Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: October, 2016

We’re Only Human: Bereshit 2016

Leadoff Chatter: Ancient Greek philosophy states that language is the only thing that separates humans from animals. Are there other traits that differentiate people from other beings? Are there certain occasions that we show ourselves to be more “human” than others? Are there times when we, and those around us, act in an “inhuman” way?The creation of humanity is the crowning passage of the first Creation narrative in the book of Genesis, the episode that we will read about in synagogue tomorrow morning.

The Pitch: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.’ And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” – Genesis 1:26-27

Swing #1: “This explains the statement of the Sages that ‘he who is arrogant is as if he were worshipping idols’ (Sotah 4). If a man considers himself better than the others he does not act in keeping with the spirit of God’s declaration: ‘Let us make man,’ by which He taught us the way of humility, namely, that the greater should consult the smaller (as God consulted with the angels in making man). He who does not accept this interpretation of God’s pronouncement obviously must think that it was meant to be construed literally as meaning that – Heaven forbid – there was more than one God who made the world. And this, of course, is idolatry.” – Proshat Derakhim 

Swing #2: [In Genesis Rabbah 8:5,] Rabbi Simon taught that at the time when the Holy One came to creating the first human being, Love said, “Let the creation occur for this creature will do loving things.” But Truth said, “Let the creation not occur for the creature will be all lies.” Justice said, “Let the creation occur for this creature will do justice.” What did the Holy One do? God took Truth and hurled it to the earth. What good would it do to only banish the Truth? Peace, which had also argued against the creation of human beings, still remained. The answer is that in banishing Truth, obviously there would be Peace. For the root of quarreling is that everyone battles for his own truth. But if Truth is pushed off to one side, then there is nothing left to argue about, no one to denounce Peace.” – Menahem Mendl of Kotsk

Swing #3: “The creation of humanity ‘in the image of God’ in Genesis 1:26-27 represents a democratizing adaptation of the royal theology … creation ends, as it were, with the commission of human agents to rule the world in the name of the creator God.” – Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil

Late-Inning Questions: What, according to our commentaries, is the main purpose of humanity? Is it to pursue peace? Is it reject idolatry? Is it to be partners with God? Are any of these possibilities consistent with your view of the purpose of humanity?

On Deck at Emanu-El: I want to express my gratitude to the synagogue staff and lay leadership for making the recent Fall holidays a meaningful and moving experience. And of course, we could not have done it without everyone’s attendance and participation. I believe that the year 5777 is off to a promising start!

The Big Inning at the End: Go Cubs. And may the Schwarber be with you.

Shabbat Shalom!

Famous Last Words: V’Zote Ha’Bracha 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: It’s often interesting to read the last words of famous historical figures. Here are a few:

  • Benjamin Franklin: “A dying man can do nothing easy.”
  • Marie Antoinette: “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur.”
  • Raphael: “Happy.”
  • Steve Jobs: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Some famous last words are insightful, while others are more mundane. As we are reading the Torah’s final words during Simhat Torah on Tuesday, it is intriguing to hear how the last Torah portion, V’Zote Ha’Bracha, concludes, so soon after the account of Moses’ death:

The Pitch: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom Adonai singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that Adonai sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

Swing #1: “[Moses] had an informal relationship with [God], and would speak with God at any time he wished.” – Rashi

Swing #2: In Israel none arose like Moses – touched by God – whose visions probed the limits of humanity.” – From “Yigdal”, Siddur Sim Shalom translation

Swing #3: “Rabbi Hayim Vital once dreamed … The day of [Simhat Torah] had arrived, and they brought the body of Moses to the synagogue in Safed. It took many men to carry the body inside the synagogue, for it was at least 10 cubits long. Then the body, wrapped in a white robe, was placed on a very long table that had been placed in advance. But as soon as the body of Moses was stretched out on the long table, it became transformed into a scroll of the Torah that was opened to its full length, like a long letter, from the first words of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy.” – Shivhei Rabbi Hayim Vital

Late-Inning Questions: Do you think the final words of the Torah provide a fitting conclusion to our most sacred book? Do they sum up Moses’ life in an appropriate way? What do they say about the meaning of the Torah as a whole? Are our commentators’ explanations in keeping with the meaning of these final verses, or are they mere flights of fancy? If you were charged to write the Torah’s final sentence, what would you write?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Speaking of Simhat Torah, please join us! On Monday, October 24th, our Happy Hour starts at 6:00PM, with services and Olympic-themed dancing with the Torah (complete with medal ceremonies!) starting at 6:45PM. The next morning, the fun continues at services beginning at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: One win away from the pennant. Pray with me.

Shabbat Shalom! And, soon, Chag Sameach!

The One: Ha’azinu 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: Has a High Holiday experience ever changed your perspective on life? Has a particular Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur inspired you to live differently in some way? How can we best transition from the spiritual depth of Yom Kippur to the rest of the year?

Since the Yom Kippur service refers so frequently to the oneness of God, it is fitting that we spend this Shabbat thinking more about this idea in the Torah portion of Ha’azinu:

The Pitch: “See, then, that I, I am the One; there is no god beside Me. I deal death and give life; I wounded and I will heal: None can deliver from My hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Swing #1: We recall that behold, at the first sprouting of Israel’s redemption for the Egyptian exile, in Exodus 3:14, the Holy One said to Moses, ‘I will be who I will be.’ Rashi explains this by citing Berachot 9b, in the name of our sages, as meaning that ‘I will be with them in this distress, and that I will be with them through servitude of yet other kingdoms.’ And behold, now in the singing of Moses’ farewell song, a [present and] future redemption is mentioned, for the Holy One says [again repeating the first-person singular pronoun], ‘Now that time when “I, I am the One,” has arrived. Then [at the Burning Bush] I spoke in the language of the future, “I will be,” and now that the time has arrived, I speak in the language of the present, “I, I am the One.”‘” – Hatam Sofer

Swing #2: Wherever the statement ‘I am the Lord’ appears in connection with the fulfillment of a precept, it implies that the Lord is ‘faithful to give reward.’ When the same statement appears with reference to a sin, it implies that He is ‘faithful to mete out punishment.’ But does not ‘YHWH’ imply the virtue of mercy? How, then, can it be used in connection with punishment? Should Scripture not have used the statement ‘I am God (Elohim)’, which would imply the Divine attribute of stern justice? The reason why the statement ‘I am the Lord’ is used in connection with both reward and punishment is that even punishment for sin is regarded as an act of Divine mercy and compassion.” – Gan Raveh

Swing #3: [This verse] is meant to be a summary statement of faith in the one all-powerful God, against whom no act of rebellion or presumption can be effective. In God, there resides all power; He alone is the agency of ‘death,’ ‘life,’ and all stages of weakness and strength that fall in between the ultimate ‘pouring out’ and the greatest possible ‘filling up.’ Since there is perhaps no other action of God’s which displays the totality and uniqueness of His power more forcefully than the process by which He restores His dead to life, a reference to bodily resurrection is surely in keeping with the context at this point.” – Leonard J. Greenspoon, “The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection,” from Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith, edited by Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson

Late-Inning Questions: Is it important to you to believe that there is only one God? Have you felt that way because you were taught to believe in one God from an early age, or did you need to struggle with your belief before arriving at that philosophy? What does it mean to have a one-on-one relationship with God?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: For so many, the upcoming holiday of Sukkot is a welcome catharsis from the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We hope you will celebrate with us. Our Sukkot preparations were understandably delayed due to Hurricane Matthew, but you can be part of the process on Sunday beginning at 9:30AM, by joining our Men’s Club and YAD at our annual Build & Beer program. Your presence and assistance will make our upcoming Festival of Joy even more exhilarating.

The Big Inning at the End: Of course, Sukkot will be even more joyous if the Cubs win four more games to reach the World Series.

Shabbat Shalom! And, soon, Chag Sameach!

Shelter From the Storm: Vayelekh 2016

I’m discarding the usual format for my weekly post; with a hurricane on the way, I don’t think those of us in the Southeastern U.S. need to occupy themselves with a multitude of questions and baseball anecdotes. Instead, let’s keep it simple, and learn a brief word of Torah:

“Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before your God Adonai in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere your God Adonai and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere your God Adonai as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)

“Moshe Rabbenu insists that even though individuals live in different locations and probably do not see each other from year to year, nevertheless they must all come together at least once in seven years to listen to what makes them unique, what binds them together. The king would read to the people the fundamental affirmations of Jewish life that give the community its uniqueness and purpose. Everyone would hear the same message, and all would be obliged to adhere to that message. Thus would be reinforced the unity of purpose, in the atmosphere of the unified presence of all Israel.” — Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, More Torah Therapy

Over the last few days, it’s been heartening to see a unity of purpose throughout this region of the country. Whether it’s Charlestonians helping other Charlestonians “hunker down” for Hurricane Matthew or the many families in more land-locked areas who are graciously hosting those who would otherwise be in harm’s way, we have been reminded how, as Rabbi Bulka says, we are bound together. We can only hope that the spirit of cooperation carrying us through dangerous times also will inspire us to act with the same level of togetherness in future, calmer days as well.

Please stay safe, wherever you are. Wishing all of you a Shabbat of peace and a meaningful approach to Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom!