Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: November, 2017

The Strangest Dream?: Vayetze 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: When we try to convince others to agree with us, are there any intellectual methods that should be off-limits? What might they be?

Of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible, Jacob may be the best at manipulating (for good and bad reasons) others; in our portion this week, Jacob uses a dream that may or may not have happened:

The Pitch: “‘And in the dream an angel of God said to me, “Jacob!” “Here,” I answered. And he said, “Note well that all the he-goats which are mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, and mottled; for I have noted all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land.”’” – Genesis 31:11-13

Swing #1: “Perhaps Jacob is lying to his wives about God’s assistance as, earlier, he lied to his father, using an invented story about God to overcome their reluctance to leave home. Taking this dream as an honest report, however, it shows God active at the humblest level we have yet seen: as animal husbandry counselor. Why is God doing this? His allusion to Jacob’s vow and thereby to the demands made of him seems to contain the answer.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Swing #2: “In the traditions about Jacob in the Book of Genesis, we have another component of the sanctity of Beth-el – the angel. This angel, who is designated as ‘The God of Beth-el,’ appears to Jacob in a dream in order to save him from Laban …  Thus the divine revelation of Beth-el was connected to what the Greeks called genius loci, an angel of the place.” – Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices

Swing #3: “This reference to Jacob’s vow does not appear in the original account in which God tells Jacob to return home (Genesis 31:3). It is Jacob, in fact, who fills in this detail – he must pay off what he has promised – when he explains to his wives why he must return. The narrative thus suggests, most subtly, the workings of Jacob’s subconscious mind, the guilt that he feels at a profound ambivalence he senses in himself.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire

Late-Inning Questions: To what extent do our commentators seem to believe Jacob is telling the truth? To what extent do they believe he is stretching it? Does the end (getting away from servitude in Laban’s household) justify the means? When, if ever, is it all right to stretch the truth to get out of a bad circumstance?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We’re excited for another edition of Jews, Brews, and ’Ques on Sunday, December 3rd. This event is a fun and relaxing way to support the synagogue while eating scrumptious food prepared by teams from across Charleston. I’m also proud that we’re donating a portion of our proceeds to funds that benefit victims of recent hurricanes. Get your tickets before they disappear!

The Big Inning at the End: One of the wildest Thanksgiving stories of recent memory occurred in 2003, when Theo Epstein, then general manager of the Boston Red Sox, had to endure spending the holiday weekend in Curt Schilling’s home so he could convince the star pitcher to pitch for the Red Sox. What is your craziest Thanksgiving story?

Shabbat Shalom!

A Disastrous Meating: Toldot 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: What kind of “fuel” do you need to get through the day? Is there a kind of food you eat every day (or would if you could)? Do you require caffeinated beverages to be at your best, or do you try to do without? What happens to you if you try to operate without your favorite “fuel”?

The infamous scene of Isaac blessing his sons begins with Isaac asking Esau to provide him with his favorite meal:

The Pitch: “Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.” – Genesis 27:3-4

Swing #1: “Jacob blessed all his sons before he died, not just his first-born. Why, then, did Isaac want to bless Esau only? Such was the decree from heaven. Had Isaac provided a separate blessing for Jacob, later generations would have argued that the Jewish people were worthy of these blessings only as long as they would be on the same high moral level as Jacob had been. Accordingly, the Lord ordained that Isaac should intend to to give the blessing to Esau alone. Then it would be understood that the blessing would be applicable to the Jewish people at all times, even when they would sink very low indeed, for they could never become more evil than Esau.” – Rabbi Isaac of Warka

Swing #2: “Esau, my son, I am not a youngster anymore. I do not know how long God will allow me to enjoy this life. But one thing I do know is how much you give to me: your selfless devotion and loyalty. Please, take your gear and hunt some game, and prepare it just the way I love. Bring it to me so we can eat together. Then I will give you my blessing. So often you have been my support, doing all that I have needed. It is now time for me to give to you that which you deserve as my first-born son: to reciprocate your affection and love.” – Norman J. Cohen, Voices From Genesis: Guiding Us Through the Stages of Life

Swing #3: “He asked for tasty dishes so that his son would earn the merit of fulfilling the commandment to honor his father. Having earned this merit, the blessing his father would bestow on him would take hold, be effective. Even though Isaac had no idea of the extent of his son’s wickedness, he did realize that he had not earned the blessing he was about to receive. This is why, when he blessed Jacob afterwards, he did not bother to ask him to do something first in order to qualify for his blessing. He knew that Jacob deserved it.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: While Rabbi Isaac of Warka and Sforno claim that Isaac knew, deep-down, that Jacob deserved his father’s best blessings, Cohen indicates a true connection between Isaac and Esau. Which approach seems more plausible to you? How does your view of Isaac change depending on your answer?

The Big Inning at the End: The razor-thin margin of Giancarlo Stanton’s win as National League Most Valuable Player indicates a broad acceptance of using advanced metrics to understand baseball. Traditionally, someone who would hit 59 home runs like Stanton did would have been a unanimous selection. The fact that the vote was so close shows that more people are accepting a more nuanced view of the game, which is a good thing. (Though I would’ve preferred Joey Votto, Stanton is a perfectly worthy winner.)

Shabbat Shalom!

Big Brother is Watching You: Chayei Sara 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you know whether you can trust another person? Do you have the same “litmus test” that you apply to every person you meet? Or are your criteria for trusting someone dependent on circumstance and timing?

We learn from the story of Jacob that Laban, his father-in-law, is not trustworthy. But in this week’s portion, Laban, who also is Rebekah’s sister, is on his best behavior — or so it might appear:

The Pitch: “Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out to the man at the spring—when he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms, and when he heard his sister Rebekah say, ‘Thus the man spoke to me.’ He went up to the man, who was still standing beside the camels at the spring. ‘Come in, O blessed of the LORD,’ he said, ‘why do you remain outside, when I have made ready the house and a place for the camels?’” – Genesis 24:29-31

Swing #1: “Laban said to Eliezer: ‘I have even thrown out my own idols in order to get my hands on some money from your master in return for the hand of my sister Rebecca.’ This is the way of Laban and his ilk. For a few coins of gold, they are willing to give away even their gods.” – Rabbi Joseph Josel Hurwitz

Swing #2: “[Laban’s] hospitality indeed matches that of his sister, except that the impression is unmistakably conveyed that it was not entirely disinterested, that it was, in fact, motivated by greed. Scripture is here anticipating the character of Laban as it reveals itself later in his relations with Jacob. Otherwise, the conduct of the brother in our story is perfectly straightforward and honorable. But why should he have played such a dominant role? … This conspicuous place accorded to Laban can now be explained in the light of the Nuzi archives. It is clear that the institution of fratriarchy, or authority of a brother, existed in Hurrian society. It gave one brother jurisdiction over his brothers and sisters. … He must have been the fratriarch and, as such, was simply exercising his proper functions.” – Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis

Swing #3: “My brother Laban comes out after me because I have been gone so long. The dude asks if he can stay with us, and when my brother sees all the gold, he is more than happy to oblige. I love my brother but what was he thinking inviting this completely bonkers individual, who probably stole all this loot and is being chased down by a gang of murderous thugs, into our home? This is a … thing about men: They are easily distracted by shiny objects.” – Rebecca Dana, from Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah, edited by Roger Bennett

Late-Inning Questions: How does Laban’s hospitable greeting to Abraham’s servant compare to similar behavior by Abraham and Lot in previous chapters? Even though Laban does not trick Abraham’s servant, are there aspects of his behavior that hint at future mischief? Why does deceptive evil hurt so much more than “up-front” evil?

The Big Inning at the End: It’s always sad when anyone dies young, but sometimes  – fairly or unfairly – it can hit home more when it’s someone in the public eye with whom you have something in common. Roy Halladay is just a few months younger than me, and he and I both grew up in Denver. I never met him, but I followed his great pitching career with pride. Halladay died in a plane crash Tuesday. Condolences to his family and to all who knew and loved him.

Shabbat Shalom!

Salt and Ashes: Vayera 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Have there been occasions in your life when it was not advisable to look back at the past? What would have happened if you did?

In this week’s Torah portion, the cities of Sodom and Amorah are destroyed, but while she is being rescued from her home, Lot’s wife famously does not follow an important warning:

The Pitch: “Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.” – Genesis 19:26

Swing #1: “This last remark is as terse as it is unexpected. In urging their escape when they brought them outside, he (note the switch to singular) said, ‘Flee for your life! Do not gaze behind you! Do not stand still in all the plain! Flee to the hills lest you be destroyed’ (Genesis 19:17). In context we sense this is no more than an effective way of saying ‘Get out with all haste,’ an urging made necessary by Lot’s apparent reluctance to leave and allow the destruction to begin. And we must observe that it is most immediately addressed to Lot alone. Were the others supposed to overhear it? Did he share it with his wife and daughters? He, after all, is the cause of the delay and makes necessary the men’s urging them on.” – W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal

Swing #2: “We tend to interpret verse 26 to mean that God had turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt as a punishment, but what if she herself radically chose to become … a pillar, both of memorial and of direction? Memorial of what and direction to whom? Lot’s wife was a pillar to her daughters. Perhaps the most powerful message she could send to them, given her circumstances, was in her turning around, stopping, and setting herself up as such a unique memorial. As we fill in the silences, her message to them could have been, ‘This is where I come from, the only world I know. Remember that this too is a part of your heritage and will always be a part of who you are. Use the lessons it has taught you and build from them.’” – Rabbi Cynthia A. Culpeper, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Swing #3: “Wisdom rescued a righteous man when the ungodly were perishing; he escaped the fire that descended on the Five Cities. Evidence of their wickedness still remains: a continually smoking wasteland, plants bearing fruit that does not ripen, and a pillar of salt standing as a monument to an unbelieving soul. For because they passed wisdom by, they not only were hindered from recognizing the good, but also left for mankind a reminder of their folly, so that their failures could never go unnoticed.” – Wisdom of Solomon

Late-Inning Questions: To our commentators, what does Lot’s wife’s punishment represent? A warning to listen to instructions? A warning to communicate instructions effectively? A memorial to a darker time? How should we regard Lot’s wife — an unfortunate victim, or a brave woman willing to defy what others tell her?

The Big Inning at the End: As I said on Facebook a couple of days ago: Congrats to the Astros and the city of Houston on a well-deserved World Series win. Thrilled to see another title drought disappear. Can’t wait ‘til next year …

Shabbat Shalom!