of their covenant, Esau said: ‘You have always hated and deceived me! There can be no true brotherhood between us until lion and ox are yoked together before the plough; until the raven turns white as the stork; until the boar sheds its bristles and grows a fleece.’” – Jubilees 37-38

Follow-Up Questions: Who bears responsibility for the unfinished business in Isaac’s family? To Armstrong, it seems to be Jacob who has not healed from his brother’s anger. Zornberg places responsibility on Isaac, who tries to create closure long before his death. The excerpt from the book of Jubilees blames Esau, claiming that he wishes to take revenge on his brother even after the two of them buried their father together.

What steps could Isaac, Esau, and Jacob have taken to avoid the unfinished business between them? Should Esau receive credit for reuniting with Jacob 20 years after their separation and suggesting that the two live together? Can we really blame Isaac for wanting to bless his sons long before his death, given that no one truly knows when death we will die? Is it fair to blame Jacob, given that Esau had declared his desire to kill his twin brother? To what extent is our reluctance to solve unfinished business relatable to the experiences of our ancestors from the book of Genesis?

Emanu-El Happenings: Now that Thanksgiving is complete, we can look forward to the beginning of Hanukkah. I hope you’ll join Emanu-El for services and celebrations surrounding this fun holiday. I also want to remind you that, for the second year in a row, we will be gathering at three Publix locations on Sunday, December 13th, at 5:30PM, to light candles for the final night of Hanukkah and to then buy food and other supplies to be donated to the Kosher Food Pantry. Look for more information in coming days; it’s a great way to conclude the holiday with a spirit of generosity for those who need to celebrate the most.

The Big Inning at the End: On a weekend in which we give thanks, it’s worthwhile to recount the story of the first day Yogi Berra was honored at a baseball stadium. Allegedly, when it was Berra’s turn to speak, he began, “I’d like to thank all those who made this day necessary.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Isaac?: Vayetze 2015

Leadoff Questions: When have you been motivated by fear? To what extent can fear lead to good decisions? Or does it only lead to panic and bad choices?

As our society grapples with difficult decisions in the wake of last week’s deplorable attacks in Paris and the continuing violence in Israel, it is useful to look at a phrase found in this week’s Torah portion, in which Jacob cites fear when completing a treaty with Laban, his untrustworthy father-in-law.

Text: “‘May the God of Abraham’s [house] and god of Nahor’s [house]’ – their ancestral deities – ‘judge between us.’ And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac’s [house].” (Genesis 31:53)

Commentary #1: “Isaac had always taught Jacob not to take a vow unless absolutely necessary and if he had to take an oath, to do it with the reverence and respect proper in such cases. Hence when Jacob found himself compelled to take an oath, he did so filled with fear of his father Isaac, filled with reverence for the ideals his father had taught him.” – Binah LeIttim

Commentary #2: “The appellative [pahad] remains obscure. It may have here its customary sense of ‘fear,’ in which case some reference to the [Binding] of Isaac may be implicit; or it might be an altogether different term.” – E.A. Speiser, Genesis

Commentary #3: “From this episode we learn that the merit acquired from labor may be helpful even when the influence of one’s ancestors is not. It is written: ‘Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had been on my side.’ This implies that the merit of Jacob’s ancestors saved him financially, but it followed by: ‘God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and gave judgment yesternight,’ which indicates that He warned [Laban] not to harm Jacob because of the merit of the work he had performed.” – Tanhuma-Yelammedenu

Follow-Up Questions: What does it mean to swear “by the fear of Isaac”? To Binah LeIttim, Jacob literally fears whether his father will approve of his father’s behavior. To Speiser, the phrase hearkens back to the fear experienced by Isaac himself when his father Abraham bound him to a sacrificial altar in Genesis 21. But to Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, the fear of Isaac only has limited effectiveness in Jacob’s quest to be liberated from Laban – rather, it is Jacob’s own merits that enables his independence.

Do you feel that Jacob is fearful at this moment of the story, when he is about to lead his family away from Laban’s protective yet treacherous nest? Or is he simply recalling the fearfulness of his father? How does this depiction compared to the episode in last week’s portion, in which Jacob fearlessly swindles Esau’s blessing from a feckless Isaac? Is Jacob now in the same position of his father, unsure how to trust someone in an atmosphere of mistrust and trickery? What lessons about fear can we learn from our ancestors? How can we apply these lessons to current situations?

Emanu-El Happenings: As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are eagerly anticipating traveling to family and friends. I myself will be at a conference during the first part of the week before returning for the holiday itself. But if you will be in Charleston over the coming week, please consider taking some time to attend minyan, which will take place as regularly scheduled (with one exception: on Thanksgiving morning, minyan will start at 9:00AM). There are still people in our community who need to say Kaddish and grow spiritually through prayer and listening to the reading of the Torah. Your presence can help make these activities possible. We cannot assume that others will do so if we don’t; we must all take the responsibility upon ourselves, if only occasionally.

The Big Inning at the End: While we’re on the subject of fear, there is a grand tradition of even the greatest hitters standing in awe of a dominant pitcher. One example took place in the 1993 All Star Game, when John Kruk visibly quaked while facing the explosive pitches of Randy Johnson. But perhaps my favorite story about this involves Lefty Gomez, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Yankees. During Gomez’s career, there was no Designated Hitter rule in the American League, so Gomez had to take turns at bat like all the other players. On one occasion, before facing an especially intimidating hurler, Gomez took a box of matches out of his pocket and lit one, holding it near home plate. The umpire asked why Gomez would do this, since the light of one match wouldn’t allow Gomez to see the pitcher any better. “I know,” Gomez replied, “I just want to make sure he can see me!”

Shabbat Shalom!

One For The Road: Toldot 2015

Leadoff Questions: Have you ever received advice just before starting a new phase of your life? If so, did that advice help you on your sojourns? Or, perhaps, did it only muddle your approach to your new chapter? 

This week’s portion is perhaps best known for the blessings Jacob receives instead of his brother Esau, but Jacob also receives words of encouragement just before he leaves home to escape Esau – and these words can be understood in various ways.

Text: “So Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed him. He instructed him, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May you and your offspring be granted the blessing of Abraham, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.’” (Genesis 28:1-4) 

Commentary #1: “Isaac said, ‘May God Almighty bless you with much wealth. May He make you fruitful and increase your number, making you give rise to 12 tribes. Your descendants will become an assembly of nations. Leading your children will be the great Sanhedrin, consisting of 70 elders, one for each of the 70 nations. Through them, your children will subjugate the nations.’” – Targum Yonatan

Commentary #2: “[Rebecca] said to [Jacob], Yesterday you heeded me and received the blessings; now heed me in order to remain alive. He said to her: But is that the proper way? For me to set out without Father’s knowledge? If he also tells me, I will do so. Immediately: ‘So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him … arise and go to Paddan-Aram …’ As soon as he heard that, he said to him: Give me [travel instructions]. He said to him, ‘May God Almighty bless you.’” – Tanhuma

Commentary #3: “When Isaac sends Jacob to Haran, he bestows upon Jacob the blessing that continues the covenant of circumcision – for two reasons: 1. The purpose – to marry and establish a family. Circumcision likewise concerns fertility. 2. Isaac cannot bless in place of God. The name YHVH can only come from revelation, and from it God’s blessings emanates. Isaac can pray for Jacob concerning the continuity of the covenant of circumcision – the crux of which, in contrast to the Covenant between the Pieces, is not divine revelation or a divine act, but rather a human act. Therefore, he prays: ‘May El Shadai bless you and make you fruitful and numerous … and grant you the blessing of Abraham …’” – Rav Tamir Granot from Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach, Rabbi Ezra Bick and Rabbi Yaakov Beasley, editors

Follow-Up Questions: To Rav Granot, Isaac’s final blessing to Jacob reflects humanity’s limits of shaping our destiny, while Targum Yonatan, by contrast, describes a future in which Israelites will forcefully subjugate their will over others. The Tanhuma claims that Isaac is not interested in giving Jacob additional blessings (or, perhaps, Rebecca tries to give extra blessings before Isaac can get a word in edgewise), and only does so after Jacob insists. 

To what extent does Isaac convey a sense of empowerment to his younger son? Is Isaac’s often passive behavior consistent with his words to Jacob? If you had the chance to offer final words of encouragement to a loved one heading on a new journey, to what extent would your blessing model that of Isaac?

Emanu-El Happenings: I very much regret that, due to a prior obligation, I will not be in Charleston for one of our synagogue’s signature events, the Jews, Brews and ‘Ques program on Sunday, November 15th, at 5:00PM. It combines a fierce cooking competition with amazing Kosher barbecue for all to enjoy. If you don’t yet have your tickets, I hope you will support this event and enjoy the amazing food that I’ll be missing! 

The Big Inning at the End: Baseball, like so many other disciplines, has a long tradition of pithy bits of advice, much of which applies to both baseball and life in general. My favorite was said by Hall of Famer “Wee” Willie Keeler, an expert batter whose career ended more than a century ago. He said, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ‘em where they ain’t.” To me, these words not only tell us how to get base hits, but they also convey that we should maintain our focus on what matters, and at the same time, we should find ways to be unique. These are good words to live by.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rebecca’s Blessing: Chaye Sarah 2015

Leadoff Questions: Is it fair to be evaluated by others based on the character or actions of one’s parents? How about the character or actions of one’s children? The blessing given to Rebecca just before she leaves her home to marry Isaac indicates that Rebecca’s legacy is based on those closest to her, not on her own accomplishments.

Text: “So they sent off their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his entourage. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, ‘O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads; May your descendants seize the gates of their foes.’” (Genesis 24:59-60)

Commentary #1: “Like Abraham, Rivka is the bearer of a promise. The promise is bestowed in her family’s blessing: many children, a progeny that ‘inherits its enemies’ gates.’ ‘Inheritance’ is an essential theme of Genesis, and indeed of every family history. When Abraham had no children, he complained that someone from his household would ‘inherit’ him (Genesis 15:3). After the binding of Isaac, God promised Abraham, ‘Your seed will inherit its enemies’ gate’ (Genesis 22:17). Rivka’s family offers her the same blessing … ‘Inheriting’ goes from Abraham to Rivka to Jacob and to the people of Israel. Her decisiveness, her strong will, and her embrace of her destiny make her a strong active link between Abraham and Jacob.” – Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

Commentary #2: “According to the Sages, children take after the mother’s brother. Knowing this, Laban wanted his sister Rebecca to have a great many children, so that there might be many more men as evil as he in the world.” – Anonymous

Commentary #3: “It’s true that Rebecca’s descendants – the Children of Israel – eventually do grow into a mighty nation that seizes its enemies’ gates. But so do her other descendants, the Children of Esau – first Edom, whom Jewish tradition identifies as the Roman Empire, and Edom’s descendants, the Christian nations of the world. We should therefore be careful how we bless each other, since blessings, like children, eventually take on a life of their own.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Follow-Up Questions: Frymer-Kensky suggests that Rebecca is the essential bridge between Abraham and Jacob – almost superseding Isaac in terms of being a “patriarch.” Our anonymous source believes that Rebecca’s blessing is a selfish wish bestowed upon her by her brother. Frankel takes a middle path by saying that one’s progeny, after some time, makes a name for themselves.

To what extent is Rebecca’s blessing a positive wish for her? Does the fact that it speaks so much of her descendants make it a backhanded compliment of sorts? Knowing what we know about Rebecca and her relationship with her children, does she take a more activist role than Isaac? Is there a case to be made for her to supplant Isaac as her generation’s bearer of God’s promise?

Emanu-El Happenings: I am very much looking forward to meeting and hearing Yizhar Hess, the Executive Director and CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel, at our synagogue Wednesday night. This edition of the Charleston Jewish Federation’s Voices of Israel series will feature an important discussion of the challenges of building a Jewish state that embraces many forms of Jewish expression. I urge you to attend at our synagogue at 7:30PM on Wednesday, November 11th.

The Big Inning at the End: Earlier in the portion, Abraham’s lead servant is charged with traveling a great distance to find a wife for Isaac. You could say that this servant was the first scout in biblical history (besides, perhaps, the dove Noah sends to find dry land at the conclusion of the flood). While Abraham approaches this responsibility with great apprehension, I’ve always thought that being a scout would be a fun job. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to Major League scouts at minor-league baseball games, and I found the experience fascinating. These are people fully engaged with the game, analyzing the physical and mental tools of many a prospect. And since they don’t advertise the fact that they are scouts, they can walk around almost anonymously, being with the true fans of the sport. Maybe Abraham’s servant had a pretty neat job after all …

Shabbat Shalom!