Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: May, 2016

On a Three-Day Holiday: BeHar 2016

Pre-game Chatter: How does a three-day weekend feel different than a regular two-day weekend? Are we more or less prone to use the time productively? Or are we more likely to relax, knowing that we don’t have to resume work so soon?

It feels appropriate that, as we embark on Memorial Day weekend, we examine a Torah portion that speaks of the meaning of rest, including yet another reminder to keep the Sabbath:

The Pitch: “You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, Adonai’s.” (Leviticus 26:2)

Swing #1: “During the enslavement in Egypt, Moses, seeing the terrible labor of the Jews, asked Pharaoh to let the Jews rest one day a week. He chose the Sabbath as that day of rest. Then, when we were commanded to observe the Sabbath at Mount Sinai, he rejoiced in his portion for he had thought of this before it had been commanded. … Therefore, God now said, ‘you shall observe My Sabbaths’ [to teach that] Israel should rest on the Sabbath, not as a respite from their work but only because God, may He be blessed, has commanded them to rest on the Sabbath”. – Levi Yitzhak

Swing #2:The Torah draws a clear parallel between the Temple and the Sabbath. It tells us that just as the observance of the Sabbath as a holy day is a permanent commandment, the reverence for the Temple is similarly a commandment that has no time limit. This is the meaning of ‘it is a sign forever’ (Exodus 31:17).” – Da’at Z’kenim

Swing #3: “Even during the period when you find yourselves in exile, any rest observed during such periods is a reminder of your erstwhile freedom instead of your slavery in Egypt, and the fact that even God rested on the seventh day.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: To Levi Yitzhak, the Sabbath is all about obedience to God; to Da’at Z’kenim, the centrality of the Sabbath reminds us of the centrality of the Temple in Jewish life; and to Sforno, the Sabbath is a sign of God’s commitment to us regardless of where we live. But all three commentaries reflect the idea that the Sabbath transcends communal and historical constructs. If so, does this mean that the Sabbath should be approached the same way on a three-day weekend as on a two-day weekend? Is it reasonable to expect that we will think of it this weekend the same way we always do? To what extent does this reflect our obedience to the Jewish calendar vis-a-vis the secular calendar?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I look forward to formally welcoming our officers and trustees for the upcoming year at services tomorrow morning. Please join us to thank and encourage our synagogue’s lay leaders.

The Big Inning at the End: For the last few years, Major League Baseball teams playing on Memorial Day have worn uniforms completely or partially re-made to resemble military fatigues or camouflage (see below). The teams claim they are paying tribute to soldiers who gave their lives for their country; others argue that this ploy is basically all about marketing and selling more merchandise. Which argument makes more sense to you?

Shabbat Shalom!

Name in Vain: Emor 2016

Pre-game Chatter: What experiences cause us to overreact? How often do we realize our over reactions soon afterward? And how often do we not realize how we’re reacting until someone else points it out?

The sin described at the end of the Torah portion of Emor mentions what might be seen as numerous overreactions – by the people who fight, and by those who must exact punishment.

The Pitch: “There came out among the Israelites a man whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and he was placed in custody, until the decision of Adonai should be made clear to them. And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the community leadership stone him.” (Leviticus 24:10-14)

Swing #1: “‘The son of an Israelite woman … went out.’ From where did he come out? R. Levi said, From his world.” – Tanhuma

Swing #2: “Why is the blasphemer identified only by his mother’s name? … Why do both he and and his father remain nameless? … Leah the Namer counters: Utterly preposterous! [The mother’s] name means ‘Woman of Peace,’ the daughter of ‘Divri,’ a version of the ‘Word of God.’ you yourselves acknowledge that she was raped. Dinah the Wounded One cries: Don’t blame the victim! The Sages in our own time suggest: That the priestly book of Leviticus identifies her as a Danite may reflect the fact that in later centuries, the temple of Dan in northern Israel was one of the sites of a rival cult, where a golden calf was set up by the rebel king Jeroboam.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “The reason for placing the story of the blasphemer here is to sum up, by way of contrast, the dominant theme of the book [of Leviticus], which is holiness, separation from defilement and immorality. Till this point the book has treated of the sanctity of the body and the precepts. After it the sanctity of the land and jubilee is dealt with. Our sidra begins, ‘You shall fear every man, his father and mother’ so that all should  know that man was created in the image of God. Similarly in outlining the penal code, it is stated, ‘For whatsoever man there be that curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death.’ But neither the crime or blasphemy nor its penalty is mentioned, though it is much more serious than the cursing of parents.” – Biur

Late-Inning Questions: All three commentaries assign at least some blame on the background or upbringing of the man who commits blasphemy. It implies that, while his blasphemy may have been an overreaction, it also may have been expected given his personal circumstances. Is this fair? Is his punishment an equal (or greater) overreaction? And does this give us some insight of how we should deal with matters of crime and punishment?

On Deck at Emanu-El: Mazal Tov to our two Adult B’not Mitzvah, Debbie Engel and Lisa Isaacson, who will read Torah and help lead services tomorrow morning. Our Adult B’nai Mitzvah service has become an annual highlight, filled with meaningful moments, and this year promises much of the same.

The Big Inning at the End: One of the great stories of the first part of the season has been a man of that name – Trevor Story. The rookie Rockies shortstop has 12 home runs already. He also has one of the best baseball names in the business. Do you have a favorite baseball name?

Shabbat Shalom!

Holy Molech?: Kedoshim 2016

Leadoff Chatter: Are there practices outside our religion that Jews should never engage in under any circumstances? If so, what are some examples? If not, what is different about modern times that can allow
us to have a positive or neutral view of other religious observances? 
In our Torah portion this week, we are introduced to Molech, a foreign god that demands sacrifices that we would consider repugnant today.

The Pitch: “Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt the person with stones.” (Leviticus 20:1-2)

Swing #1: “‘Say further to the people of Israel, speak further to the people of Israel, say to the people of Israel, speak to the people of Israel, command the people of Israel, you shall further command the people of Israel’: Rabbi Yosi the Galilean says: The Torah has spoken in many different forms of expression, and all of them should be interpreted [as follows]: Israel – These are the [male] Israel[ites]; An alien – These are the converts [to Judaism]; Who resides – to include the wives of converts; In Israel – to include women and slaves.” – Sifra

Swing #2: “While there is still considerable controversy about the matter, the consensus of scholars over the last decade concludes that child sacrifice was a part of ancient Israelite religion, to large segments of Israelite communities of various periods. Most modern scholars treat as separate phenomena hints concerning possible offerings of the first born and suggestions that parents made their children ‘pass through the fire’ as offerings to Molek though they make the point that both have to do with offering of human children in sacrifice to a deity; these phenomena are different manifestations of the same underlying belief in the efficacy of child sacrifice.” – Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible

Swing #3: “Based on the comparative evidence, the relatively few explicit Biblical references, and those additional passages which may be defended as relevant, Molech emerges as a netherworld deity to whom children were offered by fire for some divinatory purpose. Less certain, though suggestive, are connections with the cult of the dead ancestors. What is certain is the profound (one hesitates to say ‘fiery’) impact of those few Biblical references on the imagination of later writers. In addition to those rabbis who sought to interpret the cult of Molech as non-sacrificial, others described in great detail the deity’s idol and cult, in terms borrowed from the classical/patristic writers on the Carthaginian practice. The Quran depicts Malik as an archangel who governs the damned on behalf of Allah. ‘“Malek”, they will call out, “let your Lord make an end of us!” But he will answer: “Here you shall remain.”’” – Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking & Pieter W. van der Horst, editors

Late-Inning Questions: While Sifra remarks that the rule prohibiting child sacrifice is directed to all of Israel, Niditch stresses that child sacrifice was not uncommon in ancient Israel, while the Dictionary quoted above confirms that Molech and its worship was a known concept in the ancient world.

Why does the Torah text need to stress the importance of avoiding idolatrous activity? Why is ancient Israel apparently so reluctant to abandon the practices of other nations? Why does the Torah try so hard to be counter-cultural? Must we strive for a similar level of counter-culturalism in our religious practice? Or, does making Judaism more accessible to the general public help encourage the religion’s survival?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I am so proud of the four young women – Sydney Delson, Sophia Fox, Mia Hellman, and Maddy Krawcheck – who are graduating tonight from our Beit Din class. They are the third Beit Din class, all of whom committed to learning 100 questions about key Jewish facts and concepts before celebrating their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. They will help us lead services tonight and we will honor them for their hard work. Kol HaKavod!

The Big Inning at the End: Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals threw the fifth 20-strikeout game in baseball history Wednesday night. In each 20-strikeout game, the pitcher has issued exactly zero walks. A coincidence? Hard to say, but certainly worthy of our appreciation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Please Join Us To Save Lives

Note: I am suspending the usual format of my weekly message to share with you a letter from myself and Rabbis Stephanie Alexander and Andrew Terkel of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. We wish to share an important event occurring next week.

Dear friends,

On Friday night, January 29th of this year, our congregations stood together to hear stories of lives touched by gun violence, and to join hands in stemming the bloodshed of gun violence in our state. We asked 9 people to STAND UP for the 9 lives lost to senseless gun violence at Mother Emanuel AME church last summer, and hundreds of you heeded the call to travel to Columbia, SC, at a critical juncture in our state’s legislative process.

Now we ask you to take the next step in our shared commitment to reducing gun violence in our state.

GunSenseSC is participating in a rally at the South Carolina State House on Thursday, May 12th, organized by Project Unity. Project Unity and GunSenseSC will stand together, linking arms around the State House to call for thorough background checks on all gun purchases, an extended waiting period of 28 days to purchase a gun, and stiffer penalties for violating gun laws.

Join us at the rally on Thursday, May 12th at 11:00AM, as we join hands around the State House to call for our legislators to consider the will of the 90% of South Carolinians who support universal background checks on gun purchases, and so many in our community who want reasonable gun safety measures. Join us as we honor the lives lost every day to gun violence that affects us all; black and white, men, women, and children, in small towns and big cities.

Our tradition teaches that pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, takes precedence over almost anything else we are commanded to do. The changes that we are rallying for WILL SAVE LIVES. Nearly two children are killed every day in South Carolina. This rally is an opportunity to do pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, on a scale that affects the entire state.

Use this link to find your State legislators and schedule a meeting with their offices while you are in Columbia. Tell them face-to-face what you care about, and ask them to Stand UP against gun violence.

We’ll see you on Thursday, May 12th at 11:00AM at the South Carolina State House when we JOIN HANDS and STAND UP against gun violence in South Carolina.


Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum

Rabbi Stephanie Alexander

Rabbi Andrew Terkel

Shabbat Shalom!