Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: June, 2018

Lionization: Balak 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: When have you felt threatened? How have you responded to that feeling? In retrospect, do your responses seem justified, or overreactions?

In this week’s portion, the Moabite king Balak hires a prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites because Balak sees them as a threat. Even though Balaam recites praises of the Israelites, his words are tinged with foreboding:

The Pitch: “Lo, a people that rises like a lion, leaps up like the king of beasts, rests not till it has feasted on prey and drunk the blood of the slain.” – Numbers 23:24

Swing #1: “The lion is stronger than the lioness. When a Jew first rises in order to serve the Most High he is only like a lioness, but then the Lord will help him (‘the Lord will help him who comes to be cleansed’) and he will rise up strong as a lion.” – Maggid Dov Ber of Mehzhirich

Swing #2: “The poetry in this chapter is powerful and striking. We move from the hopeful king’s lofty ‘mountains of Kedem,’ whence Bil’am was hired, to the disturbing image of the king of beasts feasting on his prey. What began as an attack from above has ended in a blood-feast by the enemy.”  – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Swing #3: “What is more, this people whom Balak fears is stronger than he imagined. … Balak has miscalculated: these people are not an ox eating up the grass of the field; they are a lion ready to attack and devour their prey. Balak cannot defeat them.” – Irene Nowell, Numbers

Late-Inning Questions: Do Balaam’s words say more about the Israelites or about the people that fear them from a distance? Are his words more a statement of fear or reality? What are the best ways to respond when you sense that all hope is lost?

Summer Training: This has been my best week of exercising since I started my health initiative. For me, walking more is dependent on at least one of two factors: purpose (having a specific place to go, not just walking around in circles) and distraction (having something to listen to or talk to while walking).

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of feeling threatened, the legendary Yankees manager Casey Stengel once was asked how he stopped his players from undermining him. Stengel replied that, on any baseball team, there are ten players that like the manager and ten others that don’t, and the trick to surviving is to keep the ten that don’t like you away from the five players who are undecided.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rebel Yell: Hukkat 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What causes you to lose your temper? Do you have to be in a particular vulnerable mood for your temper to let loose, or does it not matter? How do you manage the ways you express your temper, if at all?

Moses is sentenced to death in this week’s portion for hitting a rock to produce water, but we see indications of his anger beforehand:

The Pitch: “Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’” – Numbers 20:10

Swing #1: “According to Moses Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was in the language with which they spoke to Israel: ‘Listen, you rebels.’ To be sure, many of the prophets of Israel spoke with sharpness in similar language. But here it was inappropriate since the children of Israel sought water, incontestably an urgent matter of life and death for a person. There was no reason to speak to them harshly.” – Yad Yosef

Swing #2: “That is why Aaron is implicated by [his staff’s] misuse even though Aaron does not say or do anything at the rock. It is his staff, with his name on it, to be kept in a holy place and used in specific circumstances. As we have seen in Leviticus, intent is not the issue in the realm of ritual. Rather, actions relating to sacred objects and boundaries bring necessary consequences of themselves. Whether or not Aaron has thought or done anything improper, he is tied to what has happened.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #3: “Just as this staff produced almonds as a reminder of the last rebellious generation, are we to produce water from you from this rock?” – Rashbam

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators say about how to take ownership for losing our tempers? How can we manage to react properly when we are justified in our rage? In our highly volatile political climate, how can we best manage our anger to create needed change?

In that spirit, there is a great deal of anger over the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. It is a horrible situation, and we stand firmly with the statement co-signed by many Jewish organizations, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (read it here). We also endorse the message sent by the Charleston Jewish Federation (read it here) encouraging us to take action. When our anger is justified, let us channel it for good.

Summer Training: An observation on my health initiative … before this week, I never realized how much drinking lots of water filled me up, which has a direct impact on how much I eat. But I seem to rely on water enhancers (flavoring additives) to tempt me to drink enough. It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.

The Big Inning at the End: On a lighter note … speaking of anger, I have to admit that I enjoyed when a manager arguing with an umpire would start kicking dirt. Obviously I discourage any violence against umpires or anyone else in the game, but a managerial temper tantrum, while admittedly immature, is always high comedy. Maybe I’m a bit old-school …

Shabbat Shalom!

Not So Easy to Swallow: Korah 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Are there right ways and wrong ways to stop a rebellion? How do we balance the need for order with the need to dignify and acknowledge differing voices?

When Korah and his company challenge Moses’s leadership, their doom is sealed in a vivid and dramatic way:

The Pitch: “Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.” – Numbers 16:31-33

Swing #1: “When Moses finishes speaking, the ground opens up and the company around Korah, including their families and tents, falls into the earth, which, remarkably, covers them over. The desire to return to Egypt is thus equated with the destruction of the Hebrew people as if the earth had swallowed them up and left no trace.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #2: “The addition of Korah and his people to this catastrophe just before the end of verse 32 looks like an editorial afterthought that is inconsistent with the preceding account of Dathan and Abiram, sans Levites, standing at the entrance of their tents as the convulsion of the earth begins.” – Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative

Swing #3: “The congregation of Korah will not be restored [at the time of resurrection], as it is said (Num. 16:33) And the earth closed over them, i.e., in this world; and they disappeared from the midst of the congregation — in the world to come. So says R. Akiba. R. Eliezer, however, says: Concerning them, Scripture says: (I Sam. 2:6) The LORD deals death and gives life, casts down into Sheol and raises up.” – Ein Yaakov

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentators differ on whether the punishment for Korah’s rebellion is incidental or intentional (and total). Do these differences reflect our conflicted feelings about the rights of those who dissent? Does a disrespectful rebellion, however bothersome, deserve a respectful response? When today’s professional athletes are ordered to stand when the National Anthem is played before a game, should we be grateful that the anthem is played without distraction, or should we be more disturbed that the athletes don’t have a chance to speak their minds?

Summer Training: Of my three health goals for this summer (drinking 8 cups of water per day, eating 4 servings of fruits/vegetables per day, walking 10,000 steps per day), the exercise element is vastly the most difficult for me thus far. What is your biggest challenge in terms of managing your health?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of rebellions, an underrated movie from the 1980s called Amazing Grace and Chuck centers around a Little League pitcher who refuses to pitch until the world is rid of nuclear weapons, an act that sparks a worldwide movement. Though obviously fictional, it’s curious to wonder how athletes might most effectively create social change.

Shabbat Shalom!

Forgiving Ourselves: Shelakh Lekha 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Why are we often our own worst critics? How does a healthy desire to improve ourselves sometimes turn into a tendency to think the worst of ourselves?

The incident of the untruthful spies, which we read about in our Torah portion, bring out the worst of the Israelites — but, to his credit, Moses offers a path for God to show mercy:

The Pitch: “‘The LORD! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’ Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt. And the LORD said, ‘I pardon, as you have asked.’” – Numbers 14:18-20

Swing #1: “This may extend until the fourth generation, i.e. if the fourth generation of the original sinner will still continue in the wicked ways of their forbears that will make the measure of sin of those families in the third generation so full that it has become irreversible and God will take the appropriate action. If the sons and grandsons continued in the evil ways of their forbears but not until the fourth generation, God will suspend retribution to see how the fourth generation would conduct themselves before exacting retribution.” – Sforno

Swing #2: “‘Visiting the sins of the fathers on the children;’ this is another aspect of God’s attribute of Mercy, that He delays punishing the fathers, waiting if the children or grandchildren will return to Him before carrying out the punishment that had been deserved by them. In Exodus 34:7 where the list of God’s attributes first appears, the wording is, ‘grandchildren,’ not ‘children,’ as here. In both instances, the point God makes is that while He may delay exacting punishment, depending on the severity of the sin in question, He will not allow sins that are not repented to go totally unpunished.” – Daat Zkenim

Swing #3: “The Lord is long­ suffering, and nigh in mercy, forgiving sins and covering transgressions, justifying such as return to His law through them who turn not He will not absolve, but will visit the sins of wicked fathers upon rebellious children unto the third and fourth generation.” – Targum Jonathan

Late-Inning Questions: Our commentators return to a common theme: God is willing to hold off on punishing us for our missteps if we encourage subsequent generations to improve themselves. If God is willing to forgive us, can we find ways to show ourselves similar compassion? In light of news about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, as well as other recent deaths, how can we best show compassion to those who have similar difficulty forgiving themselves? How can we ensure that depression and anxiety are not labels of shame?

Summer Training: I began my summer health initiative this week, in an effort to drink at least eight glasses of water per day, to walk at least 10,000 steps five days per week, and to eat at least four fruits/vegetables per day. It’s a big commitment for me, and I invite you to join me in these resolutions, or to make healthful resolutions of your own. Since I only have results from three days so far (the first two days went well; the third day, not so much), it’s too early to draw any conclusions yet, but I’m encouraged by many congregants’ supportive words. More next week.

The Big Inning at the End: Recognizing depression also is a challenge in the athletic world, especially given how athletes are expected to be tough at all times. The efforts of ball players like pitcher Pete Harnisch, who at one point paused his Major League career to pursue counseling for his mental issues, to bring these challenges to light are shining examples of how to deal with these issues sensitively and honestly.

Shabbat Shalom!