Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: September, 2017

Tie It Up: Yom Kippur 2017

“Broadly defined, teshuvah is more than just repentance from sin; it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred. The effectiveness of teshuvah is thus frequently a function of one’s sense of distance from the sacred. The greater the distance, the greater the potential movement towards renewed connectedness. As one Jewish sage put it, A rope that is cut and retied is doubly strong at the point where it was severed. … All forms of teshuvah, however diverse and complex, have a common core: the belief that human beings have it in their power to effect inward change.” — Adin Steinsaltz, Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew

As we enter this Shabbat and Yom Kippur, let us take stock of the things we wish to change about ourselves, our relationships, and our society. Knowing what we wish to change will bring us closer to our end goal, much as the cut rope that has been re-tied.

However you spend these next few hours, I hope you’ll spend them with purpose and a spirit of togetherness.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!

“Yes, And”: My 2017 Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon (Synagogue Emanu-El, Charleston, SC)

I stood against a wall, crowded by 12 other people in a room the size of a walk-in closet. Whatever empty space existed between us was taken up by the nervous energy we were emitting, as we knew that, in just a couple of minutes, we would be introduced, one-by-one, onto a stage in front of dozens of strangers. And then, over the next hour, we would be asked to perform skits completely without any scripts or prior planning.

This was the scene just prior to my first public performance as an improviser. This past spring, I began taking night classes in improvisational theater at Theatre 99. Many of you have attended shows there, and I’m sure some of you know people who have also taken classes like the ones I’ve taken. I’d always been a fan of improv troupes, and amazed at the quick wit and lightning-fast reflexes of the performers. Never did I think I would have the guts to be a performer myself.

But there I was, a couple of minutes before showtime, looking around the green room, and wondering whether it was too late to sneak out the back door and never come back. Perhaps I shouldn’t have panicked; after all, speaking in front of people is a prominent part of my job. But in most cases, when I speak publicly, I have a script in front of me, or at least, I’ve taken some time to consider what I want to say. By comparison, performing in an improv show felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

It’s hard to explain what got me through that performance. A fair amount of credit goes to the camaraderie I shared with the wonderful men and women in my class, who are some of the most open-minded, supportive and creative people I’ve ever met. We also were lucky to have an excellent and forgiving instructor. But at least some credit should go to what is probably the key concept of improv, the principle known as “Yes, And”.

The idea of “Yes, And” sounds incredibly simple but it’s surprisingly difficult to uphold. Here’s how it’s supposed to work; in a typical scene, two people are asked to perform a skit based on one piece of information that we’re given about 10 seconds before the lights go up. Let’s say that information is “hot-air balloon”. After a couple of seconds to think, one of the performers begins to do something, anything that inspired him/her based on the idea of a hot-air balloon. So that person might pretend that he’s floating, or perhaps he starts fiddling with imaginary sandbags. The other performer joins him, and they begin to interact. The scene can go in countless directions, but the key idea to remember is “Yes, And”. If the first performer decides, for whatever reason, that he is an ostrich riding in a hot-air balloon, the worst thing his scene partner can do is deny that he is an ostrich. Instead, she should take that information and build off of it, and try to respond to what an ostrich might be doing in a hot-air balloon. For another example, let’s say the second person were to pretend that the balloon is about to crash on the side of a mountain. Her partner shouldn’t say, “hey, that’s not a mountain,” because that would just lead her to say, “Yes, it is,” and then he’d say, “No, it isn’t,” and then the scene heads for disaster, much like that imaginary hot-air balloon.

You see, the key to a good improv performance is to say “Yes, And.” Acknowledge what your partner tells you and shows you, and then add something to it. In other words, accept what your partner is communicating, and build from there. It’s not that you can’t disagree with one another in a scene — plenty of scenes are built around conflict — but if you do, you must at least consider where the other person is coming from.

As I began preparing for Rosh Hashanah this year, I was struck by the immense power of the concept of “Yes, And.” How much better off would we be if we applied this idea to everyday moments in our lives? How many relationships have deteriorated, how many great ideas have faded into obscurity, because we feel we have this impulse to say no, rather than saying “Yes, And”?

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the two climactic chapters of the story of Abraham. We read of the man who is considered to be the very first Jew, the first person who established a true relationship with God. As with any pioneer, it’s tempting to remember Abraham only for his merits, rather than his flaws, because we like to think that someone who creates something good is also good him- or herself.

But we know, deep-down, that this isn’t always the case, and part of the beauty of Genesis 21 and 22 is that the text makes no effort to hide Abraham’s flaws. Instead, they are front and center. Abraham appears, at various times, lacking in generosity, unable to communicate, and bewildered at the myriad of emotions experienced by the people around him. And yet, God’s commitment to Abraham and the covenant between them is only strengthened after the events in these chapters. Why?

I wonder if it’s because of Abraham’s ability to say “Yes, And.” When you think about it, Abraham’s entire life, from the time God first called on him to move to the Promised Land, is one improvisation after another. He makes his home in a strange place, runs away due to famine, changes the boundaries of his home because of his incompatibility with his nephew’s household, gets caught up in a war between nine kingdoms, pleas to save his nephew’s life, has sons with two different women, and negotiates in order to escape the wrath of foreign kings. These adventures culminate in our readings today and tomorrow, when he faces up to the reality of losing both of his sons and one of their mothers. All the while, God continually challenges him, testing his faith, changing his name, asking him to prove his loyalty by marking it on his body, and promising him prosperity and a great legacy as a reward. When you consider that all of this starts only after Abraham turns 75, you wouldn’t blame him if he were to have a moment to look up into the sky, and say to God, “thank you for looking after me, but this was not in the brochure.”

But even if he had done that, even if he had felt that way, Abraham continues on his adventures with God because he can say “Yes, And.” He acknowledges the new circumstances in his life, as unlikely and as bizarre as they are at times, and continues to build a life that is rich materially and in achievement, and establishes a legacy which makes him the father of the three great faiths of the Western World. The legendary commentator Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, says in his commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers that Abraham succeeds because he possesses, most importantly, a good eye, a sufficiently small appetite, and a humble spirit. These traits probably help Abraham to say “Yes, And” even in the most unexpected of moments. With his keen eye, he can look at someone else and try to understand their perspective, and with his modest goals and humility, he can be generous enough to work with someone else to ensure that both of them succeed. The great takeaway from Rambam’s comments on Abraham is that you don’t necessarily have to be as legendary as Abraham in order to say “Yes, And.” All it takes is a willingness to relate to others and to create something new given life’s new realities.

I don’t mean to claim that Abraham was the world’s first improviser. Rather, I wish to claim that, when it comes down to it, we’re all improvisers. We were not given a script when we were born, and we certainly don’t have one now. True, we are enriched by the lessons of history and the wisdom of our traditions, but there’s no way to know what our next steps will be, no matter how much we’ve thought about it, and no matter how much we’ve planned for it. The times in which we live are more unpredictable than ever, and anyone who could have predicted our current climate and condition at this time last year is kidding themselves. We improvise because we have to; it’s part of what makes us human, it’s part of how we survive. We can either fear what it’s like to create as we go along, in the same way that I was scared out of my wits that night in the green room last May. Or we can follow the advice of the great improvisers of the past, and instead of automatically saying “no” to new realities, we can say “Yes, And.”

This approach will enrich us, and it will enrich our Jewish experience. This is one of the reasons why we will start a new initiative at Synagogue Emanu-El next month. We are partnering with a national program known as “Chai Mitzvah.” There are Chai Mitzvah groups all over North America, and we are starting one here. A Chai Mitzvah group meets once a month between October and June. Over the course of those nine months, the group engages in the three activities that, according to the Ethics of the Fathers, the world stands on: Torah (Learning), Avodah (Ritual service) and G’milut Hasidim (Acts of Lovingkindness). The group will study a different Jewish topic at each meeting. Sometime that year, the group will choose to do a public-service project together. And, each member of the group will choose one Jewish ritual that they will learn to do for the first time.

It’s all too easy to feel that we cannot grow our Jewish knowledge and involvement because the task seems too daunting, and we’re always short on time. Chai Mitzvah addresses these concerns by creating modest, measurable goals that a person and group can fulfill in less than one year. What’s more, think about the last time that many a Jew takes a concentrated part of each week to connect with tradition; in some cases, it is the time in which that Jew studies for his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah. And it makes sense that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has this place in Jewish life, because it provides a program of study, ritual, and public service, with a culminating ceremony at the conclusion. So my hope is that, at this time next year, our first Chai Mitzvah class will be recognized on this bimah on Rosh Hashanah for completing the program. I hope you’ll be part of that class. On the third page of our Rosh Hashanah handouts, you will find a section that lists the dates and times of the group meetings, and there are more flyers in the lobby as well. And please come to me with questions and, hopefully, to sign up.

As I say that, I realize that it might be difficult to imagine being a part of something like this, of yet another commitment in our already over-scheduled lives. But that’s why “Yes, And” can be such a wonderful way to approach life. It means instead of rejecting an idea or a person out of hand, instead of automatically coming up with reasons why we can’t participate in other peoples’ lives or why we can’t try something new, we might try instinctively saying yes, and then figuring out the details as we go along. It doesn’t mean it will be smooth. It doesn’t mean it always will be successful. Abraham doesn’t succeed in all of his endeavors, as our Torah reading today shows. He sends away his son Yishmael and his mother Hagar from his household with hardly anything in their possession, putting their lives at risk. He, like all the great characters of the Hebrew Bible, are flawed. But it doesn’t stop him from continuing on his journey, and living a life that is a blessing to his descendants.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with trying to plan, to avoid needing to improvise at every moment. I’m well aware of the irony of speaking today about improvisation while reading every word of this speech from a piece of paper. We don’t need to make up everything as we go along. But neither do we need to fear when we have to. Immediately after my first improv show at Theatre 99, my class and I headed back to the green room to celebrate getting through it. And we realized that we not only survived the performance, but we also liked and cared about the people we got to perform with. In the weeks that followed, many of us have gotten together, gone out to eat, gone to parties at each others’ homes, and become good friends. I think it’s because the experience of improvising together, of working together on the fly, on stage, spontaneously, created a bond that’s not easy to reproduce. For when we improvise, we create and entertain possibilities that we might have otherwise dismissed out of hand, and therefore welcome people into our lives we may never have welcomed otherwise.

So for this new year, for 5778, I wish for a year of improvisation. I wish for a year in which we don’t necessarily say no to a new idea, no matter how absurd. I wish for a year in which we don’t necessarily say no to welcoming a new person into our lives, no matter how unlikely that person’s presence might seem to us. I wish for a year in which we don’t necessarily say no to trying a new activity, no matter how daunting the activity might seem. I wish for a year in which we, as a congregation, will continue to try new things to expand our Jewish connection, whether you sign up for Chai Mitzvah or choose to be a part of the many wonderful services, classes, and activities our synagogue has to offer. I wish for a year in which we don’t automatically say no, but instead, we say, “Yes, And.”

Origin Story: Ha’azinu 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: When we wish to make a fresh start in our lives, how easy is it to behave as if recent events never happened? How difficult is it to go “back to the beginning” and to ignore the ways we, and others around us, may have changed?

It’s instructive that the Torah portion of Ha’azinu always is read in close proximity to the High Holidays, because, for one thing, it reminds us that it isn’t always easy to remember where we came from:

The Pitch: “You neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the God who brought you forth.” – Deuteronomy 32:18

Swing #1: “What you have done may be likened to the conduct of a certain man who, continually in debt, was advised by a friend to feign insanity whenever he would meet one of his creditors. Unfortunately, the result was that the man eventually used these tactics also when he owed money to that same friend and the latter came to collect his debt. And his friend said to him in anger: ‘It was I who first gave you the advice to feign insanity when you meet a creditor of yours. Is it fair that you should now put my own counsel to use against me?’” – Jacob ben Wolf Kranz

Swing #2: “Non-human images for God … are rich and to be appropriated rather than ignored in the common tendency to focus heavily upon personal images for God. They are not meant to convey an impersonal notion. … But they point us to other features and alleviate some of the difficulties that arise when all one’s conversation and theological discourse about God is dependent upon personal images.” – Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord: Essays in Old Testament Theology

Swing #3: “[‘Begot you’ is] a reminder that God is not always perceived in exclusively male imagery in the Bible.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: How was it possible for the Israelites to “forget” God after the drama of the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and 40 years of wandering in the desert? Is it possible that the Israelites knew of God, but had no idea how to understand God? As we approach Rosh Hashanah, how do we endeavor to “know God” and “understand God”? Is there a difference? What might it be?

The Big Inning at the End: The new Jewish year almost always coincides with a new year for the teams entering the Major League Baseball playoffs. Whether a team qualified for the playoffs by a wide or a narrow margin, the season begins anew when October starts. How easy is it for playoff teams to “start over” after playing almost every day for six months? The ones who refresh best will go the farthest …

L’Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, and soon thereafter, Shabbat Shalom!

The Joy of Survival: Nitzavim-Vayelech 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we best show appreciation after surviving scary moments? How do we do so in a way that is sensitive to those who are not as lucky?

While Hurricane Irma did some damage in Charleston, for many of us, matters could have been a lot worse. Our Torah portions reflect the kind of gratitude that we can feel – and that God feels – when we endure life’s challenges:

The Pitch: “And the Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching – once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” – Deuteronomy 30:9-10

Swing #1: “The Lord does good and takes great pleasure in doing good. Particularly does He take delight in being able to deal kindly with the people of Israel. Hence, if we repent of our sins and mend our ways, thereby enabling the Lord to do good to us, we afford Him pleasure by the mere fact that we have made ourselves worthy of receiving His favors. This pleasure we give to the Lord carries its own reward, quite apart from the reward due us for repentance.” – Yakar MiPoz

Swing #2: “The situation of Israel [described here] is very different when compared with that in the earlier parts of Deuteronomy; behind the speaker there lies the period of disobedience and of judgment. The curses in Deuteronomy, which is here understood predominantly as law, have been fulfilled. From this standpoint the speaker looks to the future and announces a redemptive activity by which God himself creates for his people the prerequisites for complete obedience.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy

Swing #3: “How can one describe God as actually enjoying our misery? Do we not have repeated statements describing God’s pain and discomfiture whenever the Jewish people undergo afflictions (Megillah 10)? Rabbi Eliezer answers that it is not God Himself who delights in our misfortunes, but rather He causes others to. This answer is supported by the grammatical meaning of the word ‘Yassis,’ used by the Torah. If the Torah were to describe God’s personal delight, it would have written ‘Yassos’ instead. … After describing the penitence of the Jewish people, the Torah says of God: ‘the Lord will again delight in your well-being’ and the expression used is ‘La-ssus’.” – Shney Luchot HaBrit

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators describe the way God delights in people following the right path? How does this compare to the way we show our delight in our good fortune? How do we simultaneously show our sensitivity to others who have suffered through no fault of their own?

The Big Inning at the End: The Cleveland Indians have won 22 games in a row. Does this mean they are now caught in a Catch-22? (Thank you, I’ll be here all week.)

Shabbat Shalom!

Escaping Danger: Ki Tavo 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: If you are reading this, it’s likely that you’re traveling or planning to travel away from your home in order to safely escape Hurricane Irma. Although leaving one’s home is an arduous endeavor today, the Jewish experience is well-acquainted with fleeing from dangerous circumstances:

The Pitch: “You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.’ …” – Deuteronomy 26:5

Swing #1: “The Hebrew Bible makes clear that Abraham’s monotheism was not part of his religious heritage. Abraham was of general Semitic stock described in the Pentateuch as ‘Aramean.’” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “When the Israelite would bring his first fruits to the Temple, for example, he would make a declaration, tracing his personal history back to the time of Jacob. … This is read as a reference to Laban, who represents the experience of exile for Jacob. Oved, therefore, can mean to destroy by destructuring one’s relation to one’s proper place.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginnings of Desire

Swing #3: “How do women read this parashah? The most obvious challenge is the seemingly endless battle of female marginality. The Hebrew text is defiantly male. Women are missing. The ‘fugitive father’ is recalled, not the mother. ‘He’ (the farmer) brings the basket to the male priest, the kohen. The kohen, a man, takes it from him.” – Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Late-Inning Questions: In what ways, in the opinion of our commentators, does our text recall the plight of our wandering ancestors? Does our text give us a complete picture of such wandering, or only a selective one? What characteristics of our nomadic past can inform us as so many of us travel to safety, even if only temporarily?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: All events, services, and classes at Synagogue Emanu-El have been cancelled from Friday, September 8th-Tuesday, September 12th. We wish encourage everyone to take proper precautions for the sake of everyone’s safety.

Shabbat Shalom!

For The Mother Birds: Ki Tetze 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: In light of the horrific damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, some of the national conversation has centered on the way we show kindness. Are recent acts of rescue and heroism in Texas and Louisiana the best illustration of the American character? Or are they exceptional, a sign that we sometimes act our best only in dire circumstances?

This week’s Torah portion speaks at great length about how we show kindness, even in very specific situations:

The Pitch: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” – Deuteronomy 22:6-7

Swing #1: “This is the moral lesson taught us by the observance of the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the young from their nest. You may have captive in your hands the large mother bird and could use her for food or other personal gain. But the law of the Torah commands you to consider the welfare of others and send her away so that she should be able to produce more young and the species should not become extinct. Thus, the observance of this commandment teaches man to fight his egotism for the sake of the common good, and it is for this reason that the reward for its fulfillment is so great.” – Avnei Ezel

Swing #2: “Why specifically is the commandment of letting the mother bird go free called an ‘easy’ commandment [by Rashi]? Because of the fulfillment of this commandment requires no preparation. [In order to fulfill it first you must accidentally find a mother bird sitting on a nest.] And this is a law that excludes the possibility of preparation.” – Abraham Mordechai of Ger

Swing #3: “This commandment is a model not only of kindness toward animals but also of how we should treat each other. For if we learn to extend mercy toward God’s creatures, we will thereby prepare ourselves for even greater acts of loving kindness. And the reward for sending away the mother bird – ‘length of days’ – is precisely the same reward promised for honoring one’s parents.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree that shooing away the mother bird is an “easy” commandment? Or is it much deeper than that – is it a commandment that reveals our ethical makeup, testing how we act in an unplanned moment? What can this kind of test tell us about how we act in response to a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We have so much coming up at Emanu-El: Shababa, Emanu-El University, and the High Holy Days, to name just a few things. All are worth our exploration and involvement. But for now, please team up with us, Charleston Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Services, the Community Resource Center, the Summerville/North Area Jewish Community and the The National Action Network to collect relief items for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. We are primarily looking for NEW toiletry items, personal hygiene items, socks, underwear, blankets, and baby food and diapers. National Action Network will be sending at least three truckloads of these items to Texas within 2 weeks. Drop-offs will be accepted at Emanu-El, and numerous other places in the Jewish community, through Monday, September 11th.

The Big Inning at the End: I’m a big believer in baseball as a vehicle for community healing and togetherness. So I’m rooting for the Houston Astros to win the American League pennant. And if the Cubs aren’t their World Series opponent, I hope the Astros win it all.

Shabbat Shalom!