Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: February, 2017

Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em: Mishpatim 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we make sense of rules in the Torah that would be unthinkable in today’s society? Do we try to understand them within the context of ancient times? Or do we argue that some should be reversed or discarded?

The Torah portion of Mishpatim immediately confronts a situation that is controversial to us: the notion that some ancient Israelites are allowed to own slaves:

The Pitch: “But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall remain his slave for life.” – Exodus 21:5-6

Swing #1: “Why should the earlobe be pierced? Because it was not put to its intended use. If the ear heard a commandment proclaimed, but its owner did not take to hear what the ear perceived, that ear must have heard scornful language and lascivious talk of which even one drop is said to push away many words of Torah (‘One drop of scorn shoves aside many words of the Law’). Now the soft earlobe was created for the purpose of stopping up the ear to keep it from hearing vulgar talk. Hence, if the ear was corrupted by vulgar speech it is obvious that the lobe was not put to its proper use. Therefore, ‘let it be pierced.’” – The Rabbi of Gur

Swing #2: “What do ear and door have in common? They both can be opened and shut at will.” – Toldot Yitzhak

Swing #3: “The symbolism of this act is not clear. [Theodor] Gaster theorizes that it establishes the serf’s permanent bond to his master’s house, through the blood on the doorpost.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: Does the fact that Israelite slaves have the option to voluntarily enter lifelong servitude make this kind of bondage any more palatable? If so, what do you make of the ear-piercing ceremony? Is its meaning limited to symbolism, or is there a practical aspect to it as well? What might you say if you met one of our ancestors who own slaves?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I wish to make sure the community knows something important about our synagogue: there are two restrooms in our facility located right outside our sanctuary’s side door. These restrooms are individual – they can be locked on the inside, and can be used by any person, regardless of gender. Here at Synagogue Emanu-El, all are welcome.

The Big Inning at the End: While the rule change I mentioned last week certainly is controversial, I am thrilled that Major League Baseball appears to have approved an automatic intentional walk – that is, instead of a pitcher throwing four pitches way outside the strike zone, the pitcher can simply indicate that it wishes to award the batter first base. While this might not subtract that much time from a game, it is a step in the right direction.

Shabbat Shalom!

Delegation: Yitro 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Why is it so important for leaders to delegate responsibilities to others? What are the consequences when leaders don’t delegate enough?

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, teaches his son-in-law to reduce his personal burden, just in time for the Revelation at Mount Sinai:

The Pitch: “‘Let [appointed chiefs] judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this – and God so commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.’” – Exodus 18:22-23

Swing #1: “The Sages term a compromise ‘peace’ because in such an arrangement neither of the disputing parties emerges as the loser. However, according to Jewish law, a compromise can be made only in cases where the Court of Law has not clear directives as to how the Law of the Torah is to be applied. Once it is known to the Court ‘how the Law of the Torah is inclined’ compromises are not permissible. In view of this rule, Jethro said to Moses: ‘If you decide all legal questions single-handedly, you will not be able to arrange a compromise, for to you the Law is always abundantly clear. But if you will delegate some of the authority to lesser judges, it will be possible for them to arrange compromises because the Law will not always be clear to them, and then all these people too will go home unwearied, they will be satisfied with the compromise arbitrated in their disputes.” – Rabbi Hayyim Berlin

Swing #2: “Jethro’s advice to Moses, which he implements, comprises what in our time have become classical principles of public administration. There is ‘management by exception’ under which routine matters are covered by standard operating procedures, leaving the difficult cases for special attention by higher authority. There are job qualifications established in the selection criteria set out by Moses: employees should be capable, God-fearing, truthful, honest, unswayed by prospects of material gain. Specialization was there before Moses’ time as indicated by the numerous references to craftsmen. Division of governmental labor, however, Moses owes to Jethro in the persons of the captains of tens, hundreds, and thousands.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #3: “But everyone, you know, totally kneweth that Jethro was right. And Moses learned to delegate. He even let Aaron white-board an org chart. There were no computers then, or there were, but they were slow and clunky and took up an entire tent.” – Rebecca Odes & Sam Lipsyte, from Unscrolled, edited by Roger Bennett

Late-Inning Questions: While Jethro receives deserved credit for suggesting how Moses can ease his workload, Moses also should be recognized for taking unsolicited advice from a newcomer to the Israelite community. How do we usually react when our behavior is critiqued by outsiders? Are we as receptive as Moses is? Should we be? Or is a good idea worthy of our consideration regardless of its source?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Just in time for President’s Day, we will honor our Synagogue’s past presidents at services tomorrow morning. Please join us to celebrate Emanu-El’s leaders past and present.

The Big Inning at the End: This summer, some low-level minor leagues will experiment with a major rule change: during extra innings, each half-inning will begin with a runner on second base. Major League Baseball wonders if this will help to speed up the conclusion of extra-inning games. Is this a worthwhile experiment?

Shabbat Shalom!

Soft Landing: Beshalach 2016

Pre-Game Chatter: What does it take for us to be awe-struck? What causes us to slow down and appreciate wonder, especially in a world with so much noise?

At the seminal moment of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, God creates a scene so remarkable that it inspires the people to sing and dance on the other side of the Red Sea:

The Pitch: “But the Israelites had marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” – Exodus 14:29

Swing #1: “Men are impressed only when they see events which are clearly miraculous. They fail to realize that nature itself is a great miracle in which they can behold the greatness of the Guide and Creator of the Universe each day. Only when they are confronted with an event that is obviously supernatural do they realize that the providence and the miracles of God are present even in everyday nature which we are so much inclined to take for granted. This is the interpretation of the above-cited verse: ‘As for the Children of Israel, when they experienced the miracle that they could walk through the sea as on dry land, they became aware that they walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea, that even if they had been walking on dry land it would have been no less a miracle than if they had been walking through the midst of the sea.’” – Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizensk

Swing #2: “Another explanation, God said to Moses: ‘There is no need for you to pray. I have already heard Israel’s prayer.’ Another explanation: ‘I know their prayers before they utter them.’ Hence: ‘Tell the Israelites to go forward.’” – Exodus Rabbah

Swing #3: “All the while the Egyptians experienced all these problems and were drowning, the Israelites had been walking through the sea as if it were dry land. The areas still being traversed by Israelites were not affected by the sea reverting to its originals state.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Do you think our commentators believe that the Israelites are too slow to appreciate God’s miracles, too fast, or appropriately timely? Do you agree? Given that the Israelites begin to complain to Moses a mere three days after crossing the sea, do you think the people’s sense of awe is too limited? What allows us to appreciate awesome moments both in the short term and in the long term?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: There is much to look forward to at services this Saturday – the reading of the Song of the Sea, a baby-naming, and a tribute to Tu Bishvat, including special foods at Kiddush and trivia questions and words of Torah about trees. It all will be even better if you’re there to share it with us.

The Big Inning at the End: Each year, Baseball Prospectus projects the win-loss record of each Major League team. They do so based on statistical analysis of each player’s prior performance. Are you more likely to believe this numbers-based approach, or are you more likely to trust the predictions of sportswriters and scouts who don’t rely on statistics nearly as much?

Shabbat Shalom!

Bugged: Bo 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Why are so many of us scared of animals much smaller than we are? What is it about insects in particular that make us so fearful?

Our Torah portion begins with the plague of locusts, a punishment that gives many otherwise-rational people the creeps:

The Pitch: “‘For if you refuse to let My people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts on your territory. They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field. Moreover, they shall fill your palaces and the houses of all your courtiers and of all the Egyptians – something that neither your father nor fathers’ fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth to this day.’ With that he turned and left Pharaoh’s presence.” – Exodus 10:4-6

Swing #1: “The hail had destroyed the trees. The locust would devour anything which would grow after the hail.” – Rashbam

Swing #2: “One way of approaching the problem of the Night of Watching is to notice that the last three plagues are plagues of darkness: the locusts ‘cover the surface of the land, so that no one can see the land’; the plague of darkness, which is palpable – ‘the darkness shall be felt … they did not see one another, and they could not stand up from a sitting position’; while the plague of the firstborn happens at midnight, and the word liela – ‘night’ – is repeated with a redundant and subliminal insistence.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus

Swing #3: “The eighth plague, locusts, serves as the catalyst for the Egyptians’ realization of God’s pervasive might. God’s strength magnifies the destructive potential of swarming locusts beyond all imagining or historical memory. Pharaoh is forced to summon Aaron and Moses, and to beseech their forgiveness before their God. … Though in the past, Pharaoh has pleaded for Moses’ intercession to lift the plagues, never before has he admitted to standing guilt before both God and Moses. This eighth plague of all-devouring locusts initiates a critical shift in the center of power, with Pharaoh beginning to recognize that his authority is meaningless before the might of God.” – Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Late-Inning Questions: The commentators above believe that the plague of the locusts is devastating not only because of the damage it inflicts, but also because of its timing; they recognize that it would not have been as effective had it been, say, the third plague. Instead, this plague makes sense as part of a progression of punishments. Have you ever wished to make an important point to someone else but been thwarted by bad timing? How good does it feel, on the other hand, when you get the timing just right?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Congratulations again to Emanu-El’s Sisterhood on an excellent Sisterhood Shabbat last Saturday. The 61 (!) service participants reminded all of us that our synagogue is filled with talent, and that congregational life is better when as many people as possible take part.

The Big Inning at the End: I admit that, as much as I struggle with my opinion of football, I will enjoy watching the Super Bowl this Sunday. And I will enjoy even more the aftermath of the game, when I remember that Spring Training is less than 10 days away.

Shabbat Shalom!