Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: December, 2017

Double Trouble: Vayehi 2017 (2)

Pre-Game Chatter: Does violence beget more violence, even if violence is used for a righteous cause? Or is there nothing righteous about violence in the first place?

On his deathbed, Jacob reflects how two of his sons, Simeon and Levi, rampage the residents of Shechem as revenge for the sexual assault suffered by their sister Dinah:

The Pitch: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7

Swing #1: “The Testament of Simeon adduces another catastrophe that further diminished the Simeonite population: there was some sort of armed conflict between the tribes of Levi and Simeon, and it was that conflict, fiercely fought on both sides, that resulted in Levi’s victory and Simeon’s reduction to ‘few in number.’ … Apparently, this author chose to understand Jacob’s opening words, ‘Simeon and Levi are brothers, tools of violence are their weapons’ as meaning, ‘They are brothers, yet tools of violence are their weapons.’ That is, even though they are brothers, they will eventually come to blows: the tribe of Simeon will attack Levi at swordpoint, but Levi will eventually triumph, and Simeon will be diminished and dispersed. For why else (according to this view) did Jacob decide to join Simeon and Levi together in the same blessing – the only two brothers to be so joined?” – James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

Swing #2: “Anger in extremes is detrimental, but in moderation, can be useful. Jacob had the same idea in mind. It was advisable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Simeon and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel. All of them would share some of it. A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but if concentrated in one place, would be dangerous.” – Akedat Yitzhak

Swing #3: “The groups which belonged to Simeon and Levi had a serious quarrel with the indigenous population near Shechem; the quarrel may have occurred when they were passing through the area with their flocks, or perhaps when they had settled in the region before Ephraim and Manasseh arrived and drove the remaining members of these tribes further south. We can only make up hypotheses, but we should not reject this very ancient tradition which takes us back before the time of Moses; there was a non-priestly tribe of Levi, and its ancestor’s name is found, in its unabbreviated form, both in cuneiform and in Egyptian inscriptions.” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators think Simeon and Levi only used the crime against Dinah as an excuse to behave badly? Why do you think our culture tends to glorify characters (such as those in many “action movies”) that use violence to take revenge or even in self-defense?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m excited to offer a class on Torah trope beginning Tuesday, January 9th, at 7pm. Please let me know if you’re interested in learning the ins and outs of the symbols of Torah reading, which will enable you to learn any portion.

The Big Inning at the End: Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros was named Sports Illustrated co-Sportsman of the Year, and now, this week, the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. I hope that in 2018 we will recognize more ballplayers who excel both on and off the field.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy New Year!

Did We Forget Anything?: Vayigash 2017 (2)

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever left something important behind while traveling? What kinds of problems ensued? Were you able to remedy the problem somehow?

In our Torah portion this week, Jacob moves from Beer-sheba to Egypt, knowing this will probably be the final move of his lifetime:

The Pitch: “So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him; and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt: he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters—all his offspring.” – Genesis 46:5-7

Swing #1: “One can see that [the verses that follow] is a subsequent appendage from the minor inconsistency that verse 7 mentions daughters and granddaughters while the list itself mentions only one daughter and one granddaughter.” – Gerhard von Rad, Genesis

Swing #2: “The patriarch is reassured that his departure from Canaan is not contrary to the divine plan but, in fact, in keeping with it … the transportation, finally, is furnished by Pharaoh.” – E.A. Speiser, Genesis

Swing #3: “What he had amassed in Paddan-aram, [Jacob] gave it all to Esau for his share in the Cave of Machpelah. [Jacob] said, ‘Possessions of outside the Land are not worthwhile for me.’” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, which items (and/or people) are most valuable to Jacob? How is this reflected in what he brings? In your journeys, how far are you willing to go to keep what you value the most close to you?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m excited to offer a class on Torah trope beginning Tuesday, January 9th, at 7pm. Please let me know if you’re interested in learning the ins and outs of the symbols of Torah reading, which will enable you to learn any portion.

The Big Inning at the End: With Evan Longoria traded to the Giants, the two Florida Major League teams are bereft of star power. Are changes like these cyclical, or is there real concern about the future of baseball in that region?

Shabbat Shalom!

Fear Without Loathing: Miketz 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Does it ever bother you when athletes or entertainers thank God when they win a competition? Does it feel like they’re preaching at a moment that should otherwise be secular? Or do they teach us that God can be brought into any moment of our lives?

In our portion this Shabbat, Joseph, now royal vizier of Egypt, toys with his older brothers when they ask for food (not realizing they were speaking to Joseph), mentioning God either casually or intentionally:

The Pitch: “On the third day Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of you brothers be held in your place of detention, while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.’ And they did accordingly.” – Genesis 42:18-20

Swing #1: “Why should Joseph have boasted that he feared God? In order to instill the fear of the Lord into his brothers so that they might be led to repent. When he told them that he feared God, they were gripped by fear and soon cried out: ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother.’” – MaHaRaM of Amshinov

Swing #2: “By declaring his fear of God – Joseph is almost surely not referring to the God of his ancestors; he is, as we learn in a moment, speaking to them in Egyptian and using a translator – Joseph indicates that he is moved by the demand not to abuse strangers, at least more than is absolutely necessary. He claims to be moved by a concern for the starving family members back home: perhaps only for Benjamin, perhaps also for Jacob, perhaps for the innocent women and children. … In addition, if Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have changed since dry-gulching him, then a proper test demands that he replicate the circumstances. Testing whether one brother would sacrifice everyone isn’t really the same as testing whether nine brothers would – as they did before – sacrifice one.” – Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

Swing #3: “I am a God-fearing man, therefore I will not detain all of you seeing that your families are starving and I would be to blame for this. I will only detain one of you in order to put your claim to the test.” – Radak

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that Joseph’s mention of God is genuine? Does it seem like an extraneous detail in the story? Or, perhaps, is Joseph trying to hint to his brothers who he really is?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Our annual Night of Giving provided almost 1,600 pounds of food for the Kosher Food Pantry. Thank you to everyone who donated and worked to make the program a success. What a perfect way to spread the light of Hanukkah to those in need!

The Big Inning at the End: The Miami Marlins are once again the laughingstock of baseball, once again trading many of their standout players for  underwhelming talent. This is at least the fourth “fire sale” in the team’s 25-year history. Is this any way to keep their fans engaged?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

Doubled Up: Vayeshev 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: Is it easy for you to adjust when your best-laid plans change at the last moment? Do you like to have a back-up plan in case of the unforeseen, or do you prefer to improvise when the moment calls for it?

The story of Tamar and Judah is filled with plans and assumptions that alter in unexpected ways, even when their twin sons are born:

The Pitch: “When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ So he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.” – Genesis 38:27-30

Swing #1: “Like Jacob – himself a younger twin who inherits the birthright – Judah’s and Tamar’s twin son Perez, who emerges second from Tamar’s womb, becomes heir to the family line – as the ancestor of Boaz, who is the great-grandfather of David. And as in Jacob’s story, here too it is the women who set the stage for the family drama: the midwife identifies the older twin by tying a crimson thread on his hand as he emerges first from the womb; Tamar herself names the other twin Perez …” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #2: “The whole inset of Genesis 38 then concludes with four verses devoted to Tamar’s giving birth to twin boys, her aspiration to become the mother male offspring realized twofold. Confirming the pattern of the whole story and of the larger cycle of tales, the twin who is about to be second-born somehow ‘bursts forth’ (parotz) first in the end, and he is Peretz, progenitor of Jesse from whom comes the house of David.” – Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative

Swing #3: “Zerah: Possibly connoting ‘red of dawn’ – connecting with the scarlet thread of Verse 28 (and possibly paralleling Esav, who was also known as Edom, the ‘Red One’).” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators think the abrupt change in the birth order of Tamar’s sons is significant? Why are so many birth stories seen as harbingers of future fortune? Have the stories of your birth, or the birth of your children or other loved ones, taught you something about that person’s character?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Join us for our Night of Giving on the first night of Hanukkah, Tuesday, December 12th, at 6pm. We’ll be gathering at Publix stores in West Ashley, Mt. Pleasant, and Summerville to light Hanukkah candles and then purchase items to donate to the Kosher Food Pantry.

The Big Inning at the End: Many people light hanukkiot (Hanukkah menorahs) with designs that have little to do with the holiday itself; sports-themed hanukkiot — with shapes of baseball bats and baseballs, for example — are especially popular. Does using these kinds of items take away from the meaning of the holiday, or is Hanukkah light-hearted enough that we should allow this kind of creativity?

Shabbat Shalom!

Sister Act: Vayishlakh 2017

Pre-Game Chatter: How far would you go to defend the honor of someone in your family? Would you go that far for someone not in your family?

In an effort to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah, Simeon and Levi massacre the tribe of Shechem. When Jacob criticizes them, Simeon and Levi are undeterred:

The Pitch: “But [Simeon and Levi] answered, ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’” – Genesis 34:31

Swing #1: “What offends me here – beyond the carnage … is the very invisibility, the inaudibility of Dinah. In the same book of Genesis in which matriarchs have such strong voices, Dinah is utterly denied any voice of her own whatsoever.” – Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leds Us to Moral Development

Swing #2: “‘Should our sister be treated as a whore?’ they ask defiantly. But they are also implying that Jacob himself had treated Dinah as a prostitute: by doing nothing, he had tacitly suggested that the rape of his daughter was acceptable to him.” – Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis

Swing #3: “Simeon and Levi seem to have the last word here, but the recompense for their violence comes many years later. In his deathbed blessing of his sons, Jacob criticizes them, demotes them from the order of birthright, and condemns them to being scattered (Genesis 49:5-7). This comes true, as the tribes of Levi and Simeon became landless.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Late-Inning Questions: To our commentators, which is a worse response to Dinah’s suffering: Jacob’s inaction, or Simeon and Levi’s overreaction? Which is worse in your opinion?

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: More and more men are being exposed for inappropriate sexual behavior, and the sports world certainly is no exception: Yesterday, Toronto Blue Jays announcer (and former major-league player) Gregg Zaun was fired after management received numerous complaints. It is a hopeful sign that more (although, unfortunately, not all) portions of our society are taking stands for the dignity of all people.

Shabbat Shalom!