Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: September, 2016

Carpe Diem: Nitzavim 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you define “living life to the fullest”? When have you made decisions not necessarily based on logic, but rather for the sake of getting the most out of our time on Earth? Why are we compelled by this idea, yet often resist actually doing so?

As we mourn the recent death of the great Israeli statesman Shimon Peres – a man who certainly embraced the opportunities that his many years provided him – we are drawn to our Torah portion’s insistence that we “choose life”:

The Pitch: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving your God Adonai, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to [God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that Adonai swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Swing #1: “One minute God’s ushering in abounding prosperity, the next he’s wielding a tire iron like Tony Soprano – I can’t always figure it out myself. And if we gave away prizes and cutesy slogans, maybe we’d be the biggest religion on the planet. But you know what? That’s not the TRUTH. That’s not his WORD, his COMMAND. And the TRUTH happens to be beautiful and ugly and confounding and uplifting AT THE SAME TIME, because IT is THAT WAY, because ALL OF life IS THAT WAY. It’s a riddle. And undertaking. There are CONSEQUENCES. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. The prizes go to those who SWEAT for ‘em.” – Eli Attie, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, editor

Swing #2: “Within this covenantal understanding, the key metaphor is ‘our Father, our King’ – the fair Father, the just King. He can say, ‘It has been told you, oh humanity, what is good and what God requires of you’ and we can say, ‘Shall not the Judge of the whole universe do justice?’ He can command, ‘Choose life’ and we can pray, ‘Grant us justice according to the law’. The final judgment, as C. S. Lewis has remarked, is to be a moment of joy and triumph, for then, our devotion to Him and His love for us will be justified.” – David R. Blumenthal, God at the Center: Meditations on Jewish Spirituality

Swing #3: “What special imperative might the rejoinder to the charge ‘choose life’ mean for those of us who take the task of generativity seriously? What kind of life-giving choices should we as men make ‘if we and our offspring would live’? What life-affirming legacies might we model and then pass on that our children might wish to carry them forward? … My friend went on to tell me that the best gift one can give one’s children is to engage life and, despite its grinds, to be unafraid to model a loving relationship. Such modeling conveys a message louder than words that passion and love can be available to them as well within the bonds of sanctified commitment.” – Rabbi Howard Avruhm Addison, “A Few Choice Gifts”, from The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Late-Inning Questions: How do our different commentaries explain the idea of “choosing life”? Do they idealize such a choice, or are they realistic about the risks involved?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It is always a privilege to see both familiar and new faces on Rosh Hashanah. I hope that, among your resolutions for the new year, you will take advantage of the richness of Jewish tradition as we celebrate it here. Please join us for our services and programs throughout the fall holidays.

The Big Inning at the End: At the risk of making direct comparisons to two people who lived very different lives, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the death of Jose Fernandez, the young and brilliant Miami Marlins pitcher who was killed in a boating accident early Sunday morning. Like Shimon Peres, Fernandez was known among those he knew him as an enthusiastic person who grasped for opportunity even at great personal risk. As we embark on a new year, may we be inspired by these two individuals who embodied “carpe diem” – and may we strive to do so as well.

Shabbat Shalom! And, soon, L’shanah Tovah U’Metukah!

Exile on Main Street: Ki Tavo 2016

Leadoff Chatter: To what extent do your family and friends live close-by to you? To what extent are they in other cities or countries? How do we overcome the challenges of maintaining connections with the people we care about in spite of physical distance?

In this week’s Torah portion, God threatens the Israelites with dozens of curses should they disobey the commandments. As the list of curses reaches its climax, God raises the possibility of the Chosen People being spread out around the world.

The Pitch: “Adonai will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among these nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest. Adonai will give you there an anguished heart and eyes that pine and despondent spirit. The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.” (Deuteronomy 28:64-66)

Swing #1: “As a result of their desperate situation in the lands of their dispersion, hounded by unspeakable persecution, many of them would succumb, against their will, to the demands of their persecutors and embrace alien faiths and idolatrous worship, in which they did not really believe. Knowing them to be of wood and stone that could neither see nor hear, they would worship them only in order to escape death. The idolatry referred to here is thus not in the sense of sin, but rather as part of the punishment inflicted on them, that they would be brought to such a state of being forced against their will to serve idols, although inwardly believing in God.” – Abarbanel

Swing #2: “Such a condition of existential doubt is described in Deuteronomy (28:66) as the very nadir of the cursed human condition: ‘The life you face shall be precarious [literally, suspended in front of you]; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.’ In this state, one loses faith in the life thrust, Bergson’s élan vital. Rashi comments on this suspension of life: ‘The text speaks of doubt. Everywhere, doubt is called the condition of suspense, whether one will die today.’ The knowledge of one’s contingency, the vertigo of being, is expressed in the instability, the dizzying symmetry of equivalent possibilities.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

Swing #3: “Our Sages explain that the rewards for a Jew’s service are given ‘measure for measure.’ In order to merit the revelation, we must carry out a service of a similar nature. This is the purpose of exile. Our people have wandered from land to land, carrying out a unique Godly mission. By fulfilling Torah and mitzvot in the countries in which we have been dispersed, we express our belief that ‘God is One and His Torah is one.’ We demonstrate that every aspect of the world can reveal this Oneness.” – Meam Loez

Late-Inning Questions: Does the threat of physical distance sound as harrowing today as it must have in years past? As modern technology makes our world smaller in some ways, can we be less reluctant to live away from the most important people in our lives? Or is there no replacing physical proximity?

On Deck at Emanu-El: In order to prepare our hearts for the High Holy Day season, it is traditional to meet the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah. Please join us Saturday, September 24th at 8:00PM for Havdallah and Dessert, followed by, “DATELINE: Be’er Sheva”: An exclusive interview with the participants of the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac). A brief Selihot service follows the program.

The Big Inning at the End: With about a week and a half to go in the regular season, it is theoretically possible that six American League teams will be tied for the league’s two Wild Card spots. Personally, I’m rooting for it. The wilder the Wild Card gets, the better.

Shabbat Shalom!

Payday: Ki Tetze 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: Are questions of business ethics raised in our society enough? Do employers get away with too many abuses of their employees? Or are employees and other critics too hard on them?

Our Torah portion makes clear that employers need to be diligent in at least one respect:

The Pitch: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it; else a cry to Adonai will be issued against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)

Swing #1: “We have been taught: ‘You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer … You must pay out the wages due on the same day … for the worker … urgently depends on it.’ Why did the hired man climb a ladder [to build a house] or hang [precariously] from a tree [to gather its fruit] and risk death – was it not for his wage? In another comment: ‘The worker … urgently depends on it’ is interpreted to mean that he who holds back the wage of a hired person is as though he were taking his life from him.” – Bava Metzia 112a

Swing #2: “‘Oppression’ here consists of delaying the payment of a worker’s wages. The ‘calling out’ to YHWH recalls a similar cry of the oppressed in Exodus 22:22, 26. Overall, the rhetoric of the passage far exceeds that found in a parallel text in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:13).” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Swing #3: “The poor man is not required to ‘cry out to God’ or to withhold his call. He may do as he desires. If he calls out, God will hurry retribution upon the employer. Even if he does not call out, God will consider it a sin.” – Sifrei

Late-Inning Questions: Do you think the Torah overstates the importance of timely payments? Or does our text and our commentaries frame the issue appropriately? How does a violation of timely payments compare to other employer violations? Why is it so important for the Torah to weigh in on this issue?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: In order to prepare our hearts for the High Holy Day season, it is traditional to meet the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah. Please join us Saturday, September 24th at 8:00PM for Havdallah and Dessert, followed by, “DATELINE: Be’er Sheva”: An exclusive interview with the participants of the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac). A brief Selihot service follows the program.

The Big Inning at the End: Now that the Cubs have captured the National League Central Division crown for 2016, the team has the luxury of resting their players in preparation for the postseason. But I can speak for many Cub fans who say that as good as the division title feels, October will determine whether this season was successful or not. Perhaps it’s not fair, but it’s reality.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Honeymooners: Shoftim 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: Why is it so difficult to balance personal and family needs with the needs of community and greater society? Should an interest in the “greater good” ever supersede our obligations to ourselves and our loved ones? If so, what circumstances qualify?

In a Torah portion that focuses heavily on matters of national defense, there is a rare and notable glimpse into our text’s sensitivity to personal matters.

The Pitch: “Then the officials shall address the troops … ‘Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet taken her [into his household]? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another take her [into his household as his wife].’” (Deuteronomy 20:5a, 7)

Swing #1: “A sublime passage. … It’s a heart-stopping moment, at once sweet and dark. It’s lovely in the way it recognizes that young men must get the chance to live, to taste the joy of life, before the state demands that they die for it. A little later, Deuteronomy insists that a newly married man be given a year at home with his wife  – to “gladden” her, as Robert Alter’s translation sweetly puts it – before he has to join the army.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “We begin with the key interest in Deuteronomy’s legislature in maintaining the availability of women for the purposes of procreation, giving control of her sexuality to the male members of her community, thereby ensuring that husbands will be the fathers of any offspring. This interest is evident in laws concerning the exemption of a betrothed/newly married man from military service.” – Deryn Guest, “Deuteronomy,” from The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache

Swing #3: “These somewhat marginal soldiers join the army and march with it to the front, where they listen to the words of the officers and of the priest-chaplain anointed for the war. Although they are sent back from the battlefield, they are not allowed to return to their homes but remain conscripted in order to supply food and water to the combat soldiers and to maintain the roads.” – Eric Zimmer, “The Exemption of Newly Wed Husbands From Military Service”, from A Divinely Given Torah in Our Day and Age, Volume 1

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentaries differ on how merciful our text is to newlywed husbands and wives, but there is at least some attention paid to matters beyond war. To what extent does this reveal a humane voice in the text? To what extent does it reveal a practical concern for the emotional well-being of soldiers and their spouses? Can we conclude from this text that a happier army is a better army? Or, at least, that an army with its priorities in order will create a more devoted fighting force?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Emanu-El University had a great start this week! There was solid attendance and good discussion at all the classes. Here’s a reminder of what we’re offering in September – it’s not too late to join us!:

  • Tuesdays, 6:45PM-8PM: Basic Digital Photography for Your Next Jewish Tour (Dr. Robert Lovinger)
  • Tuesdays, 7PM-8PM: The Study of the Book of God and Man (Book of Job) (Rabbi Yosef Levanon)
  • Tuesdays, 8PM-9PM: The Voice of Jewish Art from Betzalel to Today (Dr. Mindy Seltzer)
  • Tuesdays, 7PM-8PM: Adult B’nai Mitzvah (Rabbi Rosenbaum & Pam Coyle)
  • Tuesdays, 8PM-9PM: Judaism 101 (Rabbi Rosenbaum)
  • Thursdays, 9:15AM-10:15AM (NOTE CHANGED TIME)A Touch of the Bavli (Talmud) (Rabbi Rosenbaum)

The Big Inning at the End: The most overhyped baseball story of the year? Tim Tebow’s minor-league contract with the Mets. And the story is only a few days old. I have nothing against Tebow (he won a playoff game for my Denver Broncos a few years back, after all), but wake me up when he shows that he can hit big-league pitching.

Shabbat Shalom!

More Than Happy: Re’eh 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: What does true joy feel like? How do you know when you’re experiencing it? To what extent is it a feeling you pursue, and to what extent is it something that just happens?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, the text introduces us to the concept of true joy in the context of the autumn holiday of Sukkot.

The Pitch: “You shall hold a festival for your God Adonai seven days, in the place that Adonai will choose; for your God Adonai will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:15)

Swing #1: “Idleness is a source of evil-doing and sin. Abundance is one of the causes of idleness. … How then could the Almighty command us to rejoice by means of a cessation from work? What else could such rejoicing lead to except to estranging man from his Creator? … You should indeed work and not sit idle and then you will be really joyful, i.e. with a true joy and inspired by the right purpose.” – Melehet Mahshevet

Swing #2: “The expression ‘nothing but’ is a ‘diminishing’ term, and here it means: On the first day we are commanded to take a lulav, build a sukkah, and to rejoice; for six days to have a sukkah and joy; and on the eighth day ‘nothing but joy.’” – Vilna Gaon

Swing #3: “In these verses, the commandment to rejoice is joined with a careful enumeration of all those who should share in the rest and the joy of major holidays. Essentially everyone who shares in one’s society is counted. The inclusiveness of the mitzva to rejoice is mentioned twice within this short passage for the Feast of Weeks and for the holiday of Sukkot. The implication seems to be that complete joy is only possible when it is fully shared, when no one, rich or poor, slave or free person, Jew or non-Jew, is excluded. The theme of much of the legislation at the conclusion of this Torah reading is the need to equitably distribute the blessings of life, material blessings as well as time to rest and rejoice.” – Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation

Late-Inning Questions: To Melehet Mahshevet, “nothing but joy” refers to taking pride in our work. To the Vilna Gaon, “nothing but joy” refers to experiencing smaller amounts of joy throughout Sukkot. To Rabbi Lewis, “nothing but joy” refers to the satisfaction of inclusiveness. Which comment comes closest to your understanding of the best kind of joy? Do you see any contradiction in being commanded to enjoy life?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I hope that everyone in Charleston, and indeed the Southeast USA, is staying safe today. While you’re enjoying a quiet day indoors, please consider joining us for our Adult Education offerings beginning next Tuesday. You can choose from the following classes that will meet on Tuesdays in September ONLY:

  • 6:45PM-8:00PM: Basic Digital Photography for Your Next Jewish Tour (Dr. Robert Lovinger)
  • 7:00-8:00PM: The Study of the Book of God and Man (The Book of Job) (Rabbi Yosef Levanon)
  • 8:00-9:00PM: The Voice of Jewish Art from Betzalel to Today (Dr. Mindy Seltzer)

Or, consider the following classes that will meet weekly from September to May:

  • Tuesdays, 7:00-8:00PM: Adult B’nai Mitzvah (Rabbi Rosenbaum & Pam Coyle)
  • Tuesdays, 8:00-9:00PM: Judaism 101 (Rabbi Rosenbaum)
  • Thursdays, 9:30-10:30AM: A Touch of the Bavli (Talmud) (Rabbi Rosenbaum)

Classes are free and open to the public. Please join us!

The Big Inning at the End: With college football – and soon afterward, professional football – season upon us, baseball tends to take a back seat to these more popular sports … just as the playoff push gets in gear. It’s sad to me that baseball is no longer the national pastime. But in a sense, it’s almost more fun to take the road less traveled by choosing to watch or follow baseball while everyone else is focused on the gridiron. Sometimes, it’s comfortable to be in the minority.

Shabbat Shalom!