Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: June, 2016

Care For Some Quail With Your Potatoe?: Beha’alotkha 2016

Pregame Chatter: Why is it often difficult to express our frustrations in a direct way? Why do we often complain about other things or people and avoid speaking about what is really bothering us?

As an example, the Israelites in our Torah portion complain about being deprived of meat while in the wilderness approaching the Promised Land. But is this really the source of their frustration?

The Pitch: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11:4-6)

Swing #1: “The subject of [the Israelites’] grumblings is not revealed at this juncture, since, at the beginning, they kept it inside. Later, they clothed their discontent in the form of a hankering for meat; but though, at the beginning, their discontent smoldered within them, the Lord who knows the thoughts of man was well aware of what was going on inside their hearts … The phrase ‘The Lord heard’ implies that He understood the situation, though nothing had actually been explicitly said.” – Isaac Arama

Swing #2: “Just before [the Israelites demanded meat] it is written, ‘and they craved a craving.’ Indeed, Israel did not crave meat, for [after Sinai] they were already free from the evil impulse. Rather, they craved a craving, they yearned to have a [physical, bodily] craving. It seemed to them that it would be preferable to come under the power of craving meat and [be able to demonstrate] that they could withstand the temptation, and that they could eat the meat in holiness and purity, and thereby bring pleasure to God. But their way was not proper in God’s eyes, for no person needs to make a test for himself, even if by means of this, he merits to attain a very high rung. For this way [of self-contrived testing necessarily] involves conniving [deception] and self-importance [self-injury, arrogance]. A person who indeed loves God is more satisfied when he is simply [able to] serve without [any] mental games of craving and temptation.” – S’fat Emet

Swing #3: “The phenomenon of the quail … like manna, has a curious natural correlative in the Sinai that suggests the story may have roots in reality. Huge flocks of quail, Coturnix coturnix, migrate every autumn from Europe to Central Africa and return in the spring. The birds are often so exhausted by this flight that they drop, near-dead, in the hundreds along the northern coastline of Egypt and Sinai. … Given this phenomenon, some scientists have suggested that the death of the Israelites after eating the quail can be attributed to a rare ornithological disease the birds carried after ingesting a poisonous fungus in the Nile Valley.” – Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentaries tell us that the Israelites’ frustration about a lack of meat is a “cover” for the concerns they are reluctant to address: their insecurities about moving from slavery in Egypt to obedience of God’s commandments. That God is able to answer their concerns about meat is a lesson to the Israelites to only ask for what you really need (or, if you take into account Feiler’s quote, that sometimes you receive what you ask for only via coincidence). If you were an Israelite in this circumstance, how could you have expressed your misgivings in a direct and respectful way? Or is that too much to ask of a people who have gone through major life changes since leaving Egypt?

On Deck at Emanu-El: At next Saturday’s services, we will be proud to present Shema Yisrael: Torah With All Our Senses. This is an award-winning program introduced at the most recent USCJ Conference. Daphne Hubara and I look forward to showing you how easy it can be to read Torah together. Please be a part of a brand-new way to experience the Torah and Haftarah readings, and join us Saturday, July 2nd, at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Do you believe in reverse jinxes? If you do … let me say that I anticipate that the Cubs, who have lost four straight, will not win another game all year.

Shabbat Shalom!

Same Song, Twelfth Verse: Naso 2016

Leadoff Chatter: How do we respond to last week’s mass shooting in Orlando while also observing the one-year anniversary of the murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston? How are these massacres similar? How are they different? In spite of the differences between the two, does it feel that recent history is simply repeating again and again? In our Torah portion this week, we encounter a far less tragic event that repeats almost verbatim 12 times. The purpose of these repetitions are instructive to our recent cycle of violence.

The Pitch: “Adonai said to Moses: Let them present their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one chieftain each day.” (Numbers 7:11) 

Swing #1: “Scholars noted that the same practice can be found in archival material throughout the ancient Near East, and in particular in instances such as this where sacrifices or cultic practices are described. A host of Babylonian and Hittite texts parallel the basic style of the account in Numbers 7:12-88. The point is: We moderns should not judge this text too hastily in light of our own expectations. Every culture has its own conventions, in art, literature, and so on. The culture of the ancient Near East, of which ancient Israel was an integral part, obviously called for this type of accounting, without the ‘shortcut’ that we might expect.” – Prof. Gary A. Rendsburg, “He Presented as his Offering: Repetition in the Bible”, from A Divinely Given Torah for Our Day and Age, Volume II 

Swing #2: “Seeing that the offerings of the princes were all identical and in the same amount, why should the Scripture mention the offerings of each prince separately? Because each of them brought his offering of his own accord, not in order to show up the others, but solely of his own free will.” – The Rabbi of Przysucha 

Swing #3: “Why did the princes hasten to come and sacrifice first, when at the time of the erecting of the tabernacle, the had procrastinated and finally were only (able to bring) onyx and precious stones? Because when Moses had said, ‘Everyone whose heart moves him shall bring a donation for the Lord’ (Exodus 35:5), toward the building of the tabernacle, they were disturbed because they had not been specifically asked to bring a donation. They said, ‘Let the people bring whatever they want, and we will fill in the deficit.’ (However,) the people were so enthusiastic about the construction of the tabernacle that they brought all their donations freely and speedily. … After two days, when the princes were just about to bring their donation, they could not, since all that was needed had already been supplied by the hoi polloi. Therefore, the princes were very dejected at not having had a share in the construction of the tabernacle. – Numbers Rabbah 

Late-Inning Questions: What, according to our commentaries, are the possible reasons for listing each identical gift of every prince? What do we learn from such repetition? Do we sometimes require events to happen over and over again before we are compelled to break the cycle? What have we learned in the past year since the tragedy at Emanuel AME? Does the fact that similar shootings keep happening mean that our society is slow to learn the lessons of last year? Or can last week’s tragedy in Orlando finally provide the motivation we need to stand up against the NRA once and for all? 

On Deck at Emanu-El: One of my goals this summer is to make our Adult Education program to reach as many people as possible. Our most recent congregational survey told us that the vast majority of our congregation wishes to learn more about our Jewish heritage, yet only a small percentage attend our classes. I’d like to fix that by offering classes that interest YOU at times that are convenient for YOU. To that end, I invite you to attend one of our upcoming Adult Education Parlor Meetings to share your thoughts about how and when you’d like to learn with us. These meetings will take place Wednesday, June 22nd at 6:00PM; and Sunday, June 26th at 10:00AM. We had a lovely discussion at our first parlor meeting yesterday, and I look forward to hearing more! 

The Big Inning at the End: No baseball remarks this week; instead, let’s dedicate this Shabbat to the memory of victims of gun violence, and to our efforts to change gun policies to make tragedies like these far more rare. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

The New Math?: B’midbar 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent do you trust statistics? How do we know which statistics to believe? Are you skeptical or happy that our society has become, on the whole, far more analytically sophisticated?

As we begin reading from the book of Numbers, we encounter a plethora of … you guessed it, numbers.

The Pitch:So Moses recorded all the male first-born among the Israelites, as Adonai had commanded him. All the first-born males as listed by name, recorded from the age of one month up, came to 22,273.” (Numbers 3:42-43)

Swing #1:The number of firstborn Israelite males is given here as 22,273. This indicates that those who take the word for ‘thousand’ to mean ‘clan’ are mistaken, since firstborn sons as a group do not constitute clans. Those who try to understand this term as ‘clan’ do this because they are troubled by the high numbers of Israelites in the census in Numbers. But we cannot escape the problem by redefining a term. Whatever we believe to have been the historical case, the fact is that the text depicts a vast population in the wilderness. And my concern is not to debate the numbers but rather to recognize the significance of the numbers to the Torah and to its story. Historically, only a portion of the Israelites may have had the experience of slavery in Egypt, but all of Israel came to see the experience as their own. For the Torah, it is important that the entire people of Israel be seen as present at Mount Sinai. The complication of this number of 22,273 firstborn males of all ages is that it is utterly out of proportion to the number of over 600,000 adult males. I have seen no satisfactory solution to this problem.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #2:As in Numbers 1:46, we note technical usage of the verb hayah to connote a mathematical total, with the sense of ‘amounting to, totaling.’ The outcome of the census was that there were 273 more first-born Israelites to be redeemed than there were Levites to stand in for them.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20

Swing #3:It is significant to note that the first-born comprised only one out of 27 Israelites. If the fact that they were numbered from only one month is taken into account, while the count of 603,550 is for those over 20 years old, it comes out that the first-born were approximately one out of 45. This may be because the Israelites had huge families in Egypt. It is also possible that many first-born did not observe the first Passover and died in Egypt. Another possibility is that the first-born of many families were girls.” – Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah

Late-Inning Chatter: Do you find it ironic that there are discrepancies between the numbers listed in the census in our Torah portion and the figures that might make more sense to us? What is the use of numbers if we can’t trust them? Or do the numbers, however dubious, tell a more important story?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m excited for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot – our annual learning session to usher in the beginning of the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. Join us tomorrow night beginning at 8:00PM as theater maven Jon Adam Ross leads us in “The Theater of Torah.” And for free cheesecake!

The Big Inning at the End: After this week, the Cubs are 0-1 in games that I’ve attended in person this year.

CubsPhillies06.0716But they’re 41-16 in all other games. I think I have an excuse to watch from afar the rest of the year.

Shabbat Shalom!


“Pat, I’d Like to Buy a Vow”: Behukotai 2016

Leadoff Chatter: They say that money can’t buy love, yet that doesn’t stop many of us from spending great sums in the hopes of finding satisfaction of one sort or another. What are some of the most common ways that we spend in search of happiness? What are some of the most egregious ways?

Our Torah portion this week informs us that there are various monetary charges to making certain vows to God.

The Pitch: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to Adonai the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels.” (Leviticus 27:2-4)

Swing #1: “The book of Vayikra teaches us our duty to the Sanctuary of the Torah. We are to symbolize through offerings and to realize in practice the sanctification of our lives as individuals and as a nation. And, finally, the preceding chapter states that the [laws] – which tell us what we must do in order to hallow our lives as individuals and as a nation – are the sole intermediaries of the covenant between ourselves and God, and the sole means for assuring our welfare. Scripture now adds a concluding chapter on voluntary donations to the Sanctuary. A person feels the need or has the desire to give to the Sanctuary an object or its equivalent value, in order to demonstrate his special interest in the Sanctuary, or to signify the special relationship that – in his view – exists between the object and the Sanctuary.” – Samson Raphael Hirsch

Swing #2: “We are all under obligation to keep those commitments that our ancestors made en masse. It is interesting to note that even before the Torah was given, we were bound to our word. After all, it is only since the Torah tells us that we must keep our word, that we indeed must do so, right? So what binds us to the Torah then; what is it that forced us to keep our promise to keep the Torah? Even before the Torah was given, we had to keep our word.” – Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Paradise: Breathtaking Strolls Through the Length and Breadth of Torah 

Swing #3: “This final chapter is best regarded as an appendix to Leviticus focusing on a variety of laws pertaining to voluntary offerings and taxed obligations to the sanctuary. Perhaps these monetary issues, necessary for the maintenance of the sanctuary but not altogether agreeable for the audience of the book to contemplate, were deliberately tacked on at the very end.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary 

Late-Inning Questions: Is talking about monetary policy for the Tabernacle a fitting way to conclude the book of Leviticus? Is it there to teach us the importance of keeping our word? Is it there to symbolically show a connection between a person’s life and the validity of the Tabernacle? Can a person’s worth ever be quantified monetarily? In what ways, if any, is spending money a representation of our values and our commitments?

On Deck at Emanu-El: One of my goals this summer is to make our Adult Education program to reach as many people as possible. Our most recent congregational survey told us that the vast majority of our congregation wishes to learn more about our Jewish heritage, yet only a small percentage attend our classes. I’d like to fix that by offering classes that interest YOU at times that are convenient for YOU. To that end, I invite you to attend one of our upcoming Adult Education Parlor Meetings to share your thoughts about how and when you’d like to learn with us. These meetings will take place Thursday, June 16th at 7:00PM; Wednesday, June 22nd at 6:00PM; and Sunday, June 26th at 10:00AM.

The Big Inning at the End: This year, we are facing one of the ultimate tests in American democracy. Yes, there are the presidential elections; but I’m actually referring to the voting for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. If the election were to end today, the entire National League starting infield would be Chicago Cubs. While that would certainly make me happy, it doesn’t mean this is the best way to recognize the best players in the game. Should the All-Star Game be a simple democracy and a popularity contest, or should managers, players, or baseball writers be in charge of selecting the teams?

Shabbat Shalom!