Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: August, 2017

Tree of No Life: Shoftim 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Do we care for symbols more than we should? Do you agree with George Carlin’s famous assessment that “symbols are for the symbol-minded”? Or are symbols important ways to simply communicate what means most to us?

In our portion this week, the Torah reminds us that symbols cannot replace “the real thing” – and certain symbols are forbidden:

The Pitch: “You shall not set up a sacred post – any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you make – or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests.” – Deuteronomy 16:21-22

Swing #1: ‘You are to see the beauty of a holy place in its sacred character, and not look for external trappings such as beautiful landscaping or impressive edifices. If you find it necessary to beautify a holy place by such superficial decorations, it is an indication that you lack appreciation for the true beauty of holiness. Similarly, the Sages say that ‘anyone who engages a judge who is not worthy is considered as if he had planted an Asherah beside the altar’ (Sanhedrin 7). If, guided only by superficial considerations … one engages a judge who lacks the qualities of scholarship in the Law, piety and morality required for that office, it is truly as if one had ‘planted an Asherah beside the altar,’ for then one has cast aside the inner beauty of Torah and the fear of the Lord for superficial, alien trifles.” – Avnei Ezel

Swing #2: “The prohibition of 16:21 led to the rule that no tree be planted nor house be built on the Temple mount.” – Moses Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot

Swing #3: “An asherah [is] a name which stands both for the goddess and for her cultic symbol. The Ras Shamra texts mention the goddess Asherah as the consort of the god El, and in the Bible she is the consort of Baal. The asherah itself was made of wood, cut into shape by man, and could be burned. Apparently, it could also be a living tree planted by man and uprooted by him; but, far more commonly, it was a wooden object …” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, which at what point does deference to a symbol lead to idolatry? Are there symbols today that steer us away from God? If so, what are they, and how do we allow them to become so prominent?

The Big Inning at the End: The Los Angeles Dodgers are 90-36. This is a staggering won-loss record. They are on pace to win 116 games, which would tie the all-time win mark, achieved previously by the 1908 Cubs and 2001 Mariners. Of course, neither of those teams won the World Series …

Shabbat Shalom!

Providing Sanctuary After Charlottesville: Re’eh 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: At a time when our country has once again been stained by hateful acts of white supremacists, how can best ensure that our homes – be they personal residences or places of worship – are truly open and welcoming to those who love peace and tolerance?

Our Torah portion this week speaks of what makes our holy spots sacred, but paints an incomplete picture:

The Pitch: “[L]ook only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:5-6

The Swing (only one this week, you’ll see why): “What is the [looking] implied in this verse? It is an ‘inquiry’ or ‘investigation’ into the conditions that caused the destruction of the Temple, followed by an effort to correct them so that the Temple may be rebuilt. The cause of the destruction of the Second Temple was the hatred without just cause which disrupted the unity of the Jewish people. The one remedy for this evil is the restoration of mutual love and unity in Israel … To become as one again, and then ‘you are to go’ to Zion as one person, a people welded together by the force of unity.” – The Rabbi of Ger

Late-Inning Questions: The Rabbi of Ger reminds us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of egregious hatred (sinat hinam). Do we do everything we can to denounce hatred in our midst? On an individual level? On a communal level? In light of the repugnant neo-Nazi activity in Charlottesville, how can we bolster our own communities to be a true sanctuary for people of all races, creeds, and genders?

Shabbat Shalom!

Rub-A-Dub-Dub, Thanks For The Grub: Ekev 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: If you could choose the last meal of your life, what would you eat? Would it be a meal you eat frequently now, or something you rarely or never eat?

Our Torah portion this week speaks of the foods the Israelites would enjoy in the Promised Land, and then commands that they recite blessings after eating, including a passage that we include in our Grace After Meals to this day:

The Pitch: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” – Deuteronomy 8:10

Swing #1: “By blessing God we double our enjoyment of the food.” – Yehudah HaLevi, The Kuzari

Swing #2: “Your readiness to thank God after a meal is part of having ‘eaten your fill.’ The command addresses itself not merely to those who have satisfied their hunger but also, and especially, to those who are habitually well sated.” – Itture Torah

Swing #3: “Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, ‘When you have eaten your fill, give thanks’: this signifies the benediction of ‘Who feeds’. ‘To the Lord your God’: this signifies the benediction of zimmun [invitation to pray]. ‘For the land’: this signifies the blessing for the land. ‘The good’: this signifies ‘Who builds Jerusalem.’” – BT Berakhot 48b

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree with our commentators that expressing our gratitude for the food we eat increases our enjoyment of the meal? Does it seem strange to you that Jewish tradition expects us to say prayers both before and after we eat? What does that say about the connection between eating and ritual observance?

The Big Inning at the End: At the end of this month, every Major League team will wear special uniforms. During this “Player’s Weekend”, most of the players’ jerseys will include their nickname rather than their last name. It’s a fun touch that begs the question: why can’t the players include their nicknames on their jerseys all the time?

Shabbat Shalom!

Leave It To Cleavers: Vaethanan 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: When have you been rewarded for your continuing faith in someone or something? In such cases, were you among many who maintained your faith, or only among a select few?

As Moses’ closing soliloquy continues, he insists that the surviving Israelites still stand because they refused to be tempted by mass idolatry:

The Pitch: “You saw with your own eyes what the Lord did in the matter of Baal-peor, that the Lord your God wiped out from among you every person who followed Baal-peor; while you, who held fast [cleaved] to the Lord your God, are all alive today.” – Deuteronomy 4:3-4

Swing #1: “The philosophers hold various views concerning whether man can achieve communion with God. Some hold that, at best, man can commune with Him indirectly, through an angel. Others believe that communion with God cannot be achieved in life but only after death. Still others, though conceding that exceptional individuals can achieve it even in life, insist that it is impossible for an entire people to attain this lofty moral level, and some say that communion with God can be attained only after long years of struggle and toil. None of the above views is in agreement with the Torah. … It is in order to refute all the false notions mentioned above that the Scripture states: ‘while you, who held fast to the Lord your God’ – this means that you can commune with the Lord directly, without need for an angel – ‘are … alive’ – you can commune with God in your lifetime; there is no need to wait until after death – ‘all’ – every one of you, and not just exceptional individuals, can attain to it – ‘today’ – and it can happen this very day – even today if you only you will listen to His voice.” – Kanfei Nesharim

Swing #2: “The main idea of cleaving to God, [Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk] suggests, is that there be no interposition, no barrier whatsoever, between the self and God. Only this absence of a barrier can enable the possibility of d’vekut [clinging, being one with God]. He offers a parable in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov. It is impossible to glue two pieces of silver to one another without first ‘scraping off’ or scouring the two surfaces; otherwise, there would be nothing to which the glue might adhere. Only then can fusion occur. He cites this verse from Isaiah 41:7, ‘The woodworker encourages the smith; he says of the fusion “It is good.”’ Thus, they are made one. … In the same way, one who would cleave to God must also first prepare his or her soul so that there will be no trace of rust or any other barrier that might be in the way. Only then will the person at last be freed from grabbing onto other distractions and be able to cleave continually to God.” – Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen, from My People’s Prayer Book, Volume 4: Seder K’riat HaTorah (The Torah Service)

Swing #3: “[According to the scribal tradition] the letter “kuf” of this phrase is written with three crownlets. This is an allusion to the hundred blessings that each person is obligated to recite every day.” – Ba’al HaTurim

Late-Inning Questions: The second verse in the excerpt above is recited prior to every public Torah reading. Based on the context of the verse, and the commentaries above, do you believe this is suitable? Why or why not?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We still have many copies of Mahzor Lev Shalem, our new High Holiday prayer book, waiting to be dedicated. Help us to fill our pews with this innovative and illuminating volume, which will add meaning to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for many years to come.

The Big Inning at the End: Congratulations to Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, John Schuerholz, and Bud Selig on their induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last weekend. As much as these five men deserved this honor, there is still a logjam of other deserving players and contributors (Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero, Edgar Martinez, and Alan Trammell immediately come to mind), but hopefully this will be remedied in coming years.

Shabbat Shalom!