Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: June, 2017

We’re Gonna Wash Those Ashes Right Out of Our Hair: Hukkat 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you cleanse yourself of bad experiences and memories? Do you try to rid yourself of them entirely, or do you release them bit by bit?
In one of the Torah’s most mysterious passages, we read of the ritual of the red heifer, one that is supposed to absolve the community of sin:

The Pitch: “The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening.” – Numbers 19:7

Swing #1: “While the red heifer served to cleanse the unclean, it rendered the clean individuals who had contact with it. The reason for this is that the red heifer served to atone for the sin the Children of Israel committed when they worshipped the Golden Calf. The Sages point out that it certainly did not behoove the Israelites of that generation to sin. But in order that it might show to future generations a way in which they might be able to repent of their sins (Avoda Zara 4), that generation alone was punished and it was through that unclean generation that a means was given to the generations of the future to cleanse themselves by repentance. So, too, is the red heifer, which atones for the worship of the Golden Calf. It serves as a means to cleanse the unclean, but it is unclean in itself so that the priest must wash his garments after contact with it.” – Hatham Sofer

Swing #2: “The ashes of the red heifer by themselves had the power to contaminate, or make impure, both those who prepared it and their clothing. The ashes are able to both purify and defile. Ashes, by themselves (which are, after all, from a dead animal), made the priest and his clothing impure. But when mixed with water, a living substance, they also have the opposite effect, to render purity from impurity.” – Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Swing #3: “All who have participated in the preparation of this purificatory substance have become, for the day in question, ‘unclean’ because they have had to do with things imbued with a ‘taboo’ (the original affinity between ‘holy’ and ‘unclean’ is clear here) and have therefore to undertake certain washings; this is obligatory for the priest as well as for the vaguely defined person who has carried out the burning of the heifer and for the ‘man’ who is differentiated from the last mentioned and is described as being ‘clean’ at the outset and who has gathered together and deposited the substance.” – Martin Noth, Numbers

Late-Inning Questions: Why do you think our commentators have such wildly different views of the purpose of the red-heifer ritual? Which interpretation (if any) makes the most sense to you? How might befuddling ritual nevertheless be meaningful to the ancient Israelites? Are there befuddling rituals in our lives that are nevertheless meaningful?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Thanks so much to our Men’s Club for organizing a pre-Shabbat Independence Day cookout before tonight’s services!

The Big Inning at the End: This year’s All-Star Game will be the first in more than a decade that will be purely an exhibition; home-field advantage will no longer go to the winning league. Does this make this year’s game less or more appealing than those of previous years?

Shabbat Shalom!

Double Dare: Korah 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever been subject to a “litmus test” to prove yourself to someone else? If so, have these tests been fair to you? Are these kinds of tests ever fair?

In response to Korah’s threat to Israelite leadership, Moses establishes a challenge to the rebels to show, once and for all, whom God trusts:

The Pitch: “‘Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’” – Numbers 16:6-7

Swing #1: “Korah saw by prophetic vision that one of his descendants would be Samuel of Ramathaim who would only reach the age of 52, but would be Judge over the people of Israel for 11 years. He regarded this as proof that it was possible to hold a position of leadership in Israel even if one was below the age of 50, as long as one was familiar with the Five Books of Moses. It was for this reason that Korah aspired to become a leader of his people though he was not yet 50 years old. – P’ninim Yekarim

Swing #2: “On the face of it, the Korah rebellion is a struggle over questions of power and ambition. … The same rhetoric of too much and too little appears [repeatedly] … Implicit in this language is the issue of desire and greed, of legitimate and illegitimate ambition.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers

Swing #3: “Moses says that they, not he, are the ungrateful ones presumptuously seeking power. … Moses taunts those who have accused him of exactly what they now are doing. To settle the matter that these principles come from God and not from a man called Moses, he calls on Korah and his company to burn incense before the Lord so that God may choose among the factions.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Late-Inning Questions: To what extent do our commentaries seem sympathetic to Korah? To Moses? Is Moses’s response to Korah’s challenge reasonable? Is there a case to be made for Korah’s rebellion, or are they clearly the villains of the story? What is the difference between ethical rebellion and unethical rebellion? Where does Korah’s rebellion fall on this scale?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I wish to express my gratitude to everyone who helped make our Healing Service a memorable experience. Thanks so much to the Mintzers for hosting; to Stuhr’s Funeral Home for loaning us the tent, chairs, and sound system; to Ruthie and the rest of the office staff for their tireless efforts; and, of course, to our new friends at Mother Emanuel AME for joining us.

The Big Inning at the End: Another week, another discussion about the so-called unwritten code of the game. This week, debates rage about whether a slow home-run trot is appropriate, and whether bunting to break up a no-hitter is classy. Isn’t it time that we write these rules down?

Shabbat Shalom!

Hoppin’ Mad: Shelach Lecha 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: When, if ever, have you done things that you later determined were “beneath your dignity”? Did you do those things because you thought too much of yourself, or not enough of yourself?The 10 wayward scouts in our Torah portion see themselves as pitiful creatures compared to other people who live in the Promised Land:

The Pitch: “‘[We] saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.’” – Numbers 13:33

Swing #1: “[On this verse] Rashi writes of ants instead of grasshoppers. Why did he not abide by the Scriptural text? We are told in the Book of Proverbs (6:6): ‘Lazybones, go to the ant; study its ways and learn.” From this we gather that the lowly ant can teach man how to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. By making an evil report about the Promised Land, the spies cast off that Divine yoke. It is for this reason that Rashi here reminds us of the ant, from whom the spies, and anyone else for that matter, could learn much about obedience to God.” – Kedushat Levi

Swing #2: “This was one of the sins of the spies. ‘We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves’; this is a reasonable reaction. But when we say, ‘and so we must have looked to them,’ what is going on? What possible difference could it make for you [to know or even care] how you appear in the eyes of others!” – Menachem Mendl of Kotzk

Swing #3: “The spies are filled with awe before the invulnerable, the vertical; they sense themselves as humiliated at their own grasshopper dimensions, their sheretz reality. This splitting-off, the incapacity to bear the tension of their own equivocal existence, leads to a real despair, an acceptance of the lowest human profile … The spies see themselves reflected in the eyes of the fantasy giants: an intimate vision of self is corroborated at every turn.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginnings of Desire

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators believe that the scouts are so negative about the prospect of conquering the Holy Land? Is it notable that the scouts describe themselves as an insects as opposed to another animal or object? Do the scouts think less of themselves or of God’s ability to deliver the Israelites from danger? In general, is it more dangerous for one’s self-esteem and confidence to be too high or too low?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are grateful that, at tonight’s healing service, we will be joined by congregants of Emanuel AME Church. We will hear from one congregant who will reflect on the two-year anniversary of the tragedy and how we can come together for a hopeful tomorrow. Thank you in advance to the Mintzers for hosting tonight’s services and dinner. Tonight’s program begins at 6:00PM.

The Big Inning at the End: As major-leaguers continue to belt tape-measure home runs, observers have begun asking whether the ball is “juiced” – in other words, whether baseballs have been purposely altered in order to make home runs more likely. Is it better to have more high-scoring games, regardless of what means are used to make them possible?

Shabbat Shalom!

The Retiring Kind: Beha’alotkha 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: If money were not an object, what would be the ideal age in which to retire from your profession? Other than salary, what kind of value is there in working past that ideal age?

Our Torah portion this week spells out a specific time for the kohanim, the ancient Israelite priests, to stop working:

The Pitch: “This is the rule for the Levites. From 25 years of age up until they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of 50 they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor. Thus you shall deal with the Levites in regard to their duties.” – Numbers 8:24-26

Swing #1: “The meaning of this [last] verse is ambiguous. Does it mean to say that after the age of fifty Levites would no longer perform maintenance functions, but only “assist” in other ways, performing less demanding duties? To put the question another way: does verse 26 link up directly with the preceding statements in verses 24-25, or does it recapitulate the overall characterization of the status of the Levites, as ‘serving’ but not officiating? The former alternative is preferable, because verses 23-26 appear to be a separate statement.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20

Swing #2: “One verse says: From twenty and five years old and upward; and another verse says: From thirty years old and upward. Now one cannot accept the age of thirty because of the verse which mentions twenty-five, and one cannot accept the age of twenty-five because of the verse which mentions thirty. How are these verses to be reconciled? Thus: at the age of twenty-five [the Levite enters the service] for training, and at the age of thirty he performs service. Hence the dictum: If a student does not see a sign of blessing [progress] in his studies after five years, he never will. R. Jose says, [After] three years, for it is written: That they be trained three years. And that they be taught the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans. And the other, [how does he explain these latter verses]? — He would say that the Chaldean language is an exception, for It is easy [to master]. And the other, [R. Jose]? — He would say that the Temple service is an exception, for its rules are difficult.” – BT Hullin 24a

Swing #3: “[Yehudah ben Teima] used to say … Twenty [is the age] for pursuit, thirty [is the age] for [full] strength, forty [is the age] for understanding, fifty [is the age] for [giving] counsel …” – Pirkei Avot 5:21

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that 50 is the appropriate age for a kohen to retire from priestly responsibilities? Knowing what you know about the responsibilities of the ancient priests, do you agree that it is a fitting age? What would you have said to a priest over the age of 50 who still wanted to serve in that capacity? How do we best deal with individuals who wish to work past the time in which they are productive? How would you like to be dealt with if you were to work past the time in which retirement would be appropriate?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are more than halfway to our goal of dedicating our new mahzorim (High Holy Day prayer books) before Rosh Hashanah! But there are still opportunities to do so. Help be a part of a new era of celebrating our most sacred days by putting the names of loved ones in a book that will add meaning to our High Holy Day experiences.

The Big Inning at the End: Albert Pujols hit his 600th career home run this past week, a feat that largely escaped the notice of sports fans. I hope that, even belatedly, we can mark this milestone for a person who has embodied class both on and off the field, especially given his magnificent charitable work for children with special needs.

Shabbat Shalom!

VIPs (Very Important Priests): Naso 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever given someone else a gift that you wished you owned yourself? Would that be a sign of generosity or selfishness, or perhaps a bit of both?

The relationship between a gift’s giver and recipient is noted near the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Naso:

The Pitch: “And each shall retain his sacred donations: each priest shall keep what is given to him.” – Numbers 5:10

Swing #1: “What bearing does this statement have on the portion dealing with robbery? Fools believe that the money which they have lying in their coffers is theirs, while the money which they give away to charity is theirs no longer. They therefore commit robbery, filling up their coffers with the money of others. Actually, quite the reverse is true. Only those possessions which are given away for sacred purposes (his sacred donations) such as those which we give to priests and scholars of the Law (what is given to him) remain the property of the original owner (shall keep) forever. But those possessions which a man greedily amasses for himself, not to speak of the money of others, are not his at all. Such gains will not remain with him for longer than a fleeting moment.” – Binah Le-Ittim

Swing #2: “Once the owner has given ‘his’ holy portion to the priest it becomes secular, mundane, not encumbered with any restrictions. Rather, it is exclusively ‘his’, neither the previous owners nor other priests can legally deprive him of it.” – Sforno

Swing #3: “Since gifts to the Kohanim and the Levites have been stated, one might be able [to think that] they may come and take them forcibly. [To teach us otherwise,] the Torah says, ‘A man’s holies shall be his.’ This tells us that the goodwill of their pleasure belongs to their owner.” – Sifrei

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators explain how a sacred gift remains in the possession of the giver? What does that say about the role of the priest? What does it say about the role of the giver? What does this teach us about how to approach the most important gifts we give?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Tomorrow, we will be thrilled to welcome a new baby girl into our congregation. Also, we will hear from Josh Gettinger, an out-of-town guest who has a special approach to reading Torah, and from Isaac Cohen, a new member of our synagogue who will reflect on his experience living in Israel during the Six-Day War. It all starts with Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM and services at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: The brawl between Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland reveals baseball’s strange dichotomy between machismo and gentility. Does a pitcher ever have the right to intentionally hit a batter with a pitch? And does that batter have the right to retaliate, either by fighting that pitcher personally or by having his team’s pitcher throw at someone else? Do two wrongs make a right?

Shabbat Shalom!