Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: July, 2016

Uncommon Scents: Pinhas 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: What senses do you engage most when you learn? Are you more of a visual learner or an auditory learner? Or do you need to use other senses more than your sight or hearing?

As this week’s Torah portion concludes with an exhaustive list of commanded sacrifices, we learn that the success of this ritual depends chiefly on the sense of smell.

The Pitch: “An offering by fire of pleasing odor to Adonai” (Numerous times in Numbers 28-29)

Swing #1: “Any formal mode of communication also involves esthetic dimensions, especially the form that the communication takes (whether regular or irregular). Ritual can be a manifestation of an esthetic that constructs and is constructed in the larger context of daily life. The esthetic dimension of rituals may involve visual elements that interact in a pleasing manner. In the Hebrew Bible, the reference to turning all or part of sacrificial animals into smoke could be connected to the esthetic dimension of ritual, particularly the reference to the reah nihoah, ‘pleasing odor,’ that often occurs in these contexts. Smells have an esthetic quality, especially considering the importance of perfumes or ritual elements connected to smells. … The pleasing odor for YHWH suggests a successful completion of a particular sacrificial rite and marks the final section of these rites. In this sense it marks the human compliance with YHWH’s explicit commands that results in a ‘pleasing odor.’” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Swing #2: “This smell is a special fragrance that brings down the spiritual energy of God, and, consequently, gives us serenity here on earth.” – Bahir

Swing #3: “This teaches you that whether a person gives a costly one or an inexpensive one, as long as he directs his heart to heaven, the type is irrelevant.” – Menachot 110a

Late-Inning Questions: Has the need to engage in multiple senses during ritual increased or diminished over time? How does the sense of smell increase our Jewish identity today, if at all? Or is scent only important when understanding ancient ritual? How might we use our senses to feel connected to God and the commandments more effectively?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Thanks again to everyone who participated in our Adult Education Parlor Meetings last month. To continue getting feedback, please fill out a quick survey so we can offer classes that interest you at times convenient for you. The survey can be completed in about two minutes. Please visit here between now and August 2nd.

The Big Inning at the End: A flurry of activity is expected over the next 24 hours, as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches. Teams expecting to compete for the World Series are considering both minor and major moves to upgrade their rosters for the season’s stretch run. Each year, pundits argue whether it is better for a team to keep their young, inexpensive prospects, or whether these players have greater value as bargaining chips to lure more established talent. It’s a struggle between trying to win now or later. In many ways, it’s a larger metaphor for decisions we make every day.

Shabbat Shalom!

Peoring It On: Balak 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: When was the last time you succumbed to peer pressure? When and why did it happen? Did you realize it when it happened?

Of all the sins the Israelites commits while wandering in the wilderness, the episode in Baal Peor recounted at the end of this week’s Torah portion is the only one influenced by a neighboring people and culture – or so it would seem. The result is a horrendous plague and a national crisis.

The Pitch: “And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of Adonai was kindled against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-3)

Swing #1: “Why is the Baal of Peor such a threat to the Lord God? In point of historical fact, Baal, during the six centuries that Israel will occupy and, to varying degrees, rule Canaan, will be the ‘strange god’ who most appeals to the populace and most appalls the leadership. The appeal arises from the fact that, by becoming so warlike, stormy, and Baal-like at and after the time of the Exodus, the Lord has diminished the distance separating him from this one among his rivals.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Swing #2: “Hardly has Balaam gone on his way when the Jewish people transgress once again, bringing God’s punishing anger upon them. The idyllic picture of Israel, reflected in Balaam’s words, is shattered in still another of a long litany of sin and punishment. Much of the book of Numbers records those shortcomings. The very Torah portion that begins with Balaam’s blessings concludes with a harsh incident in the story of a flawed people. In that context, the insistence of God that Balaam give voice only to blessings without even a hint at the failings of the people seems strange. … Balaam, under orders from Balak, was to curse the Israelite nation publicly. The desire was not for the benefit of Israel but rather to contribute to her downfall. Thus the text moves seamlessly from public blessing to more private critique. Both were seen as within the framework of Jewish ethics.” – Sheldon Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation

Swing #3: “Moses blessed 11 of the Tribes [at the end of his life]. Why did he not bless the Tribe of Simeon? Because in Moses’ heart there was a grievance against Simeon for the deed he was guilty of at Shittim. As Scripture tells us: ‘When Israel abode in Shittim … one of the children of Israel, [a Simeonite] … brought unto his brethren a Midianite woman …’” (Numbers 25:1, 6). – Pesikta D’Rav Kahana

Late-Inning Questions: Who is to blame for the Baal Peor incident? To Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, it is the fault of one Israelite tribe; to Miles, it is the Israelites who confuse God’s power with that of a false god; and to Rabbi Lewis, the incident is typical of Israel – it’s just that Balaam lacks the vision to see it. When we make big mistakes, to what extent are we willing to blame ourselves? When do we fault those around us? To what extent should Israel bear the blame for their actions?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Thanks again to everyone who participated in our Adult Education Parlor Meetings last month. To continue getting feedback, please fill out a quick survey so we can offer classes that interest you at times convenient for you. The survey can be completed in about two minutes. Please visit here between now and August 2nd.

The Big Inning at the End: Congratulations to Ken Griffey, Jr., and to Mike Piazza, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. Here’s hoping that Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, among others, will join them next year. If anything, the Hall of Fame has too few inductees; when remembering the game’s great history, it’s best to recall as many outstanding players as possible.

Shabbat Shalom!

There’s No Business Like Sword Business: Hukkat 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: Should some of the more brutal stories in the Torah be understood as models for modern policy? Is it more appropriate to see these accounts as products of their time and place? Or are we better off saying that these stories enable us to understand what not to do?

The Torah portion of Hukkat recounts the Israelite battle with the Canaanites, a struggle started by the Canaanites but finished by the Israelites in brutal fashion.

The Pitch: “When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb, learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he engaged Israel in battle and took some of them captive. Then Israel made a vow to Adonai and said, ‘If you deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.’ Adonai heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites, and they and their cities were proscribed. So that place was named Hormah.” (Numbers 21:1-3)

Swing #1: “In Numbers 21, the Canaanite king of Arad fought against Israel and took captives. Now the Israelites promised God that, if God delivered the enemy into their hands, they would destroy his cities. God agreed to the transaction, and both sides kept their word: God by delivering the Canaanites and the Israelites by destroying the cities. It may be assumed that, in the course of the destruction, men, women, and children of the vanquished were also killed. There is considerable similarity between a ban leading to destruction of booty and the offering of sacrifice, but it is unlikely that the killing and destruction were in the frame of a religious ceremony.” – Daniel Friedmann, To Kill and Take Possession: Law, Morality, and Society in Biblical Stories

Swing #2: “Archaeologists have disagreed on the identification of both Arad and Hormah as represented in this account. Evidence of urban settlement in the western Negeb is lacking for the late 13th or early 12th centuries B.C.E., when the battle here recorded between the Israelites and the Canaanites would have occurred. … [It is likely] that we have in Numbers 21:1-3 a composite account, representing yet another probable instance of historiographic refraction.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 21-36

Swing #3: “The people tried once again to enter Canaan from the south but were challenged by the king of Arad. Although the account suggests, perhaps wistfully, that the band of former slaves actually won this battle, they apparently did not continue into Canaan but rather retreated and set out once again to the east into Moab.” – Arthur J. Bellinzoni, The Old Testament

Late-Inning Questions: Whether or not this story actually happened, it seems clear that it had a negligible impact on the Israelites’ wanderings (since they were unable to enter the Promised Land) and only caused destruction. Is such an assessment an accurate way to see modern warfare? As we struggle with increasing violence in America and abroad, what can we learn from this story about the necessity (or, in many cases, the lack thereof) of battling with other nations and nationalities?

On Deck at Emanu-El: It isn’t too late to give blood this afternoon at Emanu-El. The American Red Cross is always in need of more donations. If you’re able, please consider coming to the synagogue (5 Windsor Drive, Charleston) between 1:00 and 6:00PM today. All donors will receive a complimentary Shabbat dinner, which follows our 6:00PM services.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s high time that the All-Star Game drop its gimmick of awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the game. There are too many elements of the All-Star Game that make it an exhibition (i.e., requiring at least one player from every team to make the roster, allowing pitchers to pitch a maximum of three innings) to make the game also “count”. It would be better to utilize the game to celebrate baseball for what it is – a game. Let the players fight it out once the season resumes. (As you can tell, I don’t have particularly strong thoughts on the matter …)

Shabbat Shalom!

Doomsday Scenario: Korach 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: How can we prevent ourselves from drowning in negativity during difficult times? Do we seek out the comfort of other people for reassurance? Or do we have internal tools to keep ourselves focused when we face life’s greatest challenges?

By the end of the Torah portion of Korach, the Israelites have seen (and caused) enough dissension that they only speak with despair.

The Pitch: “But the Israelites said to Moses, ‘Lo, we perish! We are lost, all of us lost! Everyone who so much ventures near Adonai’s Tabernacle must die. Alas, we are doomed to perish!’” (Numbers 17:27-28)

Swing #1: “Serving as the bridge that leads from one to the other, the Israelites complain that they cannot survive in Yahweh’s presence. The result implies that Yahweh accepts his people’s appeal and in response to it establishes laws that will cushion their proximity to him by transferring accountability for their trespass to the Levites. But as the narrative stands, from a topical point of view, the segment as a whole still appears relatively tangential to the Korah episode.” – Simeon Chavel, Oracular Law and the Priestly Historiography in the Torah

Swing #2: “Instead of embracing the monitory mnemonic of Aaron’s staff that has just been offered them and accepting God’s assurance that if they renounce their murmurings, ‘they shall not die,’ the people conclude that they are about to be utterly destroyed. The panic they feel is etched in the stark simplicity and the repetitions of their expression of fear: in these two concluding verses, they say ‘perish’ twice, ‘lost’ twice, and (in the Hebrew) ‘approach’ twice. This whole story, like so many others in Numbers, marks out a borderline between the sacred and profane, stressing that only the consecrated can cross into the zone of the sacred. The people, however, who live alongside the sacred precincts, are gripped with fear that at any time they might step over the line and be struck down.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary

Swing #3: “‘We are lost’ is a reference to Numbers 16:33, when the people swallowed by the earth during Korach’s uprising had been described by the Torah as, ‘they became lost.’ The people now felt that a similar fate might befall them on any day if the Tabernacle was so inaccessible to them.” – Rashbam

Late-Inning Questions: Is there something inherent to the Jewish experience that causes many to fear the worst? Based on the commentaries above, do the Israelites have good reason to feel anxious? While we often make poor decisions when we are fearful, are there times when distress leads to sensible choices? If so, when?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: There is always a need for blood donations, and our synagogue is helping out Friday, July 15th. Please RSVP with our office (843-571-3264) to reserve a donation time between 1:00-6:00PM. All donors that day will receive a complimentary Shabbat dinner following 6:00PM services. Join us – if not for our sake, then for the sake of those in medical need.

The Big Inning at the End: Here is a brief story about the late Elie Wiesel that certainly is insignificant compared to the enormous contribution he made to the Jewish people and all of humanity: In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That October, the New York Mets played in (and won) the World Series, and Mets ownership wanted him to throw out the first pitch before one of the games. Wiesel declined to do so prior to Game 1, since it interfered with a Jewish holiday. And he only was able to do so prior to Game 2 after checking with rabbinic authorities and receiving a police escort so he could arrive at Shea Stadium on time. You can read the whole story here. It may have been an inconsequential episode to Wiesel, but it was yet another example of a God-fearing man upholding his principles. Certainly, the world is a diminished place without Elie Wiesel.

Shabbat Shalom!


Fringe Benefits: Shelakh Lekha 2016

Pregame Chatter: Do you have a system to remind you of important tasks? What does the system involve? Is it electronically-based? Does it center around your refrigerator or a strategically-placed cork board? Have you been able to stick with your system for a while, or are you constantly looking for better methods?

Perhaps we can see the end of this week’s Torah portion as the precursor to Google Alerts – a wearable one at that.

The Pitch: “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of Adonai and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.” (Numbers 15:38-40)

Swing #1: “The fringes are a commandment whose only importance and meaning is to remind us of all the commandments. Thus, one way to understand the importance of this section and its inclusion in the daily reading is to see it as the substitute for reading each and every one of the commandments, which, according to the tradition, are 613 in number.” – Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer

Swing #2: “For Saul persecuted David and it would have been permissible for David to kill him, but he was punctilious about the commandment to wear tzitzit, as it is said: “And David arose and cut off the corner of the robe that Saul wore … and David’s heart smote him” (I Samuel 24:4). He said, “Woe is me, for I have prevented him from observing the mitzva of tzitzit for a short time” – for the mitzvah requires the presence of all four tzitziyot [and David had cut off one corner].” – Midrash Gadol

Swing #3: “Moses stated, ‘… not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, [which you are inclined to go after wantonly]’, and yet Qohelet has said, ‘Talk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes.’ [Accordingly, he would imply] there is neither justice nor a Judge, so the penalty of flogging has been annulled! But when [Qohelet further] stated, ‘But know that for all these things, God will bring you judgment [11:9]’, they stated, ‘Well has Solomon spoken.’” – Leviticus Rabbah

Late-Inning Questions: The mitzvah of tzitzit is a visual and touchable reminder of God’s commandments. Is following this mitzvah the best way to remember our Jewish responsibilities, even if we only wear tzitzit while donning a talit? Are there better ways? Is the need for constant reminders a simple aspect of the human condition? Or, if we need constant reminders to act, is that action worth remembering at all? Shouldn’t we reach a point with our Jewish knowledge and identity in which we don’t need reminders? Or is that proposition unfair?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m quite excited for our Torah- and Haftarah-reading program that will take place tomorrow. I hope it will help enable us to follow our sacred texts in a new way. Please join us for “Shema Yisrael: Torah With All Our Senses” during services tomorrow, beginning at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Madison Bumgarner, the ace pitcher of the San Francisco Giants, is such a skilled batsman that the team declined to use a designated hitter at his start this week in Oakland. Bumgarner rewarded the decision of his manager, Bruce Bochy, by hitting a double in one of his at-bats. It’s the first time in seven years that a pitcher batted in an American League ballpark. Why is this so unusual? Should we not expect pitchers to bat just as position players do?

Shabbat Shalom!