Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: January, 2017

The First Family: Vaera 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we determine whether someone comes from “good stock”? To what extent do our parents, grandparents, and earlier ancestors define who we are as individuals?

As this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens, we find a rundown of Moses and Aaron’s family tree, even though we had met these characters several chapters before.

The Pitch: “It is the same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said, ‘Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.’ It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moses and Aaron.” – Exodus 6:26-27

Swing #1: “Moses and Aaron were found worthy of attaining the highest level of holiness and of receiving the Divine gift of prophetic vision. And they remained on this high level (‘the same Aaron and Moses’) even after contact with so unclean a being as the heathen Pharaoh. Their holiness was so great that they could not be contaminated even by the corrupt atmosphere prevailing at the court of the King of Egypt.” – Be’er Mayim Hayyim

Swing #2: “About the lineage of Jacob’s family descendants … we generally know only about those married to important male leaders. Even Miriam, Levi’s granddaughter on one side and great-granddaughter on the other, is excluded from this chapter’s genealogy and has no descendants mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “By placing Moses and Aaron in their genealogical order the author offers their true historical significance, which means that for him ‘history’ is determined in terms of the ongoing life of the established institutions and offices of the covenant people.” – Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, what essential facts are included in Moses and Aaron’s family tree? What information is missing? Do you detect a particular agenda by the narrator of this story? Why does it matter to us whether Moses and Aaron descended from great individuals? Shouldn’t they be evaluated solely in terms of their respective merits and flaws? Or, is it impossible to understand any person fully without knowing his/her family background?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: The safety of all people is a priority in Judaism. I hope you will join me next tonight as our Friday night services will take place at KKBE. There, we will participate in “Stand-Up Shabbat”, in which we partner with GunSense SC to advocate for reasonable and appropriate laws to make our community safer. Services will begin at 8PM.

The Big Inning at the End: A recent ESPN.com article tells us that the New York Yankees have spent millions of dollars to create “what owner Hal Steinbrenner described as more ‘family friendly’ and ‘socially oriented’ spaces at Yankee Stadium. Those spaces include play areas for young children and different vantage points for ticket holders to mingle and, most important, take pictures, videos and selfies they can share on social media.” Is this an overreaction to our short-attention-span culture, or a sensible nod to our new reality?

Shabbat Shalom!

In DeNile: Shemot 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: What stories do you know from the first few years of your life? Do these stories provide insights into themes that have recurred throughout your lifetime?

As we begin the book of Exodus, we read the first story of Moses, offering us hints of his future:

The Pitch: “When she could hide [Moses] no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.” – Exodus 2:3

Swing #1: “The word tevah (here translated as “basket,” but in the Noah story as “ark”) occurs only here and in the section of the Flood. By this verbal parallelism Scripture apparently intends to draw attention to the thematic analogy. In both instances one worthy of being saved and destined to bring salvation to others is to be rescued from death by drowning. In the earlier section the salvation of humanity is involved, here it is the salvation of the chosen people.” – Umberto Cassuto

Swing #2: “I don’t know where the Disneyfied idea about Moses, Prince of Egypt, comes from, but it certainly isn’t the Bible. Exodus has only the sketchiest details about Young Moses. The baby is floated down the Nile in a wicker basket and is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess then pays Moses’s own mother to raise him. That’s it.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #3: “An exceptional birth story … is one ingredient for conjuring a larger-than-life, mythical figure. Barring it from Scripture helped to portray a mortal figure that lacked any divine dimension. Depicting the infant Moses as being sent off into the Nile, where he was vulnerable to the whims of the current and the crocodiles, dependent entirely on God – the story’s true hero – to rescue him from his predicament, helped, too. The birth of Moses in the Pentateuch is thus like that of any other person; in this way, he deserves recognition as a great man, but nothing more.” – Avigdor Shinan & Yair Zakovitch, From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths & Legends

Late-Inning Questions: What does the story of Moses as a baby indicate about his destiny? Does it foretell greatness, or simply a person being at the right place at the right time? Must we mine our earliest memories to understand ourselves better, or is it more important for us to focus more on looking ahead?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: The safety of all people is a priority in Judaism. I hope you will join me next Friday night, January 27th, as our Friday night services will take place at KKBE. There, we will participate in “Stand-Up Shabbat”, in which we partner with GunSense SC to advocate for reasonable and appropriate laws to make our community safer. Services will begin at 8PM.

The Big Inning at the End: I’m thrilled that Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week. It’s also intriguing that suspected PED-users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are receiving more votes than in previous years, making their eventual election into the Hall a real possibility. Does this bother you?

Shabbat Shalom!

Not Over You: Vayechi 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Can there be reasonable limits to grief? Have you ever struggled to move forward after a traumatizing experience? Were there people or events that enabled you to “turn the corner”?

In our Torah portion, we see that Jacob’s approach to the final days of his life is impacted heavily by the memory of his wife Rachel, who had died many years before:

The Pitch: “‘I [do this because], when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath’ – now Bethlehem.” – Genesis 48:7

Swing #1: “Why did Jacob speak to Joseph of Rachel now? He wanted to admonish Joseph to fulfill the oath which he had sworn to him; i.e. that he would not bury him in Egypt. According to the Sages, Rachel had died because Jacob had sinned by neglecting to fulfill the vow he had taken.” – Meshekh Hakhmah

Swing #2: “[Characterizing Jacob’s voice:] I do this not only as a way of showing how God has fulfilled the divine promise, but also out of respect for the memory of your mother, whom I loved dearly. I have lived for many years with the burden of her loss, recalling daily her death on the road to Ephrath. Now, with the birth of your two sons, her memory shall surely live on.” – Norman J. Cohen, Voice From Genesis: Guiding Us Through the Stages of Life

Swing #3: “About to bless his grandchildren as his own children, Jacob is apparently caught up in a ground swell of emotion that is ultimately – and in no crudely narcissistic sense – about himself.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginnings of Desire

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree that Jacob should focus more on his children and less on Rachel’s memory during his dying days? Or do you think that, by honoring Rachel, Jacob is especially motivated to concentrate on his family’s legacy? Do you consider Jacob’s lifelong love for Rachel to be obsessive or romantic? Does Jacob’s consistent pining for Rachel teach us anything about how we handle our grief for loved ones no longer with us?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Katie Krawcheck is one of our congregation’s outstanding youths. At tomorrow morning’s services, she will share a powerful and personal speech that she delivered at her school a few days ago. I don’t want to give away anything about her speech, so I encourage you to attend services and listen to her words. As always, Shabbat morning services begin at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: The fourth World Baseball Classic, which will take place in March, will include a team representing Israel for the first time. Did you realize this?

Shabbat Shalom!

O Brother, Why Art Thou Crying?: Vayigash 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: In a famous speech prior to his untimely death, college basketball coach Jim Valvano said that people should do three things every day: think, laugh, and allow oneself to be moved to tears. Do you think crying is as essential as thinking and laughing? What does crying say about the depths of our emotions?

In the Torah portion of Vayigash, Joseph’s announcement of his true identity leads to a roomful of tears:

The Pitch: “With that [Joseph] embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.” – Genesis 45:14

Swing #1: “Why should the two brothers have wept at this hour of rejoicing, and why should each have wept over the other’s misfortune rather than over his own? Because they were both aware of the tragic consequences of hatred without just cause. We know that it was this evil of causeless hatred that brought about the destruction of the two Holy Temples of Jerusalem. When Joseph and Benjamin were reunited, they recalled that their separation had come about because of the causeless hatred of their brothers. Being endowed with prophetic vision, the two men thought of the calamities which would befall their descendants in days to come because of the same sin that had caused their own distress, and therefore they both wept.” – The Rabbi of Kazmir

Swing #2: “And just as Esau fell upon the neck of Jacob, embracing and weeping with him at the moment of their encounter near Mahanaim, so now Joseph embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and kissed his other siblings and wept with them. Like Esau, Joseph initiated the reconciliation and only then could his brothers summon the strength to speak to him. The same brothers who slandered him to their father and could not speak a friendly word to him, now shared words of love and affection. They, indeed, had finally come close to one another again; the sons of Rachel and the sons of Leah were united as they never had been before. And unlike Jacob and Esau before them, who though they were able to meet and establish some relationship, were unable to remain together, Jacob’s sons were truly reunited.” – Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle & Change

Swing #3: “Careful readers – and, no doubt, the observant brothers –  notice the asymmetry of his approach to Benjamin and his approach to them. The difference is perfectly understandable: Joseph has many reasons for loving Benjamin more than the others. But it is a difference nonetheless, and it carries significance for future family relations. The difference in Joseph’s conduct is reciprocated in the brothers’ responses: Benjamin weeps upon Joseph’s neck as Joseph weeps upon his; Joseph kisses and weeps upon his other brothers, but in response, they merely talk to him (though we are not told anything that they said). Despite his emotional frankness, Joseph leaves the brothers wary and disunited, even in this peak moment of reunion and reconciliation.” – Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

Late-Inning Questions: Do you believe that this episode of crying reflects newfound unity between Joseph and his brothers? Or, is it a sign of continued alienation? Why does crying enable our true emotions to come to the surface? Does one need to cry to express emotions effectively?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Please join us for follow-up discussions of “Where Do We Go From Here?” We want to hear YOUR voices to hear how our congregation can make a difference in a changed America. They will take place Wednesdays, January 11th & 18th, at 7:00PM. Sessions will be broadcast on Facebook Live.

The Big Inning at the End: In the Bible, the number 40 is associated with displacement (40 days of the flood and Noah’s Ark, 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, etc.). Now that there are only 40 days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, our displacement will soon be a thing of the past …

Shabbat Shalom!