Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: May, 2017

Simeon Says: B’midbar 2017


Pre-Game Chatter: How important is it for you to help preserve your family’s last name in forthcoming generations? How would you feel if your descendants hyphenated your last name in order to “keep it in the family”?

As the book of Numbers begins, we discover how many Israelite males carry on the name of their respective tribes – and note that some of these numbers will shift dramatically:

The Pitch: “Of the descendants of Simeon, the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, their enrollment as listed by name, head by head, all males aged 20 years and over, all who were able to bear arms – those enrolled from the tribe of Simeon: 59,300.” – Numbers 1:23

Swing #1: “While the tribe of Simeon is numbered at the beginning of the desert wanderings at 59,300, by the time of the second census they are down to 22,200. Where did they all go? An obvious possibility was that they perished in the plague that befell Israel after Zimri’s sin with the Midianite woman, ‘the sin of Baal Peor’. Zimri was, after all, a Simeonite; his tribesmen doubtless also sinned with other Midianite women, and as a consequence many Simeonites must have been ‘brought to ruin by fornication’ in this plague.” – James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

Swing #2: “Many attempts have been made to connect Simeon with Ishmael and Massa, and with the founders of Mecca, the establishment of Saul’s kingdom, etc. All that seems certain, to judge from the foregoing data and from the fact that a prominent subclan is called ‘Shaul, the son of a Canaanitish woman,’ is that the tribe of Simeon was of mixed origin and was at an early date fused with Judah.” – from “Simeon, Tribe of”, The Jewish Encyclopedia

Swing #3: “Because the love of them is before Him, He counts them every hour. When they went out of Egypt He counted them and when they transgressed with the golden calf He counted them. … When He came to put upon them His Shechinah He counted them …” – Rashi on Numbers 1:1-2

Late-Inning Questions: Since Jews no longer sort themselves by the 12 tribes, should Simeon’s rapid decline be seen as a tragedy? Or should we simply be happy that the Israelites endured (and continue to endure) at all?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Synagogue Emanu-El will introduce a new prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem. Other Conservative congregations describe this book as uplifting and awe-inspiring. We selected it because its readings are more relevant, provides better explanations about its prayers, and will engage congregants across the spectrum of Jewish knowledge. Honor or remember people you love by dedicating a book in their honor. A bookplate will be placed on the inside front cover recording your tribute. Dedications are $50 per book. Contact the synagogue office to truly inscribe those you love and remember in the book of life.

The Big Inning at the End: Much ink has been spilled this week about the Yankees’ attendance woes, in spite of their young and exciting roster. Is this an aberration that will end when summer starts (as is the case with many teams), or are New York fans finally fed up with ridiculous prices for tickets, parking, and concessions?

Shabbat Shalom!

Playing Fair: Behar-Behukotai 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: When were you first taught the differences between right and wrong? Who were your main teachers? To what extent were these lessons established in your youth, and to what extent did they evolve in adulthood?

In the first of our two Torah portions, the notion of avoiding wrongdoing is understood by subsequent commentators in vastly different ways:

The Pitch: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.” – Leviticus 25:17

Swing #1: “Every Rosh HaShana it is decreed in Heaven how much each man will earn during the next year. And when a man acquires riches through deceit and swindling, against the will of God, he will be punished by illness or some other calamity to deprive him of his ill-gotten gains. Therefore Scripture says: ‘Do not wrong one another: You must not seek to gain riches by overreaching, because you shall ‘fear your God’ Who, in His quality of justice will impose punishments upon you to deprive you of the riches you obtain by unfair means.’” – Melo HaOmer

Swing #2: “This repetition [the command to not wrong one another is also mentioned three verse before] has a purpose – it forbids ona’ah by words: one must not remind a penitent sinner of his former misdeeds or a convert of his heathen ancestry; one should not inquire the price of an article he does not intend to buy.” – Sifra

Swing #3: “Here [the Torah] enjoins [us] regarding verbal harassment; that one should not annoy his fellow nor give him advice that is not appropriate for him, [but is] in accord with the mode [of life] and the benefit of the advisor.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators define acting wrongly? Which definitions make the most sense to you? How would you describe the ultimate wrong behavior? Would your answer to that question have been different 10 or 20 years ago?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Congratulations to our four Adult B’nai Mitzvah this year: Susan Heidenberg, Charles Richards, Ingrid Samuels, and Sunny Steinberg. All have prepared diligently, assisted by the marvelous Pam Coyle. Celebrate with them and their families tomorrow starting at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Perhaps the most recognizable professional baseball player doesn’t play in the Major Leagues; he plays minor-league baseball in Columbia, S.C. Is it a problem that many sports fans follow Tim Tebow more closely than spectacular Major League players such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Clayton Kershaw?

Shabbat Shalom!

Of Corpse(s): Emor 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Why have there been numerous popular television series and movies about “beings” such as zombies and vampires? What does this popularity say, if anything, about our attitudes about death, and more specifically, dead bodies?The Torah portion of Emor deals immediately with the idea that being near a dead body is a form of defilement, while simultaneously allowing us the opportunity to mourn for our loved ones:

The Pitch: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself.” – Leviticus 21:1-3

Swing #1: “The distinction between soul and body is something foreign to the Hebrew mentality, and death, therefore, is not regarded as the separation of these two elements. A live man is a living ‘soul’, and a dead man is a dead ‘soul’, a dead ‘nefesh’. Death is not annihilation. … The corpse which was doomed to corruption, and the tomb which contained it, were both considered unclean, and conveyed uncleanness to those who touched them.” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel
Swing #2: “Why is the circle of exceptions restricted so severely to immediate blood relations? How can burial of one’s own wife be excepted from such obligation? Does the partial permission to take care of the dead not fundamentally contradict the prohibition against defilement? How is the resulting impurity of the sacrificial priest then eliminated? … Presumably, absolute prohibitions can never guarantee a practical order of things in human societies. There must be exceptions and special regulations; life itself simply demands it.” – Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary

Swing #3: “The chief aim of man should be to make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his acts similar to the acts of God, or as our Sages expressed it in explaining the verse, ‘You shall be holy’: ‘He is gracious, so be you also gracious: He is merciful, so be you also merciful.’” – Moses Maimonides, Guide For the Perplexed

Late-Inning Questions: In light of the commentaries above, do you believe we should be allowed to formally mourn more than just immediate relatives? Or, might you define “immediate relative” in a different way than the Torah does?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to honoring our Religious School students at the end of another successful year! Tonight, at our 7:30PM services, we will congratulate our sixth-grade graduates, and tomorrow, at our 9:30AM services, we will honor three high-school seniors at their Confirmation.

The Big Inning at the End: This Sunday, Major League players will don numerous pink items (bats, caps, wristbands, etc.) to promote breast-cancer research. This has become an annual Mother’s Day tradition. While some have dismissed this custom as cynical and opportunistic, I believe this in one way in which sports can be a vessel for good deeds.

Shabbat Shalom!

A Sorry House: Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: When a place in your home triggers a bad memory, how do you cope with it? Do you try to memorialize that memory? Do you try to wipe away all traces of that memory? Or do you try to avoid that place altogether?

We learn in the first of this week’s Torah portions that for the ancient Israelites, the place where sin offerings were given needed to be purged every year on Yom Kippur:

The Pitch: “Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity.” – Leviticus 16:16

Swing #1: “This verse implies that arrogance is a much more serious sin than any other transgression. For we are told here concerning sinners that the Tent of Meeting ‘dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness,’ meaning that even when Jews have been defiled by sin, the Lord is still in their midst. There is, however, one exception to this rule; namely when the sin is arrogance. For we are explicitly told elsewhere that ‘I cannot endure the haughty and proud man’ (Psalms 101:5), and the Sages say: ‘I (the Lord) and he (the haughty man) cannot dwell together in this world.” – Baal Shem Tov

Swing #2: “Many rituals only make sense in the collective dimension. The Day of Atonement ritual, while concerning itself with the altar and the sanctuary, was the means of purifying the sanctuary (and by extension, the entire community of Israel) of ‘the impurities of the sons of Israel,’ which are then described as ‘their acts of rebellion and all their sins’. In this sense, the collective dimension of ritual always involves a whole community or a large subgroup of a particular community.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Swing #3: “The idea is that God is with the Israelites even in the presence of tum’a (up to a point, of course).” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators differ on the meaning of the ritual described above? Does the purpose of the ritual seem to be to forget the Israelites’ transgressions, or to remember them even more keenly? In general, is it better to rid ourselves of negative memories, or to maintain them so that we may learn from them?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Our Religious School is a source of pride for our synagogue, and I invite you to help support it this Sunday at its annual BINGO fundraiser, beginning at 11:30AM in our Social Hall.

The Big Inning at the End: The recent Red Sox-Orioles series included much of what is great about baseball and what is concerning about the sport’s future. The intense rivalry and hard-fought games between the teams showed the game at its best. But the series also included needless beanballs (batters being hit by a pitch, sometimes for the sake of retaliation) and, in one case, racial epithets from some Boston fans. When does a heated rivalry become too heated?

Shabbat Shalom!