Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: January, 2016

Holy Nation, Batman!: Yitro 2016

Leadoff Questions: How important is it to have a unique destiny? Do you subscribe to the idea that “normal is boring”? In what ways is being different a badge of honor, and in what ways is it more or less inconvenient? 
As we often teach, the idea of Israel being the “chosen people” does not imply that it is better than anyone else. But in this week’s Torah portion, as our ancestors prepare for an encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai, they are about to discover that they are, at the very least, responsible for taking a special path.

Text: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a)

Commentary #1: “All Israel is endowed with sovereignty, for the nation as a whole has become royal in character. Thus it is hardly surprising that the mitsvot, the covenant stipulations of the Sinaitic pact, are as often couched in the second person singular as in the plural. Both Israel as a nation and the Israelite as an individual stand in the position of royal vassals of the divine suzerain … Israel’s special identity demands a radical separation from the ways of the nations. The whole world is YHWH’s, but Israel is to be his ‘treasured possession … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ a sacral state, not a political one.” – Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion

Commentary #2: “There is nothing quite like this in the annals of the religious experience of humankind. Eventually, with Judaism, study would become a religious experience higher than even prayer. Jews would be educated when most of Europe was sunk in illiteracy. It was through study that Jews created a new and still-compelling form of human dignity and equality, and it was made possible through the birth of the alphabet. That is how Jews became ‘a kingdom of priests.’” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation

Commentary #3: “Rather than rejecting such a pivotal idea [as chosenness], we would do well to try to understand it in a way that is consistent with both the divinity of all humanity, and of the uniqueness of the Jews. Viewed in that light, we must quickly echo the words of the Bible that the ‘chosenness’ of the Jews is consistent with the assertion that God loves and cares for each human being. We are all precious. But chosenness implies a uniqueness, a particular purpose. The statement, ‘I was chosen today,’ is incomplete unless I specify what it is I was chosen for. Similarly, Jewish chosenness is a sentence fragment. It is grammatically and theologically incomplete.” – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

Late-Inning Questions: Levenson sees chosenness as a religious designation only. Rabbi Sacks believes that devotion to education through the generations has enabled Jews to become a holy nation. And Rabbi Artson points out that chosenness is a useless idea without deciding what we are chosen for.

Of the opinions expressed above, which one comes closest to your concept of being chosen by God? Is being a chosen nation a source of pride? What is your response to Jews who reject the notion that we are chosen? How can being chosen allow us to work positively with the nations of the world? How can a misinterpretation of chosenness work against us?

On Deck at Emanu-El: This January has been one of the busiest months for our synagogue in a long time. The Gun Sense SC Friday night service at KKBE takes place, at 8:00PM at the Temple. Please join us to stand up for reasonable and logical gun-safety measures. Tomorrow morning, our Sisterhood takes the spotlight beginning at Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM, followed by a wholly inclusive Sisterhood Shabbat service at 9:30AM, including the Hagigat Shabbat ceremony for our fifth-graders and honoring our beloved Sally Fischbein. The weekend closes out with …

The Big Inning at the End: Over the years, I acquired more than 10,000 baseball cards, in addition to numerous football, basketball, and hockey cards. In less than 10 days, I’m giving almost all of them away. I’ve donated or committed to donating numerous cards to kids who have requested them over Facebook; the remaining cards (still several thousand, at least) will be one of the prizes at Emanu-El’s Religious School Bingo event on Sunday, January 31st. Come and buy a card and dauber, then stay and play. You just might wind up with a nice collection of sports memorabilia.

Shabbat Shalom!

Don’t Forget to Remember: Beshallach 2016

Leadoff Questions: How have your memories of your life’s biggest milestones evolved over the years? What did you remember most about, let’s say, your Bar/Bat Mitzvah five years after it happened? What did you remember most about it 10 years later? 25 years later?

Our Torah portion this Shabbat concludes with the exhortation to remember Amalek’s nefarious attack on the Israelites, a memory that must stay with the Israelites from generation to generation – even though God wishes to “blot out” the memory of this nation. Perhaps it is not surprising that what commentators remember about Amalek varies greatly.

Text: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. … Then Adonai said to Moses, ‘Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!’ And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, ‘It means, “Hand upon the throne of Adonai!” Adonai will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.’” (Exodus 17:11, 14-16)

Commentary #1: “The unusual wording of Exodus 17:16 … If kes means “throne,” then it lacks the final letter of the ordinary word for ‘throne’ (kisse). Similarly, the name of YHWH here lacks the last two consonants that it usually (but not always) shows. Rabbi Aha [bar Hanina] interprets these apocopated terms as an indication of the unfinished quality of God’s nature and his mastery over the world. So long as Israel’s ancient and by now archetypical enemy endures, YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather, he is the omnipotent cosmocrator only in potentia. His power and majesty, not yet fully manifest, will become so when, acting in accordance with Psalm 9, he blasts his enemy from the world.” – Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence

Commentary #2: “After the battle, Moses made everyone – who were, as you can imagine, tired from all the killing and maiming – make this ridiculous trophy called the Adonai-Nissi Altar, which he inscribed with – get this: ‘Hand upon the throne of the Lord.’ Seriously. Like he did all the killing and maiming with the hands that he didn’t even raise himself. He also wrote on it, ‘The Lord will be at war with the Amalek throughout the ages.’ I’m sure He will, sweetheart. People will be wanting to see Amalek rematches every year. More likely, you’ll be talking about it with your battle-watching altacockers late into the night until I get so bored, I have to excuse myself to go to timbrel practice. Here’s a secret: I don’t even like the timbrel. Think about that while you enjoy your battle.” – Joel Stein, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Commentary #3: “The remembrance of Amalek is also meant to remind Israel of their own moral breach at Rephidim shortly after their departure from Egypt, a breach which served to bring on the hound – Amalek, who thereupon resorted to all kinds of evil tricks. Having managed to get hold of Israel’s genealogical records stored in Egyptian archives, he was able by use of the precise information in the records to lure Israelites from the safety of their camp, and then either slew them or polluted them by pederasty. Subsequently, encouraged by Amalek’s successful example, other nations dared attack Israel.” – Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna

Late-Inning Questions: To Levenson, the Amalekite attack is especially noteworthy because of God’s emerging yet incomplete sovereignty over the universe. Stein seems to find Moses’ role in the victory over Amalek most striking. Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna sees the Israelites’ grumblings during their first days of their wanderings as a catalyst to attacks by Amalek and others as well.

What do you think is most memorable about the Amalekite attack? Is it paradoxical to both remember Amalek and to also aim to blot out the memory of that nation? What exactly does God hope for us to remember about this incident? And to what extent do our memories change over time, just as we change over time? What can we do to ensure that we remember the most important lessons of our lives?

On Deck at Emanu-El: The Gun Sense SC Friday night service at KKBE is only one week away – Friday, January 29th, at 8:00PM at the Temple. Please join us to stand up for reasonable and logical gun-safety measures. For more information about Gun Sense SC, click here.

The Big Inning at the End: Over the years, I acquired more than 10,000 baseball cards, in addition to numerous football, basketball, and hockey cards. In less than 10 days, I’m giving almost all of them away. I’ve donated or committed to donating numerous cards to kids who have requested them over Facebook; the remaining cards (still several thousand, at least) will be auctioned off at Emanu-El’s Religious School Bingo event on Sunday, January 31st. Come and buy a ticket, then stay and play. You just might wind up with a nice collection of sports memorabilia.

Shabbat Shalom!

At Midnight: Bo 2016

Leadoff Questions: When you speak of the Ten Plagues at a Passover Seder, what kind of tone is present at your Seder table? Is it matter-of-fact, seen as merely another chapter of the story of the Exodus? Or is the tone more somber? How do we deal with the suffering of Egyptian citizens in the process of our ancestors’ liberation?

Arguably, the tenth and final plague – the smiting of the Egyptian firstborns – is the most challenging plague to grapple with.

Text: “In the middle of the night Adonai struck down all the [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians – because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30)

Commentary #1: “As we read of the great cry that went up throughout Egypt at the death of the firstborn, it is difficult to avoid asking whether a demonstration of overwhelming divine power … justified such a great burden of human suffering. Perhaps all we can report is the conviction, apparent throughout, that God has a design for this people, and through them, for humanity; and that the opposition to that design, then as often since, inevitably brings suffering in its wake.” – Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch

Commentary #2: “The most horrifying of all the plagues, and the reaction to it, are described in only two verses, whereas the rest of the narrative concerns itself with preparations for and actual description of the exodus. Note how … the narrative is surrounded by ritual concerns – trying to explain the subsequent reason for eating unleavened bread.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Commentary #3: “Rabbi Simeon used to say: The King Who is the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, is unlike flesh and blood. When he goes out to war, flesh and blood goes with throngs and legions; and when he goes to [make] peace, he goes alone. But characteristic of the King Who is the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, when He goes out to [make] peace, He goes with legions and throngs, as it is said: ‘thousand thousands served Him’ (Daniel 7:10). … But when He goes to war, He goes alone, as it is said: ‘I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with Me: for I have trodden them in My anger, and trampled them in my fury’ (Isaiah 63:3). Thus you find when He punished the generation of the flood, He punished them alone … and you also find when He punished the generation of the dispersion, He punished them alone  … And you find that when He punished the Egyptians, He punished them alone.” – Sifrei Zuta

Late-Inning Questions: Blenkinsopp seems to tread lightly when addressing the 10th plague, claiming only that the punishment is simply a result of impeding God’s plan. Fox points out the text’s lack of comfort with the firstborns’ deaths, noting that the plague is described in minimal detail. Perhaps Sifrei Zuta makes the boldest pronouncement, insisting that the plague is God’s handiwork alone; maybe by doing so, Sifrei Zuta wishes to absolve any of God’s people from feeling any guilt.

To what extent do these commentaries reflect sensitivity to the suffering of the Israelites’ enemies? Do any of them enable you to feel more comfortable with the 10th plague? Or perhaps, is the whole point of the episode to ensure that we feel uncomfortable with it? When we spill wine for every plague mentioned at the Seder, is this a sufficient reaction? Should we seek out new ways to note the 10th plague individually?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I’m so pleased that we will devote an upcoming weekend to exploring how music can make our prayer services come alive. Each year, the Sabbath in which we read the Torah portion of Beshallach is designated “Shabbat Shira”, the “Sabbath of Song”. At this year’s Shabbat Shira – Friday, January 22nd-Saturday, January 23rd – we will be fortunate to host Dara Rosenblatt, a former Charlestonian and now a first-year cantorial and Jewish education student at Hebrew College. Dara will lead services both on Friday night and Saturday morning, utilizing both familiar and new tunes. She also will periodically add kavvanot, brief explanations about the prayers, in order to add depth to our understanding of Shabbat services. I am confident that Dara’s presence will teach all of us the blessing of song, “Shira Uv’Racha”. Please be a part of it.

The Big Inning at the End: Pitchers and catchers report in slightly more than a month from now. That is all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Boiling Point:Va’Era 2016

Leadoff Questions: How do we react when the ways we always did things no longer work? How do we best adjust to new realities?

Our Torah portion this morning offers a brief look at Pharaoh’s magicians. Prior to the 10 Plagues, these sorcerers reliably proved the might of Egypt’s kingdom; but with every passing plague, they are stripped of their effectiveness.

Text: “So they took soot of the kiln, and appeared before Pharaoh; Moses threw it toward the sky, and it caused an inflammation breaking out in boils on human and beast. The magician-priests were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magician-priests as well as all the other Egyptians.” (Exodus 9:10-11)

Commentary #1: “Moses afflicts the Egyptians with boils. The sorcerers, summoned to work their countermagic, don’t even show up; they can’t, because they’re covered with boils. The increasing feebleness of their dark arts makes for great black comedy – and hilariously effective testimony for God’s power. The sorcerers are the gangster’s dumb sidekicks … they’re the cringing flunkies who do every tyrant’s dirty work, and it’s wonderful to see them meet the deserved misfortune of flunkies everywhere.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Commentary #2: “Even before this plague, the Egyptian occultists had recognized the greatness of Moses’ powers. Therefore, whenever they were in his presence, they would stand as a sign of respect. After this plague, however, they no longer even had the audacity to stand in Moses’ presence, but prostrated themselves to the ground. They might have been able to provide logical explanations for the previous plagues, but this one was completely beyond their comprehension.” – Abarbanel

Commentary #3: “The magicians suffered as well. Their power in relation to Moses and Aaron had been broken with their inability to replicate the gnats. Now their solidarity with Pharaoh was also broken. They could not stand before Moses because of the boils.” – James K. Bruckner, New International Biblical Commentary

Follow-Up Questions: Plotz focuses on the magicians’ darkly comedic fate. Abarbanel notes that the episode shows the magicians at wit’s end, unable to understand how this plague was possible. Bruckner claims that the magicians were alienated from Pharaoh.

Do you feel bad, even a little bit, for these magicians? Do they get what they deserve? Or do you see them as victims of Pharaoh’s continual refusal to emancipate the Israelites? Can we identify with their frustration, with the realization that they can no longer serve Egypt in the way they always had? How would you advise these magicians to move on with their lives, to redirect their talents for work not associated with the Pharaoh? And how might we use that kind of advice when our lives are in need to reexamination and rebirth?

Emanu-El Happenings: The escalation of mass shootings in the United States is an issue that hits home with many of us, especially here in Charleston. As I said during my sermon this past Yom Kippur, we have a moral obligation to do what is in our power to reduce the odds of future incidents. An organization known as Gun Sense SC formed shortly after the Mother Emanuel massacre this past June. The organization has reached out to houses of worship across Charleston, and has designated the last Sabbath of January to stand up and raise awareness for its work. Gun Sense SC is “an independent, grassroots group of South Carolinians working hard to close the gaps in laws that make it too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — while supporting the Second Amendment right of citizens to lawfully own guns.” Our Synagogue’s board approved last month a proposal to join KKBE at Shabbat evening services on Friday, January 29th, at 8:00PM, so we may advocate for reasonable gun safety measures. Please join us.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s always gratifying when the National Baseball Hall of Fame selects new inductees, and Ken Griffey, Jr., and Mike Piazza clearly deserved to be elected this year. But it’s also disappointing when other qualified players (such as Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines) fall short yet again. But, at the very least, I suppose that the controversy surrounding one player’s inclusion and another players exclusion provides healthy discussion of what it means to be a baseball immortal, and of how we best evaluate the game’s rich history.

Shabbat Shalom!


Grilled By Foremen: Shemot 2016

Leadoff Questions: What are proper ways to speak up to our leaders when they provide insufficient leadership? How can we prevent emotion from obscuring legitimate criticism?

The initial encounter between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh at the end of this week’s Torah portion leads to a heavier workload for the Israelites – and the Israelite foremen, who oversee their fellow slaves, focus their anger on Moses and Aaron.

Text: “Now the overseers of the Israelites found themselves in trouble because of the order, ‘You must not reduce your daily quantity of bricks.’ As they left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path, and they said to them, ‘May Adonai look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers – putting a sword in their hands to slay us.’” (Exodus 5:19-21)

Commentary #1: “[The foremen said to Moses:] ‘You have also caused us further harm. Until now, we were working for the king, building his cities. At least we had some respect. But now, any Egyptian who wants us as slaves can simply take us. Any Egyptian can kill us without fear of reprisal.’” – Sifethey Cohen

Commentary #2: “People smell with their noses, not their eyes! [Note: The Hebrew for “loathsome” literally refers to scent.] This may be just an expression or even the author’s oversight, but I rather think that the contradiction is purposeful: the people’s officers misspeak because they are upset. We frequently do that.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Commentary #3: “Had this instantaneous and spontaneous reaction of Israel been employed in later periods of Israel’s history, when many fraudulent leaders appeared on the scene, we would have avoided many false messiahs and the subsequent disasters they brought upon the Jewish people. The reason there is no criticism of Israel’s complaints to Moshe and Aaron is the complaints were legitimate, proper, well-placed, and deserved. It is only unfortunate that future generations did not react in the same way.” – Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, More Torah Therapy

Follow-Up Questions: Each commentator adds a different level of understanding to the foremens’ complaints – Sifethey Cohen explains why the foremen believe that the slaves’ lives are in imminent jeopardy; Friedman focuses on the foremens’ piqued emotions, which lead them to use a curious turn of phrase; and Rabbi Bulka credits the foremen for standing up to Moses and Aaron, the kind of practice that may have saved Jews in similar situations in subsequent generations.

Do you agree with the foremens’ claim that Pharaoh’s new directive makes the Israelite situation infinitely worse? Were you in the foremens’ position, would you have spoken differently to Moses and Aaron? Were Moses and Aaron a proper target at that moment? What lessons can we learn about working with leadership during difficult times?

Emanu-El Happenings: I wish all of you the best in 2016, and I’m happy to say that we’re beginning the year with a very busy January. I encourage you to look through our publicity for all the details, but for now, make sure to mark your calendars for Friday, January 22nd at 8:15PM and Saturday, January 23rd at 9:30AM. This is a program called “Shira Uv’Racha”, “The Blessing of Song”, and we’re so pleased that Dara Rosenblatt, now a Cantorial and Jewish Education student at Hebrew College, will return to Charleston to lead us in services and to add to our insight of how our prayer experiences can come alive. You don’t want to miss it.

The Big Inning at the End: This year will mark the 25th anniversary of one of the rarest seasons in baseball history. In 1991, both the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins rose from last place in their respective divisions to play each other in the World Series, with the Twins prevailing in seven remarkable games. We all love to watch the underdog succeed against all odds; will a team that finished in last place in 2015 make a magical run in 2016? The great thing about the start of the new year is that, for now, anything is possible.

Shabbat Shalom!