Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: March, 2016

Oops, We Did It Again: Tzav 2016

Leadoff Questions: Do you believe, as Sigmund Freud did, that there is no such thing as accidents? Are even our sloppiest moments tinged with at least a drop of our true feelings and desires? Alternatively, as a lesser thinker put it, does stuff just happen?

As God walks Aaron and his sons through the final rehearsal before the inauguration of the Israelite sacrificial cult, we are warned that some offerings will not be given with ideal intention.

The Pitch: “He led forward the bull of sin offering. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bull of the sin offering, and it was slaughtered. Moses took the blood and with his finger put some on each of the horns of the altar, purifying the altar; then he poured out the blood at the base of the altar. Thus he consecrated it in order to make expiation upon it.” (Leviticus 8:14-15)

First Swing: “Moses said, ‘From the moment that the Lord of the Universe commanded that contributions be brought to the Sanctuary, each Israelite pushed himself so as to have brought donations without full willingness.’ To preclude the possibility that stolen property be dedicated to the sanctuary – and donation given without full willingness were considered to be stolen goods even if stolen from oneself – this expiation was offered.” – Sifra

Second Swing: “The Torah says that, ‘He atoned for the altar.’ This indicates that he atoned for the altar itself, for any sin of robbery or coercion. There was concern that the leaders may have coerced unwilling people to bring gifts for the Tabernacle. It may also have happened that some Israelites did not want to give gifts for the Tabernacle, but when they heard the announcement that gifts had to be brought, they gave against their will. It would then be considered as if the Tabernacle were built of things that were given unjustly. Moses therefore had to sprinkle blood on the altar to atone for any such misdeeds.” – Targum Yonatan

Third Swing: “The notion that the same application of the blood of the purification offering can simultaneously decontaminate the consecrate is intrinsically wrong. The realms of impurity and holiness are incompatible with each other and their admixture is lethal. Impurity and holiness must be kept apart at all costs. Thus an object must first be emptied of its impurities before it may be sanctified. This necessitates two discrete processes: first decontamination and then consecration.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentaries make different points about the altar’s purification: Targum Yonatan thinks the Israelites might not be enthusiastic enough about bringing sacrifices, while Sifra seems to think they will be too enthusiastic about doing so. To Milgrom, the peoples’ states of mind are not necessarily the issue – rather, the main point is to eliminate all potential contamination. What are the risks of acting without proper intention? Do we take a chance of dire consequences, as echoed in Milgrom’s commentary? How do we know when we are acting with a “proper” amount of intention – as in, not too little, and not too much? Is acting with intention in our religious lives different than doing so in our secular lives? If so, how so?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We’re just a week away from a new spiritual experience at Synagogue Emanu-El. Don’t miss our special Shabbat with Shir Hadash on Friday, April 1st (services at 5:15PM, with an FNL dinner to follow) and Saturday, April 2nd (a special song session Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM, and services to follow at 9:30AM). And before then, sample some tracks at to get a taste of what we will be singing!

The Big Inning at the End: Baseball is still an engine for healing and renewal. The latest example took place this week in Havana, Cuba, when the Tampa Bay Rays squared off with the Cuban national team, in the first game involving Major-Leaguers in Cuba in almost two decades. This was a remarkable symbol of cooperation and solidarity between two nations working toward a spirit of diplomacy and openness. No, baseball alone doesn’t cause world peace, but it can provide a common language that can launch us to more significant conversations.

Shabbat Shalom!

My response to today’s terrorist attacks in Brussels

I sent this message to my congregation earlier this evening:

We are saddened by today’s deplorable terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium. We are reminded once again of the fragility of life and of the evils of those who wish to destroy innocent people. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families during this tragic time.
While there is no fail-safe deterrent against the dangers of the modern world, we are best served by determining to live with the same resolve and purpose as we do every day. Coming together for the holiday of Purim will be a meaningful way to do so. As we read the story of Esther – a brave woman who stood up against her people’s enemies – may we also be inspired to stand together in strength, and even dare to laugh in the face of what we fear.

Ain’t That Asham: Vayikra 2016

Leadoff Questions: Why is “Jewish guilt” such a common stereotype? Do you think it emerged from modern, pop-culture portrayals of Jewish characters? Or is there something deep-seeded in the origins of our religion that lends itself to discussions of guilt?

Among the several types of sacrifices discussed in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the asham offering, or “guilt” offering.

The Pitch: “Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of Adonai’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them — if it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to Adonai.” (Leviticus 4:2-3)

First Swing: “Said Rabbi Yosi: See the blindness of those who rob or defraud! For a trifling sum they are called sinner, liar, thief, defrauder. They must bring a costly asham and are forgiven only through confession and repentance. Moreover Scripture accounts them as having taken a life. Whose life? According to one opinion, that of their victim; according to another opinion, their own life. But the righteous, which are generous and give to others, are accounted as having acquired lives. They become like their Creator who revives the spirit of the lowly and oppressed.” — Midrash HaGadol

Second Swing: “Said Rabbi Akiva: What does the Torah mean by saying: “To commit a trespass against the Lord?” When the creditor and debtor are two parties to any transaction conduct their business through deeds and witnesses, a repudiation of obligation constitutes a repudiation of the witnesses and the deed. But he who deposits something with his neighbor, does not want a soul to know about it, other than the Third Party between them. When he repudiates his obligation, he repudiates the Third Party (i.e. God) between them.” — Sifra

Third Swing: “‘Tony’s Bloody Guilt Roast’: When we first put this dish on the altar, it brought a lot of guilty Israelites into the Tent. So we heard a lot of opinions. Some folks prefer to do the slaughter inside or flash fry smaller strips of fat. But at the Tent, we like to keep our floor clean and our cuts large. Big cuts of meat — like you’re going to have with a bull — are some of our favorite offerings to burn at the Tent, because they’re so easy to do well. The Lord might disagree, but we think that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you do entrails first or last, because that liver/kidney/loins combo is impossible to beat. Throw a hunk on your altar and let it rest a good, long while. You might notice the meat shrinking and be tempted to jump in there. Don’t do it. Meat is a muscle, so it’s going to contract as it burns. If you’re doing it right, that bull is going to get nice and smoky. Just relax. You can’t rush a good guilt offering.” — Michelle Quint, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Late-Inning Questions: While Midrash HaGadol sees a guilt offering as penance for the one who has taken his own life (or, at least, ruined his own life) and Sifra sees the offering as a punishment for rejecting God, Quint spoofs the process as if one were preparing a gourmet dish. These commentaries validate the range of reactions we might have to “guilt trips” – some take them seriously, while others find ways to laugh them off. Is there value to “Jewish guilt”? If so, how is it useful? Or does it more often distract us from finding emotional space? Would our world be better if we felt more guilty about the human condition? Or, perhaps, would it be better if we felt less guilty?

On Deck at Emanu-El: A well-deserved Mazal Tov to Marilyn Hoffman for being honored by our congregation tomorrow evening. We look forward to thanking her for her years of service and generosity, which, we pray, will continue to inspire us in the years ahead.

The Big Inning at the End: I’m curious to hear your opinions of the fate of White Sox first-baseman Adam LaRoche, who chose to retire this week rather than cede to his team’s demands that his 14-year-old son be present in the team clubhouse less frequently. It’s difficulty not to sympathize with LaRoche, who chose to turn down a $13 million payday rather than follow the team’s rules. On the other hand, it sounds as if the rules were not that unreasonable in the first place. We all want our workplaces to be family-friendly, but there can be reasonable limits to that concept. Any thoughts?

Shabbat Shalom!

Fuller House: Pekudei 2016

Leadoff Questions: What are the best ways to reconcile with a friend with whom we have argued? How can we show that we have put aside our bad feelings? How can we be sure that our gestures are understood as sincere?

The book of Exodus closes with the completion of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, and God’s response provides a sense of closure after the destructive Golden Calf incident.

The Pitch: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of Adonai rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:34-38)

First Swing: “The Midrash shows that with Adam’s sin the Shekhina receded in stages, until Abraham came along and by virtue of his good deeds began that tikkun or correction which lasted for generations, reaching its apex with Moshe. Moshe erected the Sanctuary and enabled the Shekhina to once again ‘come down’ and reside in the lower spheres: ‘The cloud covered the tent of Meeting and Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle’. The book of Exodus brought about the necessary correction, which is why Nachmanides in his introduction to this book calls it Sefer ha-Galut ve-ha-Geula, the book of Exile and Redemption, the full expression of redemption being the building of the Sanctuary.” – Rabbi Dr. Yaakov H. Jacob Charlap, “Completion of the Sanctuary and Tikkun Olam,” from A Divinely Given Torah for Our Day and Age, Volume II

Second Swing: Nothing in nature looks like cloud by day and fire by night except a volcano. The depth of the Lord God’s compelling but contradictory power is well evoked by the extraordinary image of a volcano brought into a tent. The concern of the last, so-called priestly editors of the Book of Exodus for liturgical punctilio ends by heightening this very contrast. The power of a being who, by all that is personally and characterologically right, should be sweeping all law aside like the irresistible force of nature that he is has somehow been harnessed for the enforcement of law. And it is a personal relationship with one man that has brought this about. The volcano has come to live in the tent because the tent was built by the volcano’s friend.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Third Swing: “When the Israelites saw the pillar of cloud resting on the Mishkan, they rejoiced, saying: ‘Now God has been reconciled with us.’ But when night came, the pillar of fire descended and surrounded the Mishkan. Everyone saw it as one flame of fire and began to sorrow and weep, saying, ‘Woe to us! For nothing (literally, emptiness) we have laboured! All our great work has been burnt up in a moment!’ They rose early next morning and saw the pillar of cloud encompassing the Mishkan. Immediately, they rejoiced with an inordinate joy, saying, ‘This is testimony to the world that if they wanted to make such a thing they could not. Why? Because of God’s great love for Israel.’ That is why it says: ‘His shade I desired and sat in it, and his fruit was sweet to my palate’ (Song of Songs 2:3). – Midrash HaGadol

Late-Inning Questions: The commentaries above consider the emotional shift at the end of our Torah portion; when God’s presence fills the Mishkan, it is considered a warm embrace, as opposed to the brutal punishment God delivers in the immediate aftermath of the Golden Calf. God’s action at the end of Exodus consists of a step closer to the Israelites, rather than a step backward.What does this teach us about reconciliation? What kinds of emotions typically prevent us from embracing our friends after a falling-out? How do we overcome them?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We have our own version of March Madness here. Between our fabulous program for Marilyn Hoffman on Saturday, March 19th; our amazing Megillah reading Purim celebration on Wednesday, March 23rd (featuring live stand-up comedy with Last Comic Standing‘s Noah Gardenswartz); and a new prayer experience with Shir Hadash on the weekend of April 1st-2nd (click here to listen to some of the music we will sing at those services),  our month will be, as they say in basketball terms, “nothing but net”. But before I talk too much about another sport …

The Big Inning at the End: George Steinbrenner, the late New York Yankees owner, was famous for both embracing and reconciling; he was legendary for firing his managers almost on a whim, and in many cases, rehiring them soon afterward. The most famous example was that of Billy Martin, the brilliant yet temperamental field general who was hired and fired by Steinbrenner five different times before his sudden death in 1989. Should we see this more as a fine example of reconciliation, or more as impulsiveness to the extreme?

Shabbat Shalom!

Betzalel in Charge: Vayakhel 2016

Leadoff Questions: Do you consider yourself a leader? If so, what is your leadership style? Do you stress over every aspect when overseeing a project? Do you delegate well? Do you share responsibility and blame fairly?

Our portion re-intoduces us to Betzalel, the head artisan of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle for Israelite worship in the wilderness. But there is disagreement about the extent to which Betzalel took the sacred work upon himself.

The Pitch: “Betzalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. …” (Exodus 37:1)

Commentary #1: “Whereas with all the other objects, Betzalel presumably limited himself to more or less directing and guiding the other works, the ark he made with his own hands; for it is the principal object for which the whole sacred Dwelling Place was erected.” – Samson Raphael Hirsch

Commentary #2: “Betzalel’s achievement, while great, is not comparable to that of the Creator. He makes the Mishkan from a plan, with the help of thousands of Israelites, from materials donated by the entire community. As we have insisted throughout, it is a collective effort. (In fact, the classical commentators all state that the reason for the second presentation of Betzalel by Moshe is that the community must assent in his appointment as the chief craftsman.)” – George Robinson, Essential Torah

Commentary #3: “Now, how old was Betzalel when he made the Tabernacle? Thirteen years, for it is written, ‘And all the wise men, that wrought all the work of the Sanctuary, came every man from his work which they made’ (Exodus 36:4).” – Sanhedrin 69b

Late-Inning Questions: The tractate of Sanhedrin tells us that Betzalel is remarkably young to be chief artisan of the Mishkan. While Robinson tries to downplay Betzalel’s individual contribution to the Mishkan’s construction, Hirsch emphasizes that Betzalel is personally responsible for the Ark itself.

If Betzalel were a young man leading a project at today, would he be more of a delegator or more of a “helicopter leader” (hovering over every detail)? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both styles? Are there particular jobs that lend themselves to one style or another?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We can’t wait to welcome yet another tremendous musical experience to Emanu-El. On the Shabbat of April 1-2, we will be joined by two women who help lead a service known as “Shir Hadash” at the Hebrew Educational Alliance in Denver. The Shir Hadash minyan is an innovative prayer service unlike anything we’ve seen in Charleston. I hope you will join us, and I encourage you to listen to some of the tracks at to get learn more about this exciting service.

The Big Inning at the End: Much like the discussion above, there is a continual debate over the efficacy of different baseball managers. Some dugout leaders, such as Joe Torre and Terry Francona, are known as “player’s managers,” known for keeping a loose rein on his players. Others, like Tony LaRussa and Buck Showalter, have been successful by obsessing over their players’ every moves. Which kind of manager would you like to play for? 

Shabbat Shalom!