Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: May, 2018

Cloudy (With No Chance of Meatballs): B’ha’alotkha 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How often does time seem to move much faster than you had hoped? When does it move much slower than you had hoped?

As the Israelites resume their march in the wilderness, the movement of God’s protective cloud marks the time of their journey:

The Pitch: “In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai. The cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. When the march was to begin, at the LORD’s command through Moses …” – Numbers 10:11-13

Swing #1: “Ten days is a unit of time found [multiple times in the Bible]. The tenth day of the month appears as the date of a feast or an event; the 20th day is mentioned less frequently.” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Swing #2: “The priestly writers greatly expanded the area of the Wilderness of Paran, it seems. In Numbers 13:3 and 26, verses that were both rewritten by the priestly school, an overlap occurs, with the result that Kadesh is said to be located in the Wilderness of Paran, and the Wilderness of Paran is said to be part of Sinai, so that Kadesh is not located in Canaan. According to the priestly tradition, the Israelites remained in the Wilderness of Paran, as it turned out, for about thirty-eight of the forty years of their migrations.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20

Swing #3: “They spent 12 months less 10 days at Horeb, for, see now, on the first of the month of Sivan, they encamped there, and they did not travel until the 20th of Iyar, of the following year.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: Do you think it’s significant that the Israelites spent 10 days short of one year at Mount Sinai? If so, what is the significance? How is the movement of God’s protective cloud an effective symbol of turning points in the Israelites’ journey? Are there objects in your life that help mark the passage of time? Are these objects significant to you because of it?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Please join us at services Saturday, June 2nd, as Barak Malichi will join us for a musical presentation. Barak is an Israeli professional guitarist and bassist. He has worked in music and informal education since serving in the Israeli army. Barak will join us in partnership with OTS Amiel BaKehila, a new initiative of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of the passage of time, fans continue to marvel at the career of Texas Rangers pitcher Bartolo Colon, who continues to pitch effectively even after his recent 45th birthday. To put it in perspective, Colon’s rookie year was in 1997 … one year before Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto was born.

Shabbat Shalom!

Disappearing Ink: Naso 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever tried to erase an aspect of your past you regret? If so, how successful were you in subverting embarrassing or painful memories? What are the pros and cons of this kind of purge?

As the Torah describes the mysterious Sotah rituals, involving a woman accused of adultery, we learn that the woman is to drink a glass of water with erased words:

The Pitch: “The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.” – Numbers 5:23

Swing #1: “From this we conclude that the Torah gives permission to erase God’s Name, because by means of this erasure, peace is created between husband and wife. And between husband and wife dwells the presence of God. But this is no expulsion of God’s presence; on the contrary, it is an invitation to the Divine presence. Indeed, ‘peace’ is another name for the Holy One, so there is no expulsion here, only changing God’s Name into another form.” – Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague

Swing #2: “Adultery is then the quintessential act of darkness. This is the real problem: it is extremely hard – that God must vanish in such a moment. In a world where the sense of the divine and the sense of transgression are still active, the adulterer must enter a state of dissociation. He must fragment his reality. The secrecy that the couple desire goes deep; it becomes an inner discontinuity, as though one were keeping one’s experience as a kind of secret from oneself. Perhaps in this sense we can understand why, in the Sotah ritual, God’s name is dissolved in water.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers

Swing #3: “I wondered if somehow the ink itself was the poison that could make my wife’s flesh rot. Or perhaps it was simply absorbing the name of God that made the water so dangerous. We Jews are not in the habit of erasing God’s name from anything. In fact, doing so is against the rules.” – Justin Rocket Silverman, from Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah, edited by Roger Bennett

Late-Inning Questions: In the ritual of the Sotah, the woman’s guilt is determined based on her body’s reaction to drinking the bitter water. How do our commentators understand the significance of swallowing a substance that previously had God’s name, and curses, written upon it? Is this act better seen as an effort to bring God closer to a married couple? Or a symbol of how an unfaithful marriage only blots out the best of what God is?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are so fortunate to celebrate four different young men reaching their Bar Mitzvah milestones over the next four weeks. What a great way to conclude the school year!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of what can happen when handwriting is smudged … the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate has been, for most of baseball’s existence, 60 feet and 6 inches. Why the 6 inches? When the rule was first written down in the late 19th century, the instructions to mark “60.0” feet was misread as “60.6” feet. Who knows how baseball history would have changed had the pitcher been allowed to be a half-foot closer to home plate?

Shabbat Shalom!

First Thing’s First: B’midbar 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you like to keep track of prominent “firsts” in your life? Do you consider these “firsts” to be true milestones, or, mainly, coincidences?

In the Torah, firstborns get a lot of attention, but these “firsts” are not always momentous:

The Pitch: “For every firstborn is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s.” – Numbers 3:13

Swing #1: “Said the Lord: ‘Originally I took the first-born unto Myself to perform My service, under the condition that they should belong to Me and believe in My Divinity. But since they worshiped the Golden Calf, thus denying My Divinity, they are no longer Mine and I have taken unto Myself instead the tribe of Levi which refused to pay homage to the Golden Calf.’” – Meshekh Hakhmah

Swing #2: “Ultimately too, the whole ministry of the priesthood was a ministry of vicarious mediation, especially when it is remembered that they ate the flesh of the sin-offering. Again, the idea that the Levites were made over to Jahweh in place of the first-born, thus saving the latter from being sacrificed, must be kept in mind in this connection.” – Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II

Swing #3: “What are we to make of a God who continues to stake out his portion, who claims every firstborn male, including cattle, even if what He settles for is ‘The Levites shall be Mine’ (Numbers 3:12)? He allows a substitution whereby both Levites and their cattle are counted toward the redemption (i.e., buying back) of His ‘property’. We are often returned by the Jewish Bible to a realistic transaction that indicates how human rights are not a given, but are established by grant and negotiation.” – Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Numbers”, from Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg

Late-Inning Questions: What are some reasons offered for God designating firstborns as Divine property? Given how often the Torah casts aside firstborns (i.e. Ishmael, Esau, Reuben) in favor of younger siblings (i.e. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph), what role does God seem to have in mind for firstborns? Is being first merely a footnote, or should it mean more than that?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Among our many holidays, Shavuot often is forgotten, or at least minimized. But the main purpose of its celebration – the Revelation at Mount Sinai – is, along with the Exodus from Egypt, the seminal event that define the purpose of Judaism. Celebrate with us by joining us between Saturday evening and Monday afternoon.

The Big Inning at the End: To illustrate how some firsts can be overrated, it’s timely to note that the first night game at Wrigley Field, which took place 30 years ago, was filled with fanfare and attention … until it rained out before completing the minimal amount of innings to be an official game.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

The Good News First: BeHar-Behukotai 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: When was the last time you’ve felt truly blessed? Do you feel this way frequently, or do you require a special occasion or moment to appreciate good fortune?

Before going into a litany of horrific consequences for wrongdoing, our second Torah portion starts with a simple list of blessings as a reward for our devotion:

The Pitch: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” – Leviticus 26:3-5

Swing #1: “Only through being in the atmosphere of this ‘world of doing’ can a human being begin anew to learn for the sake of keeping, doing, and fulfilling. And this is the explanation for Rabbi Yochanan’s strange saying that ‘if one learns with the intention of not doing, it would have been better for him had … [he] not come out into the air of this world.’ It is because such learning — not for the sake of doing — was done while the child was in the belly of its mother. There would be no gain for the child to come out into the air of this world if it had not learned for the sake of doing.” – Rabbi of Modzitz

Swing #2: “Leviticus draws to a close with an exhortation to obedience as the path to blessing. Obedience is intimately related to hearing in Israelite thought. To hear means to follow through, to obey. The God who frees the Israelites from oppression demands obedience in turn.” – J. Edward Owens, Leviticus

Swing #3: “The key to the relationship between Leviticus’s laws and the Bible’s story is the list of blessings and curses here in Leviticus 26. … The commandments are not presented as a loosely relevant list. They are woven into the fabric of the narrative as essential to the life of the community.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators make sense of the Torah’s presentation of blessings followed by curses? Might the curses in our portion seemed less brutal had they been listed first? When someone tells you, “I have good news and bad news,” which do you prefer to hear first? What might that preference say about our approach to life?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to honoring our Religious School graduates and Confirmation graduates this Shabbat. Kudos to Anna Levy, Shoshana Rosenbaum, Deborah Segal, David Sternfeld, Gregory Veyber, Hannah Chase, Brian Hawkins, and Aaron Levine for completing their respective courses of Torah study.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of blessings, the Cincinnati Reds must have felt fortunate indeed that the New York Mets batted out of order in the first inning of their game Wednesday; it ended a rally that would have likely given the Mets the deciding run. Instead, the Reds won in extra innings, a rare blessing for this last-place team.

Shabbat Shalom!

Inspected By 12: Emor 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you feel incomplete if you don’t do certain morning routines? Do you feel incomplete if you don’t have certain items at your disposal at all times? How do you cope with such moments of incompletion?

As the Torah lays out rules for sacrifices, we learn that God expects that such animals must be, in a sense, “complete”:

The Pitch: “Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy—such you shall not offer to the LORD; you shall not put any of them on the altar as offerings by fire to the LORD. You may, however, present as a freewill offering an ox or a sheep with a limb extended or contracted; but it will not be accepted for a vow. You shall not offer to the LORD anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your own land …” – Leviticus 22:22-24

Swing #1: “Castration of men and animals is unconditionally forbidden. The phrase ‘in your land’ does not limit the ban to the land of Israel; it implies ‘everything in your land,’ including unclean beasts.” – Sifra

Swing #2: “The exception to the rule here concerns a voluntary offering; a defective animal would of course not be acceptable in the case of a hattat, for example.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Swing #3: “Do the compilers [of the text] mean to prohibit ‘profane slaughter’? This denotes the consumption of animals in noncultic settings. It is most likely that the current statutes do not intend to apply to that. They do not prohibit the repetition of the expression ‘holy convocation.’ … These laws do not stipulate what the people must do to become holy or to remain holy; instead, they call on a holy people to incorporate regular reminders of the Lord into their lives. The goal is to maintain a zeal for holiness and devotion to the Lord.” – Timothy M. Willis, Leviticus

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators understand the rules for sacrifices as a metaphor for human purity? Do these rules reflect an inherent respect for animals? Or are these animals seen as disposable? What do our attitudes about animals say about our attitudes about other people?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Join us for a lovely Shabbat of song as we welcome Hebrew College cantorial student Jessica Woolf to Emanu-El on the weekend of May 4th-5th. Jessica will lead Friday night services at 6:00PM. She also will lead part of Saturday morning services starting at 9:30AM, as well as Junior Jam with our youth.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of routines, baseball players are known for being extremely superstitious. For instance, Hall of Famer Wade Boggs ate chicken before every single game he played in the Major Leagues. There’s no way of knowing whether that diet helped his on-field performance — but given his professional success, it certainly didn’t hurt it.

Shabbat Shalom!