Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: April, 2017

Touch and Go: Tazria-Metzora 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: What sorts of things “give you the creeps”? Do you know why those things bother you so much? Have you tried to do anything to minimize your negative reactions to those things?

In the first of our Torah portions this week, we are introduced to the concept of “blood purification,” in which a woman who has just given birth is, to an extent, “off-limits” for an extended stretch of time:

The Pitch: “She shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed.” – Leviticus 12:4

Swing #1: “This is to teach you that you, too, must not touch hallowed things, much less be in a place where the Shekhina dwells as long as you have not completed your own ‘days of purification’ by cleansing yourself of sin and baseness. Without purity there can be no holiness.” – Noam Elimelekh

Swing #2: “Elsewhere in the Torah, notably in the case of the Red Heifer, we find similar examples of this paradox: contact with holiness, perhaps because it is so fraught with the danger of death, makes a person ritually impure. Here the woman, through her newborn, has forded the dangerous birth canal – and survived. Before she rejoins the community, she needs times to recover from her near-death experience.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “The next verse doubles the time [of blood purification] if a baby girl is born. Whether such legislation was perceived by mothers as a hardship or a blessing cannot be determined. Some may have wanted to go to the temple to express gratitude; some may have appreciated the month or two months of separation from cultic activities, or sexual ones for that matter.” – Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators look favorably upon the rules of blood purification? How might they benefit the woman in question? How might they harm her? Can it be beneficial to separate ourselves from the greater community after a big change in our lives? If so, should such separation be mandated?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: With Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) taking place Monday night and Tuesday, let us celebrate this Shabbat with the best of Israeli cuisine! Our Kiddush after Saturday morning services will feature Israeli foods. Let us toast the continuing miracle that is the State of Israel!

The Big Inning at the End: The baseball season is in full swing, yet once again, the NFL took center-stage last night with the first round of its annual draft. What might baseball do to capture public attention the way football does on a regular basis, even when games are not being played? Or is this too much to ask of baseball?

Shabbat Shalom!

In Tents: Shmini 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Sigmund Freud believed that there are no accidents, that all of our actions stem from some kind of intention, whether we realize it or not. Do you subscribe to this belief? If not, to what extent do you live with intention?

As we resume our weekly Torah portions, we find Moses and Aaron inaugurating the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), and curiously entering and exiting the Tent of Meeting. This takes place just before Aaron’s two oldest sons are suddenly and tragically killed:

The Pitch: “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people.” – Leviticus 9:23

Swing #1: “Why did Moses not instruct Aaron concerning the incense ceremony before, when he had taught him the other sacrificial procedures? Moses did not go with Aaron to instruct him in the incense procedure, but to prepare him for a tragic occurrence in which incense was to be involved, namely, the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu who were devoured by fire when they brought their incense with ‘strange fire before the Lord’. Scripture relates that when this tragedy struck, Aaron took it with exceptional self-control for, like all exceedingly righteous men, he was willing to accept even sorrow with serenity and gratitude. It was this ability to praise the Lord even for tragedy and to accept suffering with serenity that Moses went to teach Aaron in the Tent of Meeting. The solemn moment when Moses and Aaron entered the Tabernacle for the first time was the most fitting occasion for Moses to teach Aaron ‘concerning the incense’, to be calm, and to praise the Lord even for the crushing sorrow that was to befall him because of an offering of incense; namely, the death of his two sons.” – Imrei Shofar

Swing #2: “Moses said, ‘May it be God’s will to cause His Shechinah to rest upon the work of your hands! May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!’ They responded, ‘May the favor of the Lord be upon us/Let all that we put our hands to prosper/O prosper the work of our hands.’” – Sifra

Swing #3: “For what purpose did Moses and Aaron enter the Tent? None is cited, and it can only be conjectured: (1) so that the divine presence might descend … (2) to pray for the emergence of the [Divine Presence] from the adytum.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentaries attempt to explain Moses and Aaron’s brief detour into the Tent of Meeting? Does one explanation seem more sensible than others? When we note other people’s behavior, does it behoove us to hypothesize the reasons for their every move, or are some actions simply random? Should it then matter why Moses and Aaron went in and out of the tent?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I hope you’ll show your support for our lay leadership as we pass the torch to our 2017-18 board. We’ll install the new board at our services tomorrow morning. Please be there to offer them luck and your suggestions for the upcoming year.

The Big Inning at the End: The Toronto Blue Jays expected to compete for a playoff spot once again this year. But they have started the 2017 season with a 3-11 record. At what point should a team begin to panic that they are playing far worse than any other team in the big leagues? Or is it silly to draw any conclusions with the season less than 10% complete?

Shabbat Shalom!

Can’t Buy Me Love: Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesach 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you believe that “love conquers all”? Is it the driving force of the world? Alternatively, is it, perhaps, the driving force of all that is positive in the world?

As we continue our celebration of Passover this Shabbat, it is customary to read at least part of the Song of Songs, a text that is simultaneously romantic and challenging.

The Pitch: “‎Vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it. If a man offered all his wealth for love, he would be laughed to scorn.” – Song of Songs 8:7

Swing #1: “‎[This verse] is speaking of individuals like Hillel and Shevna, as when Rav Dimi came to Babylonia he said: Hillel and Shevna were brothers; Hillel engaged in Torah study and remained impoverished, whereas Shevna entered into a business venture and became wealthy. In the end, Shevna said to Hillel: Come, let us join our wealth together and divide it between us; I will give you half of my money and you will give me half of the reward for your Torah study. In response to this request a Divine Voice issued forth and said: ‘If a man offered all his wealth for love, he would be laughed to scorn.’” – BT Sotah 21a

Swing #2: “The point of this aphorism is that love is beyond all material value, and cannot be bought for any price. Hence anyone attempting to buy love would be considered a fool. An alternate reading – the man who gives up everything for love is mocked by an uncomprehending world – seems less fitting in this context: the poet is praising the greatness of love, a cosmic force, not bemoaning the small-mindedness of human beings.” – Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation

Swing #3: “The frank and unabashed avowal of love throughout the book reaches its impressive climax here where it is described as a mighty force, the very flame of God. Thus the basic truth underlying the Song of Songs is emphasized, that natural love is holy.” – Robert Gordis, The Song of Songs and Lamentations: A Study, Modern Translation and Commentary

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators feel the need to remind us that love is priceless? Do we sometimes make the mistake of thinking otherwise? If so, how and when do we do so?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We hope your Seders were meaningful and enjoyable. It was a privilege to once again lead our congregational Seder. Thanks to our staff for organizing a smooth evening, and to those in attendance for your camaraderie and enthusiasm. And congratulations to Hannah Lieberman for finding the Afikoman!

The Big Inning at the End: Tomorrow is Jackie Robinson Day, and the 70th anniversary of the first game in which Robinson, who broke the Major Leagues’ “color barrier”, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s dignity and courage in the face of many racist players and fans remain important examples to us all.

Shabbat Shalom! Moadim L’Simcha!

Burnt Notice: Tzav 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Why is fire such a compelling Jewish symbol? How do activities such as lighting Shabbat and Hanukkah candles resonate with you?

As we continue reading the book of Leviticus, we are introduced in the Torah portion of Tzav to other ways that fire enabled our ancestors to connect to the Divine: burnt sacrificial offerings.

The Pitch: “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.” – Leviticus 6:2

Swing #1: “The letter mem in the Hebrew mokedah (‘its firewood’) is small, to indicate that the fiery zeal of a Jew on behalf of his faith must not be put on exhibit for all to see but should be kept deep within the heart, away from the public eye.” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

Swing #2: “‘Torah’ is the word used to describe a set of teachings or laws governing a certain situation and pertaining to ritual. Thus we find verses like: ‘This is the ritual (torah) of the burnt offering.” – Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices

Swing #3: “How do we adorn ourselves and our projects? How do we maintain a balance between humility and haughtiness, elegance and extremism, commitment and tired repetition, commandment and contrivance? How do we keep in touch with that spark of inspiration that keeps us true and focused? Whose responsibility is it to maintain devotion and kindle sparks of understanding? Three thousand years ago the generations of the house of Aaron tended the channel of our people’s burning desire to be a community close to God: the eternal flame. Today we rely on ourselves and each other.” – Rabbi Claire Magidovitch Green, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Late-Inning Questions: What does fire symbolize in our Torah portion, according to our commentators? How could our ancestors understand burning slaughtered animals or crops to be communication with God? Since we don’t perform ritual sacrifices anymore, how might our prayers and actions resemble the qualities of fire that was used prominently so many years ago?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to hearing Aaron Levine, a high-school junior and this year’s COSY president, tell us about his experiences at the AIPAC Policy Conference that took place last month. You can hear him at tomorrow morning’s Shabbat service, which begins at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Now that the baseball season has begun, big-league fans are confronted with a recent feature of early-April games: numerous rainouts each day. Wouldn’t it be better if all games during the first two weeks of the season took place in domed stadiums or in mild climates like California? Or is this silly, given that rain can certainly fall in late April and beyond?

Shabbat Shalom, and very soon, Happy Passover!