Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: October, 2017

Secret Servant: Lekh Lekha 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How easy will it be for you to leave your legacy in the hands of others? What do you need to teach them about you and your values?

In this week’s Torah portion, God promises Abraham numerous blessings for him and his descendents – but Abraham fears there will be no one to receive those blessings:

The Pitch: “But Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!’” – Genesis 15:2

Swing #1: “According to Rashi’s interpretation, this was Abraham’s way of pointing out a serious shortcoming in Eliezer. Every great teacher in Israel has an approach of his own. Thus Abraham’s way was that of loving-kindness; Isaac’s device was ‘the fear of the Lord’ and Jacob taught ‘truth’ as the supreme principle. But Eliezer could only pass on to others the instruction he himself had received from his master and teacher, Abraham. Therefore Abraham said to the Lord: ‘Eliezer has devised no original teachings. He can do no more than pass on what he has learned from me. That I can do myself. What good, then, would Eliezer be to me? If he has no teachings of his own to give, how could he take my place?’” – MaHaRaM of Piltz

Swing #2: “For all his commitment to duty, Eliezer is an ambivalent figure, hard to pin down. First of all, we should not see him as any kind of lowly step’n’fetchit slave of modern imagining. In the ancient Near East, a servant need not be servile. He could own property, even a large estate including other slaves. To be a servant was no mark of shame.” – David Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism

Swing #3: “At first [Abraham] complained, ‘What [good] is my reward, since I have no children, and I am going about as a vagrant and a wanderer in a foreign land, as alone as a ‘cactus in the desert’ (Jeremiah 17:6). No one comes and goes in my house except for Eliezer, [who is] a foreigner whom I procured from Damascus, [and is] not from my father’s family nor [even] from my [home] land.” – Ramban

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, what are the pros and cons of Eliezer being the beneficiary of Abraham’s blessings? Does Abraham seem to think of Eliezer as part of his family? To what extent can we include non-blood-relatives into our families?

The Big Inning at the End: On Wednesday night, during Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, Jewish ballplayers combined to hit a single, double, and home run. One commentator on Twitter proclaimed that we were a triple away from a “Minyan Cycle.”

Shabbat Shalom!

A Shem By Any Other Name …: Noah 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How difficult is it for a parent to treat multiple children equally? Is it realistic to make different rules for different kids? Or are there some standards that we should expect of all our children?

After Noah’s son Ham embarrasses his father (by seeing his father in an indecent state, then telling his brothers instead of covering his father up), Noah declares that the difference between his sons should be pronounced and eternal:

The Pitch: “[Noah] said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’ And he said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, The God of Shem; let Canaan be a slave to them. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be a slave to them.’” – Genesis 9:25-27

Swing #1: “Noah curses Ham, proclaiming that Ham’s descendants (the Canaanites) will be slaves to his brothers’ descendants. This is just the first of many Bible stories about children disappointing their parents and parents embarrassing their children.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “[It is] a rabbinic commonplace to project back to the time of the patriarchs the practice of the Torah’s commandments in general and the commandment to study Torah in particular. … [one such verse] that specifically used the term ‘tent’ in such a way as to imply ‘study-house’ [is] Genesis 9:27.” – James L. Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts

Swing #3: “[This story] explains the negative attitude of ancient Israel toward the Canaanites: while it was Ham who violated his father, the narrative condemns his son Canaan for Ham’s act.” – Joan E. Cook, Genesis

Late-Inning Questions: Is Noah’s reaction against Ham over the top? Or can we be sympathetic to Noah for feeling violated? As our society rightfully becomes more aware of those who suffer emotional and physical abuse, how can we advocate for these victims with sensitivity rather than salaciousness?

The Big Inning at the End: I guess I can’t expect my team to win it all every year. Congratulations to the Los Angeles Dodgers for winning the National League pennant. But the Cubs will be ready to take back the title in 2018.

Shabbat Shalom!

Sent to the Showers: Bereshit 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you think there is such a place as Paradise? When you picture it, what does it look like? Does it resemble a garden as described in the second chapter of Genesis? If not, how is your picture different?

As we reset our study of the Torah, we return to the story of Creation and humanity’s first generations, which initially takes place in the Garden of Eden – but not for long:

The Pitch: “So the LORD God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” – Genesis 3:23-24

Swing #1: “The Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant ‘spread out their wings on high, screening the Ark cover with their wings.’ To this, the Sages comment: ‘The Cherubim had the form of a child’s face.’ If a child is trained properly he may grow up to be like the Cherubim who guarded the Holy Ark. But if he does not receive the proper training, he will become like the Cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden, who were angels  of destruction.” – Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Epstein

Swing #2: “The fact is that our primordial ancestors had to be separated from the Divine presence, just as the male and female were separated in the Creation story, before they could be bonded together into an even more meaningful, lasting unity. The primal human being enjoyed unity at the outset of the Garden experience – a harmony between many sides, male/female, Divine/human and good/evil. Yet, true wholeness requires the struggle between the disparate elements. True covenant between God and the human being cannot be sealed in the paradisial setting of the Garden of our infancy, but must come as a result of our experience in the world outside of Eden. To appreciate the very essence of oneness requires the experiencing of fragmentation, isolation, and loneliness.” – Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle & Change: Family Conflict in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives

Swing #3: “In his anxiety at the travails of consciousness, [man] may snatch compulsively at the Tree of Life. God wishes, instead, that he work through his new condition, coming to repentance by way of arousal. God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden, not as a punishment, but to bar them from specious remedies. Their way must be forward and outward; each must struggle with a new map of desire, a new self-knowledge and isolation, if they are ever to bridge the chasms that now divide them.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep

Late-Inning Questions: Do you think God intends to banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden from the very beginning? Or do you think they surprise (and disappoint) God by succumbing to the snake’s trickery? Should we aspire to returning to a life in Paradise? Or does the story of Adam and Eve teach us why people aren’t meant to live there in the first place?

The Big Inning at the End: I’m not going to say anything for fear of jinxing my Cubs …

Hag Sameach, and soon enough, Shabbat Shalom!

The Value of Life: V’Zote HaBracha 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: With Sukkot on the way, the next weekly Torah portion we’ll read (on Simhat Torah morning) is the final one, which describes Moses’ death. The Torah text indicates that Moses, despite being 120 years old, dies even though he could have lived much longer. Given the recent massacre in Las Vegas, what priority must society place on ensuring that other people don’t die “before their time”?
The Pitch: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 34:5

Swing #1: “If a teacher studies the Law with disciples and leads many to righteousness, the study and the worship conducted by the disciples are credited to the teacher as if he had performed these acts himself, even after he himself has died. The Mishna says of Moses that he ‘was righteous and led the people to righteousness; hence the merit of the people is attributed to him’ (Ethics of the Fathers 5:21). Therefore whatever study and worship the Jewish people will perform until the end of time will be credited to Moses. Thus Moses will remain ‘the servant of the Lord’ even after he ‘died there’.” – Mevasser Tzedek

Swing #2: “Moses had to die because he had slain the Egyptian taskmaster. God: ‘Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?’ Moses: ‘But you killed all the first-born in Egypt!’ God: ‘Do you resemble Me? I cause people to die and I also revive them.’” – Bet HaMidrash

Swing #3: “Rabbi Eleazar also said that Miriam also died by the Divine kiss [like Moses]: We interpret the expression ‘there’ [used at Miriam’s death] in the same sense as that of the expression ‘there’ used of Moses. Why then is it not said about her [that she died] by the mouth of the Lord? Because it would be unbecoming to say so.” – BT Moed Katan 28a

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentaries reveal about God’s personality? How does God balance treating living creatures with mercy and with justice? As we ponder how to make our society safer today, how do we balance a desire to treat others with mercy and justice?

Sukkot is known as “the time of our joy”, and it arrives each year whether we’re ready to be joyous or not. Our challenge is to find moments of joy even as our hearts continue to go out to victims in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Texas, to name only a few places. It is worthwhile to celebrate moments of joy even when we are simultaneously reaching out to others in pain. May Sukkot enable us to appreciate the good fortune in our lives, so that we may better serve those who hurt.

Speaking of good fortune …

The Big Inning at the End: GO CUBS! SWAT AWAY THOSE NATS!

Hag Sameach, and soon, Shabbat Shalom!

“Jonah in the Middle”: My Yom Kippur 2017 sermon (Synagogue Emanu-El, Charleston, SC)

Of my achievements from the past year, the one that surprised me the most also is one familiar to a lot of you: I finally binge-watched a television series from beginning to end on Netflix. That’s right, all five seasons of House of Cards. I did it! My parents, by the way, are very proud that I’ve finally done something with my life.

All kidding aside, binge-watching is a fairly common practice nowadays. At first glance, it might seem strange that we think of spending long hours in front of the television as new behavior; for as long as I can remember, the phrase “too much TV” was an angry refrain parents would level at their children. But now, this idea is almost embraced by many people.

And there are good reasons for this. One is that, in the view of most critics, there are more quality television shows than ever, accessible on more platforms than ever. According to Elizabeth Cohen, a Communications professor at West Virginia University, “We are in the midst of a golden age of television, with a variety of shows that provide a steady diet of novel premises, long-running, elaborate plots and morally complicated characters. Far from dulling the intellect, these shows create more suspense, interest and opportunities for critical engagement.” In an article published on The Conversation US Inc., Cohen cites journalist and media theorist Steven Johnson, who said that watching these shows may even make you smarter, that because television narratives have become increasingly complex, they require viewers to follow more storyline threads and juggle more characters and their relationships. All of this makes the audience more cognitively sophisticated.

Another reason is that streaming services like Netflix and Hulu typically offer every episode in a show’s history; it used to be that, if your friends told you about a great new show they were watching, you’d hope to catch up by watching re-runs during the summer, ideally with a friend next to you to help put that episode in the context of others. But now, all the episodes are available, on demand, and for many people, the idea of rattling off four episodes in one sitting feels almost normal, since it’s all the same show, just in one lengthy sequence.

And of course, woe to the person who doesn’t give spoiler alerts, who offers details of a popular show when someone hasn’t watched it, or at least hasn’t watched as much as you have. If you just finished Season 7 of Game of Thrones, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the perils of discussing recent episodes within earshot of someone who is “only” on Season 4. If you’re not careful, you’ll be greeted with something like, “Don’t say anything, I haven’t gotten that far yet!”

I’m not trying to argue whether binge-watching is good or bad for our emotional or physical health. Rather, I wish to consider how we approach stories in this modern age, both imaginary and real. Now that we’re so reluctant to start following a story other than at its beginning, it’s all too easy to ignore the story altogether. On one level, that’s a reasonable reaction; you wouldn’t start reading a novel in the middle of the book, so why would you do so with a TV series? But I wonder about how we approach other stories.

To explain this concern, it’s worthwhile to talk about the prophet Jonah, whose story we read about in synagogue this afternoon. Jonah is best known as the reluctant prophet who tries to run away from God, and instead is swallowed by a big fish. But he is perhaps bothered the most by the idea that he always seem to be caught in the middle — in the middle of someone else’s story.

You can see that in the book’s opening chapter, when he boards a ship in the opposite direction of the place God wants him to go. Jonah immediately heads to lowest level of the boat so he can fall asleep. But when the other sailors awaken him in the midst of a horrible storm, Jonah realizes he is the one standing between God and the sailors’ lives. He volunteers to be cast into the sea, where he finds himself, once again, in the middle — the middle of a fish’s belly, to be exact. After he repents and the fish releases him, Jonah finally carries out the task God asks of him, and places himself in the middle of the city of Nineveh, a community rife with wrongdoing. When Jonah warns the Ninevites of their impending doom, the townspeople repent, and God forgives them. To Jonah, this is the last straw, and he repeats the same behavior he shows in the initial chapter: he removes himself from the situation, and sits alone on the outskirts of town, bemoaning his fate.

That fate, in Jonah’s mind, is that of a pawn. He sees himself as someone God uses to accomplish something God could have done without any help. “O Lord!,” he exclaims. “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” In other words, Jonah is saying, “God, why did you need to bother me? You didn’t need a prophet in order to forgive the city of Nineveh. Why did You have to drag me into this?”

Part of what makes this passage so compelling is that Jonah actually makes a fair point. God could have chosen anyone else to deliver the message to the Ninevites, or any other method of communication, for that matter. Jonah isn’t upset that the Ninevites are forgiven; he’s mad that he has anything to with it. Jonah feels powerless, unable to write his own story, stuck as a supporting actor in a drama about God, nature, and entire nations. If this were a Netflix show, Jonah would be the third or fourth person listed in the opening credits, and probably would be killed off at the end of Season One — or, at least, he’d want to be. He senses that there’s no point in living a life that doesn’t feel like his own, and now that his task is complete, he feels that it’s all been a waste.

But Jonah’s attitude at the end of the book is the one that frustrates God most. God produces a plant to provide him with cool shade, and at first, Jonah rejoices. Yet, ever the teacher, God kills the plant within a day, disappointing Jonah once more. God responds that if Jonah cares so much for a plant, God has a responsibility to care for all creatures. But there’s also another message I believe God tries to teach as well: the idea that rebirth and new beginnings always are possible, even when we’re in the midst of a life already in progress. God realizes that Jonah thinks that just because he isn’t especially active in crafting his story, his life is a failure. Jonah refuses to realize that there is always another chance to start again.

I can’t help but think that Jonah looks at his own life the way we look at a television series we can’t see from the beginning — if we aren’t able to control our experience and to understand the narrative from the very first episode, the journey isn’t worth it. But what would happen if we picked up a story from the middle instead of the beginning?

What if we began watching, let’s say, Breaking Bad in the middle of its third season? Sure, we’d be a little lost, and might benefit from some background information. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t appreciate the artistry of what we were watching at that moment. We would still get a lot out of that episode. And thanks to DVDs and streaming services, we would have the chance to watch from the beginning at another time.

Likewise, what would happen if Jonah, in the days following the liberation of Nineveh, were to look at that moment as the first step in a new path in his life? Sure, he’s disappointed that his prior experiences were not what he had hoped. Certainly, he wishes he could go back to Episode 1 of his life and rewrite his every episode and chapter exactly to his liking. But maybe he’d also come to understand that life is not a Netflix subscription, and the only episodes that matter are the ones in front of him. He can choose to only lament the episodes he missed, or misunderstood, or focus instead on making his upcoming seasons rich and rewarding.

From where we stand, it’s easy to recommend the latter path for Jonah, to make the most of episodes ahead of us. It’s harder to follow that advice ourselves. It’s tougher to realize that, at every moment, we are in the middle of our own life’s narrative.

This is important to remember in the beginning of a new year, which, when you think about it, is a rather arbitrary point in time. After all, the Talmud teaches us that there are four different New Years every year — four different ways we start counting time each calendar year. We speak on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur about new beginnings, but depending on who you ask, it’s up to us to decide when we can make a new beginning. Perhaps, instead of focusing on beginnings, it’s simply worthwhile to make the middles of our stories better. It might not sound as appealing as a new beginning, but we cannot forget that the middle of the story is the very heart of the story.