Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: April, 2016

To Sing Or Not To Sing: Passover 2016

Pre-Game Questions: Is it possible, to borrow the title of Tipper Gore’s 1987 book, to raise “PG Kids in an X-Rated Society”? How do we determine when young people are ready to hear about mature subjects? And who gets to make those decisions?

Every year, the last Shabbat of Passover challenges us to confront these questions when we read parts or all of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Debates rage as to what extent we should understand the graphic descriptions of this biblical book as allegory or literal poetry.

The Pitch: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s: Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine.” (Song of Songs 1:1)

Swing #1: “[That t]his poem is the most wonderful and choicest of the songs which are Solomon’s is very clearly true because there are two types of worthy poems. The first type is the poem which presents a representation of deep things which are difficult to represent, through the use of symbolic representations and allegory. The second type is the poem crafted to draw one to love what ought to be loved and to reject what ought to be rejected. It is clear that the more the poem represents worthy matters which are ever more useful to the attainment of felicity, it is itself more worthy. So, too, with the second type: the more a poem is crafted to draw one to love worthier things and those things useful for the attainment of felicity, the worthier it is itself. In this book these two types of poems have been combined together in the worthiest fashion, for it presents a representation of the ultimate felicity and attracts one to draw near to it and to strive for it with every possible form of striving.” – Gersonides

Swing #2: “Over and beyond its eternal youthfulness and inherent charm, the Song of Songs, precisely because it is within the canon of Scripture, serves to broaden the horizons of religion. It gives expression, in poetic and hence in deathless terms, to the authentic world-view of Judaism, which denies any dichotomy between body and soul, between matter and spirit, because it recognizes them both as the twin aspects of the great and unending miracle of life.” – Robert Gordis, The Song of Songs and Lamentations

Swing #3: “The Song of Songs is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover. In a series of subtly articulated scenes, the two meet in an idealized landscape of fertility and abundance – a kind of Eden – where they discover the pleasures of love.The passage from innocence to experience is a subject of the Eden stoy, too, but there the loss of innocence is fraught with consequences. The Song looks at the same border-crossing and sees only the joy of discovery.” – Areil Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation

Late-Inning Questions: Gersonides, in his long-winded commentary, tries to dance around the literal meaning of the poem. Rabbi Gordis does too, although he acknowledges the physical nature of the text. The Blochs, meanwhile, notes first and foremost what the book is: erotic love poetry.

Since the Song of Songs is in the Bible, does it behoove us to teach it to students of any age? If not, at what age can students be introduced to the book? Can the allegorical implications of the book – that it is a metaphor for the loving relationship between God and Israel – be harmonized with its overwhelmingly sensuous content? Can we find a happy medium between both meanings of the text? And what does this book have to do with the holiday of Passover?

On Deck at Emanu-El: Please join us tonight for our semi-annual Healing Service, beginning at 5:30PM. We look forward to sharing and worshiping together.

The Big Inning At The End: Periodically, I’ve been asked how I feel about the Chicago White Sox. My answer is, I don’t. I’m a Cubs fan who did not grow up in Chicago, so I have no geographic allegiance to the city’s other major-league team. But this question will be asked of me more and more if the young baseball seasons continues as it started, in which both clubs are atop their respective leagues. Obviously, it’s still April, and many things can change … but I’m beginning to sense a bit more tension between Chicago’s north and south sides.

Shabbat Shalom v’Hag Kasher v’Sameah!

Hit the Road, Jack: Pesach 2016

Pre-Game Questions: What are the most effective ways to “teach someone a lesson” when they’ve acted badly? Should we use different methods for different kinds of people?

In the Torah reading for the first day of Passover, we read of the final of the 10 plagues, the death of the Egyptian firstborns. Pharaoh has learned his lesson – or has he?

The Pitch: “[Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring blessing upon me also!’ The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for the said, ‘We shall all be dead.'” (Exodus 12:31-33)

Swing #1: “And we learn that Pharaoh finally gets it – that death is everywhere. His people fear that the killing will soon go beyond the firstborn and that all will die.” – Carol Meyers, Exodus

Swing #2: “Formally, this interview between Moses and Pharaoh is similar to the others; the difference is in content, in that Pharaoh makes no attempt to get concessions from Moses. Also, he does not promise to release them, he actually does so … Finally, earlier interview accounts described only the negotiations of Pharaoh and Moses, with perhaps the advice of the Egyptian counselors for Pharaoh included as background information. In this text, the voices of the Egyptian people are heard. They were desperate to be rid of the Hebrews.” – Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus

Swing #3: “Moses answered [Pharaoh], We were commanded, ‘As for you, not one of you shall cross the threshold of your house till morning.’ Are we thieves that we should leave by night? We shall only leave ‘defiantly, in plain view of all the Egyptians.’ (Numbers 33:3)” – Mechilta

Late-Inning Questions: While Meyers and Garrett indicate that Pharaoh and the Egyptians are decisively convinced that the Israelites must leave as quickly as possible, the Mechilta suggests that Moses still needs to teach Pharaoh a lesson regarding how to treat the people he had enslaved for so long. Moses does not intend to lead the people out quietly (so that Pharaoh can presumably save face), but in broad daylight of their own free will.

Does Moses need to still teach Pharaoh a thing or two about freedom? Or does Pharaoh’s changed tone after the final plague indicate that something has changed within him? How do we know when someone has finally learned something we have been trying to teach him/her?

On Deck at Emanu-El: We hope you find your Passover Seders to be lively and meaningful. And please join us at services throughout the holiday, including our semi-annual Healing Service on Thursday, April 28th, starting at 5:30PM. A Healing Service is similar to a regular service except that it adds extra songs and readings to encourage us to confront our recent struggles and to find moments of comfort and hope. Light refreshments will be offered after the service, which should conclude around 6:15PM.

The Big Inning At The End: In 1987, right after one of my family Seders, I remember turning the television to WGN and watching Jamie Moyer, then a second-year pitcher for the Cubs, take a no-hitter into the ninth inning. Moyer lost the no-no but got the win. So it was a bit of deja vu for me that last night, with Passover on the way, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta pitched a no-hitter. It’s wonderful how great baseball moments can take us back to important times and places in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom v’Hag Kasher v’Sameah!

Not In My House: Metzora 2016

Leadoff Questions: How much pride do you take on caring for your home? Does its cleanliness, or lack thereof, say something about you? Or is your house merely a place to provide shelter and little else?

Our Torah portion this week discusses what happens when the horrendous affliction of tzara’at enters into a home, and what to do about it.

The Pitch: When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.’” (Leviticus 14:33-34)

Swing #1: “I put the plague of leprosy in the home”: In the same way that leprosy comes [as a consequence] from the sin of narrowness of vision that stems from hatred, so the destruction of the House [the Temple] is caused by baseless hatred, the “plague of leprosy in the home.” – Shufra d’Yaakov

Swing #2: The law applies only in the Land of Israel and to houses owned by Israelites.” – Sifra

Swing #3: It is related that Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Hiya and Rabbi Yitzhak were once traveling along the road. They met a person who was carrying his sick son, tied to his donkey. The sages asked him, ‘Who are you? Where are you bringing your son? Why do you have him tied to your donkey?’ ‘I am a Jew,’ replied the stranger. ‘I live in a Roman city. I lived there three years and nothing bad happened to me. But now my son has returned from yeshiva. As soon as he walked into the house, a malevolent spirit came and twisted his mouth, his ear, and his hands. He can no longer speak. I am now taking him to a cave of magicians to see if they can heal him.’ Rabbi Yehuda asked, ‘Do you know anyone who lived there before you and was harmed?’ ‘I have heard,’ replied the man, ‘that other people lived in that house and were also harmed. Some say they became sick and some say that a malevolent spirit struck them. But after that, other people lived there and they were not harmed.’ The rabbis said, ‘This is what our sages teach us: Woe is to anyone that violates their words and does not believe in them.’ … The man went to the cave he had mentioned [anyway] and placed his son on the ground. He then took his donkey to tie it up. While he was doing this, a flame came out of the cave and burned up the son. … The next day, he met the sages and told them what had happened … They said to him, ‘Did we not tell you that it was forbidden to go to such unclean places? Thank God that He warned us in His holy Torah: “Its ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace’ (Proverbs 3:17).”‘” – Yad, Tumat Tzara’at

Late-Inning Questions: While Sifra tries to minimize the impact of this law, both Yad and Shufra d’Yaakov sees the rule as a vitally important indicator of how we treat other people. Is this a fair comparison? Even if we don’t have tzara’at on our homes today, are there ways we can make our homes more hospitable and accessible? What does it say about us if we don’t care about doing so?

On Deck At Emanu-El: As I mentioned in my article in the April Scroll, the Conservative Movement’s recent allowance of eating kitniyot — foods like rice, corn, and beans — on Passover is a potential game-changer for the way that we keep Kosher on the holiday. I will discuss some of the reasons behind the new law at services tomorrow. Please join us and judge for yourself!

The Big Inning At The End: Speaking of the way we understand our homes … Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Daniel Norris lives in a VW Bug van during the offseason. His lifestyle is minimalist, which is particularly surprising for a young man as wealthy as he already is. But he is one of a growing movement of people living in tiny houses for the sake of living a simpler, more fulfilling life.

Shabbat Shalom!

Skin in the Game: Tazria 2016

Leadoff Questions: What kind of personal topics are off-limits to you and your friends? Are there taboo topics within your own family? Is it healthy to keep certain matters close to the vest?

The Torah portion of Tazria is the first of two that discuss highly personal matters of physical purity, sometimes touching upon things of which we typically say “TMI”, or “Too Much Information.” But is it?

The Pitch: “As for the person with a leprous affection: the clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” (Leviticus 13:45)

Swing #1: “Nobody likes to talk about such things as skin disease and blotchy skin – and yet the Torah includes this topic and devotes two full portions to it. Precisely because we find these things difficult to discuss, synagogues should provide opportunities to discuss them and to learn more about them – for the sake of our lives. … Synagogues need to get involved in teaching and promoting the mitzvah of health care. For if our bodies are not well, then our souls cannot be well either.” – Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Take Care of Yourself!”, from The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Swing #2: “’The upper lip shall be covered over’ – this means that he is to keep his mouth covered so that his breath does not offend anyone around him as it contains bacteria harmful to others.” – Rosh

Swing #3: “He informs that he [the one with tzara’at – not the other people in the vicinity] is impure, and they keep away from him.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: While Rabbi Riemer advocates for open discussions about bodily conditions, even the Rosh and Rashi believe that there are times when personal physical matters must be acknowledged, if not discussed openly. Are there occasions when you wish to keep your own personal bodily issues completely private? How about the issues experienced by family and close friends? Does the way we treat sharing information about our bodies say something broader about our level of openness on other matters?

On Deck At Emanu-El: I’m always proud when the men of our synagogue come together to run services on Men’s Club Shabbat. Congratulations to Charles Richards and other devoted Men’s Club volunteers for another solid year of programming and service to our congregation. Please join us for Men’s Club Shabbat tomorrow – beginning with Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM, followed by services starting at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning At The End: I reserve the right to say very little until my Cubs lose a game in 2016. For now, I wish to enjoy our 3-0 start, in the hopes that we keep it going …

Shabbat Shalom!

Harried Pottery: Shemini 2016

Leadoff Questions: When we cope with brokenness in our lives, is it best to throw everything aside and to start over? Or are we better off picking up some of the pieces of our previous experiences and trying to build something new with them?

These are metaphorical questions to ask about a very literal section of this week’s Torah portion, which deals at one point with vessels that come into contact with animals God has deemed impure.

The Pitch: “And if any of [impure animals] falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be impure and [the vessel] itself you shall break. As to any food that may be eaten, it shall become impure if it came in contact with water; as to any liquid that may be drunk, it shall become impure if it was inside any vessel.” (Leviticus 11:33-34)

Swing #1: “An earthenware vessel can become unclean only on the inside, never on the outside, for it has no value in itself. Its sole worth lies in the fact that it can serve as a receptacle for an object of value. Metal utensils, on the other hand, have value in themselves and can therefore become unclean on the outside also. Man, being made of dust, is like an earthenware vessel. His worth lies not in the outer shell but in the human qualities within.” — Menahem Mendl of Kotzk

Swing #2: “The following liquids make food and seeds susceptible to impurity: dew, water, wine, oil, blood, milk, and honey.” — Mishnah Machshirin 6:4

Swing #3: “We see that food that has once been wet becomes unclean while dry food remains clean. This is because God commands us only regarding something that is complete. Thus, for example, there is the [hallah] offering. The Torah does not obligate us to separate the hallah offering unless we are kneading dough. If one separates hallah from the flour at any time before it is kneaded, the portion does not have the status of hallah.” — Rashbam

Late-Inning Questions: The commentaries above vary between literal and metaphorical meanings of the text. Is it sensible to draw vast conclusions from a topic as seemingly mundane as the validity of certain physical vessels? Or can we draw some profound conclusions? Are we, as Menahem Mendl of Kotzk suggests, like earthenware vessels? How can we be an effective “vessel” for other people or things?

On Deck At Emanu-El: Our guests from Shir Hadash are in Charleston, and we can’t wait for an outstanding Shabbat with them! Be here tonight at 5:15PM and tomorrow at 9:00AM for a special song-filled Danish & D’rash followed by 9:30AM services. Get to the shul early if you can! If you’re worried about crossing the Ravenel Bridge due to the Bridge Run, you can use I-526! Just be with us and enjoy.

The Big Inning At The End: I was disheartened to see my Chicago Cubs on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. Why? The “SI Cover Curse” has meant doom for many a team and player. Can’’ our team just fly under the radar until, I don’t know, the World Series?!

Shabbat Shalom!