Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: November, 2016

Town Crier: Chayei Sara 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: The Jewish laws of mourning are some of the most respected in the religion. Why do you think so many people respect them? Which of these laws seem to be the most meaningful?

The beginning of the Torah portion of Chayei Sara features the Torah’s first example of Jewish mourning, as Abraham reacts to his wife Sarah’s death.

The Pitch: “Sarah died in Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” – Genesis 23:2

Swing #1: “The lamentation for the dead was caused less in those times by the depths of personal grief than by ceremony which was regulated by old custom and rites, for which one could also hire professional wailing women.” – Gerhard von Rad, Genesis

Swing #2: “Abraham comes to eulogize Sarah and cry for her. To eulogize may have the broader sense of burial and all the attendant ritual. To cry for her may mean the emotional accompaniment, which is to say, mourning. Yet the latter term may mean the personal action and the former may mean the more communal, technical action. In modern parlance, ‘to eulogize’ may have the sense of funeral and burial, while ‘to cry’ may mean the physical rituals of the mourner. – Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics

Swing #3: “How often we appreciate the full magnitude of a relationship’s importance only in retrospect. Avraham’s most passionate feelings for his wife find expression for the first time at her death. He weeps over her loss and it affects him so profoundly that he composes the lyrical poem Aishet Hayil [“A Woman of Valor”] in her memory, reviewing with each stanza another episode in their long life together.” – Matis Weinberg, Frameworks: Genesis

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree more with Weinberg’s understanding, that Abraham is overcome with emotion after Sarah’s death, or are you more drawn to Visotzky’s and von Rad’s understanding that Abraham’s sense of personal grief is unclear at best? To what extent do Jewish mourning practices respond well to emotions felt immediately after a loved one’s death? And to what extent are they proper responses to emotions felt in the months and years following a loved one’s death?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: In the aftermath of a divisive election, it’s incumbent for us to ask: “Where Do We Go From Here?” Please join me for a text study and discussions on how Jews can make a difference in a changed America. The sessions will be held Wednesday, November 30th and Wednesday, December 14th. Each evening will feature to separate sessions: one at 7:00PM for those happy with the election results, and the other at 8:00PM for those unhappy with the results.  These sessions will be broadcast on Facebook Live.

The Big Inning at the End: In the mid-1800s, the baseball season would conclude sometime around Thanksgiving weekend. Football has long replaced baseball as this weekend’s game of choice, but imagine how different America would be if the original custom was retained.

Shabbat Shalom!

The First Consultant: Vayera 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: Are you in the habit of consulting with other people before making a big decision? If so, what qualities should those people have?

While in previous portions God had consulted with other heavenly beings, Parashat Vayera represents the first time that God does so with a human:

The Pitch: “Now the Lord had said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.’” – Genesis 18:17-19

Swing #1: “A good educator makes use of the happenings of daily life to inspire or reprove his students. Actual instances of reward for good deeds or punishment for evil provide him with impressive object lessons by means of which he can urge his students to avoid evil and to choose good instead. Thus the destruction of Sodom provided Abraham with an excellent object lesson for his endeavors to teach men ‘to do righteousness and justice’, for it was a visible demonstration of the results of evil and injustice. Therefore the Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ Seeing that Abraham will ‘instruct his children and his posterity’ and, indeed, teach his entire generation to ‘do what is just and right,’ should I really hide from him My plan to destroy Sodom because of its sins? If I make it known to him in advance, it would only serve to help him in his holy endeavors, for then the people will not be able to argue that the fall of Sodom was nothing but an accident.” – Avnei Ezel

Swing #2: “Even though the Lord sends prophets against their will to deliver messages to which they object, from Amos 3:7 [‘For the Lord God does not do anything without first revealing His plan to His trusted agents, the prophets’] we learn that there is a divine need to brief the prophet before sending him on his mission. From the Abraham story we learn that Amos’ statement is not theoretical, but an actual reality.” – Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy

Swing #3: “With elegant sarcasm on both sides, the Lord first mocks Abraham’s righteousness and his very trust in the Lord and Abraham follows by mocking, at one and the same time, the Lord’s power and his veracity. … Neither Abram/Abraham’s own righteousness nor that of his unaccountable promised offspring was mentioned as a motive for the Lord’s earlier promises to Abram/Abraham. As now announced, this motive carries within it a tacit threat. The Lord is telling Abraham why the promise of offspring might not be kept: Abraham might not be righteous enough to deserve it.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree with Miles that God tells Abraham of the plans to destroy Sodom and Amorah as a warning to him? Or, do you agree more with the opinions of Muffs and Avnei Ezel, that God’s inclusion of Abraham is an act of empowerment? Is it possible that God speaks with Abraham even though God’s mind is already made up? Is it ever useful to consult with other people even though we are going to ignore their opinions?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: In the aftermath of divisive election, it’s incumbent for us to ask: “Where do we go from here?” So join me for a text study and discussions on how Jews can make a difference in a changed America. The sessions will take place Wednesday, November 30th, and Wednesday, December 14th. Each evening, those happy with the election results will discuss at 7PM, while those unhappy with the results will discuss at 8PM. (If you want to attend both sessions, please be respectful of the different tones of each session.) These sessions also will be broadcast on Facebook Live.

The Big Inning at the End: Congratulations to Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ third-baseman, for winning the 2016 National League Most Valuable Player award, as well as all the other BBWA award-winners. And to those who didn’t win, make sure to keep loved ones away from Twitter for a few days, right Justin Verlander?

Shabbat Shalom!

Fired Up, Ready To Go!: Lekh Lekha 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: What kinds of factors cause you to take action? Are you motivated more by successes or setbacks? Are you motivated more by internal desires or external encouragement?

As we continue to grapple with how to move forward after Tuesday’s stunning elections –whether we are pleased or disappointed – we return to the story of Abraham, and his willingness to move forward in his life suddenly and irrevocably:

The Pitch: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” – Genesis 12:1

Swing #1: “Why is Abraham’s going forth to sacrifice his son considered a more significant and splendid act than his going forth to leave his father’s house? Because no matter what a man may have been able to do to come nearer to perfection in his own conduct, he has not fulfilled his life’s task until he has succeeded in training his children also to be loyal and perfect in their faith so that they will be able to carry on his work after he is gone. True, the command given Abraham to leave his birthplace and his father’s house was a severe test of character, but it was intended only for his own improvement, to remove him from a corrupt environment and enable him to serve the Lord wholeheartedly. The second test, however – Abraham’s readiness to offer up his only son as a sacrifice – gave proof that Abraham was willing also to mold the character of his offspring, imbuing Isaac with so much love for God that the youth was ready to go forth of his own free will to be offered up to the Lord. It was this second test of character that showed the true greatness and integrity of our father Abraham. Thus Abraham’s second ‘going forth’ was a finer act than the first.” – HaDrash VeHaEyun

Swing #2: “Why would this be the first of the ten trials by which Abraham was tried? Actually, this was a great and very difficult test for Abraham. For the text says that ultimately Abraham did not set out on the journey for his own benefit and reward but [simply], ‘Abraham went as God had told him’, which is to say that he went only because of the command of God, without any other specific motive. The test therefore was whether, after all these assurances of reward, he would be able to preserve the purity, doing as God wanted, without contaminating the act with his own motives or confusing it with his own benefit.” – S’fat Emet

Swing #3: “From this moment [the Tower of Babel incident] on, just as humans treat each other as different from one another in ethnicity, God also no longer treats humanity equally. … God begins a personal relationship with Abraham and his family. … This shift from the universal scope to the particular and national is at the core of the Hebrew Bible.” – Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree more with HaDrash VeHaEyun, which minimizes the significance of Abraham’s move to Canaan, or S’fat Emet, which praises Abraham’s complete faith in God from God’s first command? Does Knohl’s emphasis of the personal relationship between God and Abraham teach us that we are more likely to take action when we are impacted by those closest to us? With America at a crossroads, what will enable you to take action to impact society for the better? Should we be more astonished by Abraham’s willingness to move forward, or more inspired to do the same?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Every year, the Sisterhood Turkey Day Friday Night Live is a highlight of the synagogue calendar. Next Friday promises to be more different. RSVP to the synagogue office and join us November 18th for services at 6:00PM, followed by an amazing, home-cooked Thanksgiving Shabbat dinner prepared by our Sisterhood. This event always is a sell-out, so don’t wait!

The Big Inning at the End: And now for the difficult part for me … the baseball off-season. At this time of year, it’s common to refer to the words of former MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti: “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.”

I take issue with the last words of that quote; for, if we reach out to one another, we are never alone. May this keep us going for the baseball off-season, and for whatever lies ahead for America.

Shabbat Shalom!

Only the Lonely: Noach 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: How essential is “alone time” to your daily schedule? Do you need to go to great lengths to find moments to be by yourself? What do you do during your “alone time”? Do you take “alone time” more for your own sake, or more for the sake of getting away from other people?

Ten generations after the creation of the world, Noah and his family are the only people chosen to stand alone as God causes a flood and presses a “reset button” on the human experience:

The Pitch: “All existence on earth was blotted out – man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.” – (Genesis 7:23)

Swing #1: “Scripture does not say ‘and Noah, a righteous and wholehearted man, was left’ but simply ‘Noah only was left.’ According to the Midrash, Noah, by doing nothing to persuade his contemporaries to mend their ways, was himself guilty of a sin. He who does not act to make others better descends to a lower level himself thereby. When Noah found that he and his family were the only survivors of the Flood, he realized that he was Noah ‘only’; he was filled with a sense of inadequacy because he had done nothing to save the others from the fate which befell them.” – Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin

Swing #2: “Nowhere did Noah show a feeling of sadness and paths that an entire generation was to be lost, and the world destroyed; that men had lost their way of life and surrendered to their own primeval drives and dark passions. At no time did a word of concern, of solicitude escape Noah’s lips. It was as though he stood apart from the rest of the world. Nowhere was there an expression of tenderness, of regret that even though these men were wicked they would be lost – they, their wives, and their children. He did not leap forward with a request to God to spare those who, perhaps with the extension of greater mercy, might have been spared. Noah was a righteous man; Noah deserves to be in the circle of the great. But there was a fatal flaw in Noah, and so he did not become the father of a new religion, a new faith, and a new community. He lacked compassion and, because he lacked compassion, he forfeited the far greater place in history that might have been accorded him.” – Morris Adler, The Voice Still Speaks

Swing #3: “The picture [of the earth in the Flood narrative] becomes progressively darker, until only one spark of light remains to illuminate the deathly gloom … This is the ark which floated on the awesome waters that had covered everything, and which guarded within its bounds the hope of life in the future.” – Cassuto Umberto, From Noah to Abraham

Late-Inning Questions: Much ink has been spilled regarding whether Noah was truly righteous or merely the best of a bad lot. Is it fair to criticize Noah given his role in preserving human life on Earth? Or should we ask more from those who are in positions to lead, whether they’ve asked for those positions or not?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Are you a Veteran or an active service member? If so, we would like to honor you at Shabbat services on Saturday, November 12th with an Aliyah, an English reading or carrying a Torah. Please contact Charles Richards at 843-452-4429, or email him at

The Big Inning at the End: Thank you to so many people in our community who have congratulated me on the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory. Obviously, they didn’t win because of me or of any of the millions of other Cub fans, but nevertheless, Wednesday night (or, rather, early Thursday morning) provided some of the best moments of my life. A special thanks goes to Cleveland Indians fans who have been so gracious. And a particular shout-out goes to our Emanu-El congregant Mike Mills, who made a friendly wager with me prior to the Series; next month, he will “pay up” by chanting a Haftarah in synagogue in Cubs gear. We’ll let you know exactly when …

Shabbat Shalom!