Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: February, 2016

Back Story: Ki Tissa 2016

Leadoff Questions: Is it worthwhile for us to try to understand God? Is this too great a task to undertake? Or can we be enriched if we understand just a little bit, however minute it might be?

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, Moses begs to get closer to God, and perhaps surprisingly, God agrees.

Text: “[Moses] said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence!’ … And Adonai said, ‘See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.’” (Exodus 33:18, 21-23)

Commentary #1: “A period of time can only be understood once we are able to view the entire context of events and happenings. In the same way, we are only able to comprehend God’s ways and recognize how God works in the world in retrospect. Only then is it possible to fathom even a little of what God does. But at the time the event itself is happening, our understanding is unable to grasp God’s doing. Instead we are simply astonished and mystified. As we read in Psalm 28:5, ‘For they do not comprehend Adonai’s deeds, the work of God’s hands.’ And this is the real meaning of ‘You will not see my back.’ [It is not referring to God’s body but to our perspective on time itself.] God says, in effect, ‘Only at the end of days will you see and understand Me.’ ‘But My face cannot be seen,’ not while the events themselves are happening, for ‘in the midst of things, you will not be able to see Me.’” – Chatam Sofer

Commentary #2: “Frequently we do not understand the purpose of events in history and in our lives at the time they come to pass. Only afterwards, with the passing of time, do the meaning of these events and the purpose of Providence in bringing them to pass becomes clear to us. This is implied in the Scriptural text: ‘And you shall see achorai (“My back,” but literally, “after Me”). Only after the events have come to pass will you understand the ways of Providence, ufonai (“My face,” but literally, “before Me”). Before the time has passed you will fail to see them.’” – Torat Moshe

Commentary #3: “Moses is not entirely satisfied, because he feels a certain resistance on the part of the Divine. He forcefully demands a concrete sign. … He appears to demand a divine theophany, and God seems to give in. The intercessor has won his case. But God is not entirely happy with this situation. It is not altogether proper for the King of Kings that a mere mortal should outwit Him at the game of logic.” – Yochanan Muffs, Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: Both Chatam Sofer and Torat Moshe understand this episode as partially metaphorical, that God’s refusal to reveal God’s whole being is symbolic of our inability to understand all of God’s ways. Yet Muffs seems to take this episode more literally, focusing on God’s partial willingness to display God’s body, at least to Moses.

Given the text and these commentaries, what is the significance of this episode? Do we learn that God is more available to us than originally thought? Or do we see this as an exception, as something that could only happen to Moses, the greatest prophet of all time? Can you imagine an occasion in our lifetime in which God will display God’s back again? Or should we see this only metaphorically, in which God’s plans for the world will become abundantly clear?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I’m excited to announce some of our plans for our Purim celebration on Wednesday, March 23rd. We will be joined by comedian Noah Gardenswartz, a semi-finalist in the most recent season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing”. Noah is an excellent stand-up comic with many unique perspectives to share, including his Jewish upbringing. He will perform after the conclusion of our Megillah reading that night. Our program will also include a Happy Hour and raffle drawings for everyone who brings food to donate to the Kosher Food Pantry. It will be a wonderful opportunity to laugh in the full spirit of Purim!

The Big Inning at the End: The mysterious nature of God even finds its ways in baseball culture. Notably, Hall of Fame umpire (yes, they induct some umpires in the Baseball Hall of Fame) Doug Harvey was nicknamed “God” by big-leaguers who were awestruck by Harvey’s unfailing knowledge of the Major League rulebook. But perhaps Harvey’s powers went beyond this. On the day of his Hall of Fame induction, it was raining on and off in Cooperstown, New York. But the skies were clear when Harvey took the stage. He opined to the crowd, “I’ll be quick. I won’t hold you long. I want you to notice that I stopped the rain.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Incensed: Tetazveh 2016

Leadoff Questions: What Jewish prayers mean the most to you? Are your favorite prayers some of the more prominent ones in our prayer books, or are they said more rarely? What is it about these prayers that make them your favorites?

In the Hebrew Bible, prayer was a less common form of worship; rather, offering sacrifices took more precedent. Yet there are some occasions when we find evidence of prayer, and our portion this week, Tetzaveh, includes one such example.

Text: “You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.” (Exodus 30:1)

Commentary #1: “The person who doubts whether others can be influenced, the one who doubts whether his children can really be good people, will, unfortunately, often see his worst prophecies fulfill themselves. Faith in others and the ability to lead them comes from the absolute certainty that they are completely good at the core. If a person who is essentially good seeks forgiveness, he or she must be forgiven. There is no qualifying phrase, ‘… and if not, erase me.’ And thus, the building of the [incense] Altar …” – Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Paradise: Breathtaking Strolls Through the Length and Breadth of Torah

Commentary #2: “In Psalm 141:2, incense is used as a metaphor for prayer: ‘Let my prayer be as an offering of incense before You.’ The Talmudic sages note (Tanhuma) that each of the consonants in the Hebrew word for incense stands for one of the qualities associated with sincere prayer: Kedushah (holiness), Tohorah (purity), Rahamim (compassion), and Tikvah (hope). – Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Sidrah Sparks: Talking Torah at the Table with Your Family

Commentary #3: “The reason why here the golden altar, primarily used for the burning of the incense, has been mentioned only after the details of the construction of the Tabernacle have all been recorded, as well as details of the sacrifices, is to inform the reader that after all is said and done, the crucial element in securing the presence of the Shechinah in the Tabernacle, i.e. within the encampment of the Jewish people, was that the presentation of the incense on that altar was of such importance to God, as we know already from Moses’ own reference to this importance of the presentation of incense in order to defuse God’s anger at His people. … It was an expression of appreciation for being allowed to house the Shechinah on earth.” – Rosh

Late-Inning Questions: Each of our commentaries claim that incense was the instrument most closely associated with prayer within the sacrificial cult. When we consider some of the other elements of ancient sacrificial practice (the slaughtering of animals, burning animal corpses, sprinkling animal blood on the altar, etc.), does it make sense that the incense shares more in common with prayer than anything else? Or can you imagine relating more to the other aspects of sacrificing? Some people believe that, at a future time of redemption, we might return to a sacrificial worship system based out of a third Temple in Jerusalem. Is this something to hope for, or does our modern-day system of prayer make for a more fulfilling worship experience?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to honoring our beloved Marilyn Hoffman at a gala event one month from today! Marilyn has been an integral part of our synagogue, supporting the congregation in numerous ways, including planning some of our most successful and spectacular fundraising events in recent years. This is, of course, in addition to the tremendous work she does throughout the Charleston community. I hope you will join us in thanking Marilyn at the Charleston Marriott Hotel on the evening of Saturday, March 19th. We need your RSVP by March 1st to reserve your space!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of prayer … how do you feel when high-level athletes thank God for their successes on the field? Tommy Lasorda, a longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was fond of saying that God’s favorite color is Dodger Blue. Certainly this is an example of hyperbole not meant to be taken seriously; it’s hard to imagine any deity rooting for one team more than another. But is it reasonable for athletes to thank God for granting them strength and abilities to enable them to play well? Or does that imply that God chose to give them more ability than their opponents?

Shabbat Shalom!

Horns of Plenty: Terumah 2016

Leadoff Questions: What areas in your home are particularly special to you? Do you have furniture or items that are hand-me-downs from previous generations? Or have you made a point of creating a new space that represents the values and ideas which you hold dear? 
God’s “home” is the subject of this week’s Torah portion, which is supposed to be a place appropriate for God to dwell among the Israelites. The directions for this home – and special features thereof – are explained in fine detail.

Text: “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide – the altar is to be square – and three cubits high. Make its horns on the four corners, the horns to be of one piece with it; and overlay it with copper.” (Exodus 27:1-2) 

Commentary #1: “The horn-shaped projections at the four corners of the altar were, as archaeological investigation has established, a common feature of altars in the West Semitic world. One may surmise that the common Semitic association of horn with strength may have led to this particular practice of cultic ornamentation, the horns somehow confirming or focusing the strength flowing down from the deity to the cultic site. Blood from the sacrifices was sprinkled on the horns of the altar, and so perhaps the horns might have been regarded as the most sacred places on the altar. On that basis, some scholars have reasoned that this is why a person seeking sanctuary would cling to the horns of the altar, though a simpler explanation might be that the horns were the only places on the altar where there was something to hold on to.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary 

Commentary #2: “‘And the height thereof shall be three cubits’: This corresponds to the three redeemers, as it is said, ‘I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam’ (Micah 6:4).” – Tanhuma-Yelammedenu

Commentary #3: “The Torah speaks of ‘the altar’, instead of saying merely ‘altar.’ Perhaps this is because the Torah refers here to what has already been mentioned in 25:9, when the Torah described that God had shown Moses a blueprint of both the Tabernacle and its furnishings including the altar. When adding that the altar was to be made of acacia wood, the Torah elaborated that whereas God had shown Moses a picture of the completed altar, i.e. a structure covered with copper, He now revealed that the altar was not to be of solid copper but of acacia wood which would be overlaid with copper.” – Or HaChayim

Late-Inning Questions: To Alter, the horns of the altar represent a place of refuge. To Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, they represent the human heroes of the Exodus. And to Or HaChayim, there is more to the altar than the eye can see – much like God’s self.

What does the description of the altar mean to you? Must a special space symbolize a grandiose idea for it to be compelling? Or can it simply be a place of beauty and nothing more? Do aesthetics matter in a home, or a synagogue, or another important location? In what ways are they relevant?

On Deck at Emanu-El: The upcoming SC Republican and Democratic Party primaries are on Shabbat (Feb. 20th, Republican; Feb 27th, Democrat). You CAN request an absentee ballot or vote early in person for religious reasons. Here are details and contact information: 

The Big Inning at the End: With Spring Training around the corner, I finally received my copy of the annual crown jewel of the offseason: the latest edition of Baseball Prospectus. I began to read the work of Bill James, the founder of sabermetrics (the science of baseball statistics) when I was 10 years old, and I have not lost my affection for seeing the game through the lens of mathematics. For those who still doubt the importance of sabermetrics, it’s important to remember that the numbers themselves are not what matters – it’s understanding what the numbers mean. And since my mathematical talent ceased sometime around Pre-Calculus, I count on these brilliant analysts to explain the numbers for me, and to explain what makes baseball so endlessly fascinating. Just as Judaism is greatly diminished without its minutiae from its sacred texts, it wouldn’t be February without a new edition of Baseball Prospectus. (And no, I am not receiving any money for this endorsement …) 

Shabbat Shalom!

Doing and Hearing: Mishpatim 2016

Leadoff Questions: To what extent must our faith go unquestioned? Does questioning our faith mean that we are filled with doubt, or does questioning strengthen our faith?

The famous statement near the end of this week’s Torah portion, “na’aseh v’nishmah”, literally means, “we will do and we will hear.” The practical meaning evokes a sense of blind faith, at least on the surface.

Text:Then [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do!’” (Exodus 24:7)

Commentary #1: “When the Israelites declared their willingness to perform the mitzvot before hearing them, 600,000 ministering angels came and bestowed on each Israelite two crowns, one for the promise to perform, and one for the promise to hear.” – Shabbat 88a

Commentary #2: “Tradition suggests that the Torah’s peculiar language is instructive; it is no accident that the people first promise to act, and then say they will understand. The Torah’s insight is that in the Jewish world of religion, study, and meaning, the feelings, the faith, and the spirituality we seek often follow behaviors specifically designed to elicit them. Jewish faith and Jewish spirituality do not come out of thin air, insists Jewish tradition. They come out of uniquely Jewish behaviors designed to let them grow and develop.” – Daniel Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire

Commentary #3: “This is a very important dimension for a gay understanding of this text. Translesbigay religious people need to assume that ancient traditions and laws are continually unfolding, and that we need always to be open to new possibilities. We are not limited by the way the law is written at a particular moment, but are aware that things are always evolving and changing. The moment at Sinai provides a blueprint for how we are to deal with future possibilities, and keeps us mindful that while we won’t know in advance what they are, we must remain open and ready to listen.” – Rebecca Alpert, “Exodus,” from The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache

Late-Inning Questions: To the Talmud, the Israelites’ statement proves that they are worthy of royalty, approaching God’s loyalty. To Gordis, the sentence indicates an approach that is uniquely Jewish. And to Alpert, the sentence expresses openness to new ideas, not close-mindedness to everything we believed before.

Do you believe that this statement describes one of the key elements of the Jewish approach to God? Is it better to begin to follow Jewish practice before truly understanding it? Or is it better to wait before we thoroughly appreciate the practice? How will we know when our appreciation is full? And does this latter approach make it less likely that we will follow Jewish practice at all?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We are honored that Jon Adam Ross will be at services tomorrow morning to give the guest d’var Torah. Jon is performance artist who, through the work of the Inheiritance Project, will put on a play about the biblical character of Rebecca at this year’s Piccolo Spoleto. He is spending two weeks in Charleston this month and we look forward to hearing more about his innovative project. Please join us at services tomorrow beginning at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Congratulations to Ted Levin for winning my baseball card collection at Bingo! Now that I partially filled the winter with sorting through my cards for the last time, it’s just in time for spring training to start in a little more than one week …

Shabbat Shalom!