Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: December, 2015

Shiva 10x: Vayechi 2015

Leadoff Questions: Is there a true timetable for communal grief? To what extent does the Jewish process of personal mourning – including shiva, sh’loshim, reciting kaddish, among other practices – provide an adequate template to loss that is felt by the entire community?

In the Torah, we discover that other ancient Near Eastern cultures – including that of ancient Israel – reserved a specific time for the public to bewail a loss. It’s intriguing to ponder how these practices have evolved.

Text: “Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days.” (Genesis 50:2-3)

Commentary #1: “The death of any member of a given community generally causes tensions, pain, and loss. The societal equilibrium is out of balance. Communal mourning rites seek to bring this imbalance back into some sort of equilibrium. Genesis 50:3 contains an echo of this connection with the 70 days of mourning by the Egyptians after the death of Joseph’s father, Jacob. Only after this period is completed does Joseph reintegrate himself in Egyptian society and appear in Pharaoh’s household. It seems that the collective weeping period is not only a sign of appreciation of the deceased but also a constructive element, creating, renewing, and strengthening societal ties.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Commentary #2: “Forty for embalming and thirty for mourning. Almost as many as the 72 days of mourning customarily set aside for the Pharaoh. Jacob receives a quasi-royal treatment. The mourning period was characterized by official public observances.” – Gunther Plaut, Torah: A Modern Commentary

Commentary #3: “‘The Egyptians bewailed him,’ not only out of respect for Joseph and because of his decree of public mourning, but also because he was revered for his name Yisrael and what this name stood for. He deserved the same respect as royalty.” – Sforno

Follow-Up Questions: Klingbeil notes the social value of communal mourning according to ancient Egyptian custom. Plaut differentiates two different stages of public mourning, noting that both are essential. Sforno points out that the amount of time the Egyptians mourn for Jacob is directly related to the way they value him.

When we experience communal tragedy – such as the Mother Emanuel incident or other mass shootings, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters – does a 70-day mourning period of sorts make sense? Should it depend on “how tragic” the loss is to the community? How would we determine that? As we look back on 2015, which was filled with tragedies, what work do we need to do as a community to work through our emotions and build better societies?

Emanu-El Happenings: I wish to congratulate everyone who participated in our Night of Giving at Publix, which took place on the last night of Hanukkah. A total of 1,572 pounds of food were donated to Charleston’s Kosher Food Pantry, which will provide bags of food for 105 families in need. Yasher Koach!

The Big Inning at the End: All I can say is that the weather in much of the United States right now is ideal for baseball. If only …

Shabbat Shalom!

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me: Vayigash 2015

Leadoff Questions: Why are we so compelled to complain about “what might have been”? Does regret help us cope with our past? Or does it only hinder our ability to manage the future?

Reunited with his sons in Egypt, Jacob has an audience with the Pharaoh. Jacob’s response to Pharaoh’s question is striking in its candor and frustration.

Text: “Pharaoh asked Jacob, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my ancestors during their sojourns.’” (Genesis 47:8-9)

Commentary #1: “My hundred and thirty years have been full of hardship. Few have been the times of real joy and satisfaction for me. When I look back on my life, all I can see is pain, deception, servitude, familial strife, famine, bereavement – and now exile from my homeland. I have frequently prayed to the God of my fathers to take my life and end my sojourn here on earth, since I have lived most of my days mourning lost dreams and bemoaning my fate. What will they say about me when I am gone? How will they compare me with my grandfather and father? I will not have lived as long as they did, and I will not die content and fulfilled as they did. I pray for God to release me from this torment.” – Norman J. Cohen, Voices From Genesis: Guiding Us Through the Stages of Life

Commentary #2: “When Pharaoh politely asked his age, Jacob answered: ‘Unlike my immediate ancestors, I have aged rapidly. Few and evil have been the years of my life; a mere 130 in all.’ With that, he blessed Pharaoh and went back to Goshen. But God reproached him: ‘Jacob, I saved you from Esau and Laban; I saved Joseph from the pit and made him Viceroy of Egypt; and I saved this entire household from starvation! Yet you dare complain that your days have been few and evil! For this ingratitude I will shorten them by 32 years.’” – Agadat Bereshit

Commentary #3: “One wonders why Jacob summarizes his life so negatively, particularly now, when he has lived to know that Joseph is alive and witness the fame and honor his son has achieved. Perhaps, with the dissipation of tension and excitement, Jacob feels the weight of his years. He looks back on his flight from Esau to Haran and recalls the years of servitude to Laban, the jealous rivalries between his wives, the death of Rachel just when they had returned to Canaan, the terrible events involving Dinah and Bilhah, and, particularly, the long years during which he had wished to die, believing that his beloved Joseph had met his death in the claws of a wild animal.” – Yair Zakovitch, Jacob

Follow-Up Questions: Cohen attempts to paraphrase Jacob’s words to describe the extent of his anguish. Agadat Bereshit, meanwhile, seems to have little sympathy for Jacob’s complaints, indicating that God shortens his life due to his ingratitude. Zakovitch seems to take a more balanced understanding of Jacob’s perspective, noting that his sadness can be at least partially explained by his sudden ability to look back on his life, free from the constant tension that once consumed his attention.

Are you sympathetic to Jacob’s response? Is he too ungrateful for the gifts in his life? Can you relate to his broken heart? If you were Pharaoh, what, if anything, would you have said in response? Is it appropriate to look at imperfections in our own lives with a similar amount of regret?

Emanu-El Happenings: Who doesn’t love eating Chinese food on Christmas? Join us next Friday night, December 25th, as our Men’s Club maintains our Jewish “tradition” by preparing a Chinese-themed Shabbat dinner at 7:00PM, which will be followed by 8:15PM services. You can still RSVP to the Synagogue office early next week.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s unusual that my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, is now considered World Series favorites. But especially after the recent additions of John Lackey, Adam Warren, Ben Zobrist, and (most importantly) Jason Heyward, that’s precisely what the team is. Still, any World Series champion must go through several obstacles before winning it all, and an expensive roster certainly is no guarantee for success. I wonder how my fellow Cub fans will feel if, in 2016, our team plays well but falls short of a championship. Will we be like Jacob and speak only with regret?

Shabbat Shalom!

What a Bunch of Winers: Miketz 2015

Leadoff Questions: Did you know that the word “gullible” doesn’t appear in the dictionary?

Hopefully, you didn’t really believe me. But it’s all too common to be lulled into a false sense of security. When was the last time this happened to you? Who are the people most likely to perpetrate such trickery? And how do we spot it so that we aren’t fooled again?

While his father Jacob was perhaps a better-known trickster, Joseph shows similar skills when his brothers appear before him in Egypt. Knowing that his brothers don’t realize his true identity, Joseph toys with them before eventually coming clean. Let’s study one example.

Text: “Portions were served them from his table; but Benjamin’s portion was several times that of anyone else. And they drank their fill with him.” (Genesis 43:34)

Commentary #1: “They still did not know that the Egyptian lord before them was their brother Joseph. Therefore Joseph was still lost to them. Why, then, should they have drunk wine on that day? They saw that Benjamin had received larger portions of food than they, and yet they were not jealous of him. Hence they realized that they had already ridded themselves of the sin of envy (see Genesis 37:11) which had led them to sell Joseph into slavery, and consequently they felt that they might drink wine again.” – Kav Hen

Commentary #2: “The meeting between the 11 brothers and the man who is lord of the land of Egypt appears to end on a note of conviviality, which will quickly be reversed in the next scene of the drama Joseph has carefully devised for his brothers. It should be noted that the drinking at the conclusion of this scene anticipates the mechanism of what is to follow, for it is the alleged theft of Joseph’s silver goblet that will bring the brothers back to his house under strict arrest.” – Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary

Commentary #3: The nagging anxiety that has befallen the brothers before the strange Egyptian prince is now replaced by an equally inexplicable sense of well-being. Meanwhile Joseph – still unknown to the brothers, yet so well-known to the reader – holds the key to the mystery and looks on with delight on the dearest of his guests whom God has led to him. – Franz Delitzsch 

Follow-Up Questions: All of the above commentaries note the dramatic irony of the brothers gleefully drinking to their heart’s content while Joseph plots yet another opportunity to strike fear into them. Thankfully, Joseph seems to have no intention of doing anything horrible to his brothers, but is it fair for him to put them through a roller-coaster of emotions? And what if Joseph’s intentions were far more sinister?

When it comes to trickery, Joseph can’t hold a candle to today’s master of disruption, Donald Trump. While it’s easy to question whether Trump believes any of the bigoted nonsense he is foisting on the campaign trail, the damage is already being done; other presidential candidates have suggested some less extreme but fully monstrous suggestions regarding immigration, and polls suggest that many voters (albeit not a majority) agree with Trump’s despicable views on Muslims. Will Trump follow Joseph’s lead and back off from these extreme views before it’s too late? Or will American voters need to be the ones to put a stop to his racist madness?

Emanu-El Happenings: I hope you’re having a wonderful Hanukkah. Once again, please join our congregation at Publix in either West Ashley, Mt. Pleasant, or Summerville this Sunday at 5:30PM to support our Day of Giving. We’ll light the hanukkiah for the last night of Hanukkah, then shop in support of the Kosher Food Pantry. It’s a win-win for all involved. Please be a part of it.

The Big Inning at the End: While trickery is dubious (if not normal) in politics, it has a grand, almost honored history in baseball. From the hidden ball trick to the spitball, from stealing signs to corking bats, baseball fans vacillate between outrage and acceptance of what is often referred to as “gamesmanship”. Does this add charm to the game, or should it be denounced? Or should we align ourselves with the view that “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’”?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

The Butler, the Baker, But No Candlestick-Maker: Vayeshev 2015

Leadoff Questions: To what extent would you describe yourself as self-confident? To what do you owe such confidence? Has it increased or decreased over time? How necessary is self-confidence in your day-to-day interactions?

In the book of Genesis, Joseph has moments of remarkable self-confidence (sometimes to the point of chutzpah) and other moments of humility. But whereas his confidence is unbridled when interpreting dreams for his brothers early in the portion, his approach has changed somewhat when he is in prison and explaining the dreams of the butler and the baker.

Text: “[Pharaoh] restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief baker he impaled – just as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.” (Genesis 40:21-23)

Commentary #1: “Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers that when he himself was briefly imprisoned, Joseph successfully interpreted a dream he had. At the cupbearer’s suggestion, Joseph is summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and again does so successfully. On both occasions, Joseph refers to God – ‘Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams]’ (Genesis 40:8); ‘God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do’ (41:25) – but he does not pray to God or receive any message from God. – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Commentary #2: “Both their dreams lent themselves to the same interpretation; for the picture of the bird eating the food from off his head was similar to that depicted by the chief butler in ‘I put the cup into the hand of Pharaoh,’ since the king is like a great winged eagle (see Ezekiel 17) … but Joseph was influenced in his interpretation by the past case history of the dreamers, their status at court and the difference between the crimes for which they were sentenced, marking the one for pardon and the other for perdition. We see therefore that the evaluation of the interpretation is determined by the appraisal of the dreamer. – Akeidat Yitzhak

Commentary #3: “If Joseph was indeed counting on a suitable reward for his valuable intelligence work, he badly miscalculated. The butler, who – we know – in fact owes much to Joseph, proves forgetful. From his point of view, he owed his restoration to Pharaoh, not to Joseph. Besides, he quite naturally has no desire to remember his prison days, and once reinstated in his high position, he has nothing to gain by wasting his newly restored access to Pharaoh’s ear in order to do a favor for an imprisoned Hebrew slave. Acting in his own interest, enjoying life in the present, the butler neglects to convey Joseph’s request to Pharaoh. … [Joseph] would have to wait for another occasion to demonstrate his gifts, this time to Pharaoh himself. Learning from his mistaken trust in the butler’s gratitude, next time Joseph will take matters into his own hands.” – Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom

Follow-Up Questions: Miles notes that Joseph gives credit to God when interpreting dreams, even though there are no recorded conversations between the two. Kass counters that Joseph feels let down by God for not emancipating him earlier, which motivates him to rely on his own abilities in later chapters. Akeidat Yitzhak seems to concur with Kass in that Joseph discerns the meaning of the dreams from his own personal observations.

Based on these commentaries, does the fact that Joseph credits God for his interpretation skills indicate a sense of false modesty? In other words, does Joseph really believe that his skills comes from God? Or, perhaps, does Joseph credit God for giving him only the confidence to develop his skills? Do you think that confidence is most effective when it grows within ourselves, or do we need other people (and other beings) to grant us such confidence?

Emanu-El Happenings: As we are about to start Hanukkah, I’d like to thank Marshall Heiden for once again installing the large electric hanukkiah in our synagogue’s front lawn. This hanukkiah enables us to fulfill the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle of the Hanukkah story. Marshall does many things to help our congregation, often under the radar, but always unselfishly. Please thank him when you see him over the coming days, and please join us at afternoon minyan all next week, when we light our wonderful electric hanukkiah.

The Big Inning at the End: We all love the chocolate gelt coins on Hanukkah. They’re relatively inexpensive; offers 24 mesh gelt bags for $12. So let’s use that to put into perspective how much the Boston Red Sox just agreed to pay David Price, an excellent pitcher who is now an extremely wealthy. How wealthy? For his services over the next seven seasons, he could afford to buy 434 million bags of gelt coins. Hope Price is really good at dreidel …

Shabbat Shalom!