Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: July, 2018

“Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, God”: Vaethanan 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: If you could define yourself using only a few words, what words would you use? Is it easier for you to do so while describing other people that you know?

As Moses recounts the Ten Commandments for the new generation of Israelites, we take note of the words God uses to introduce God’s self:

The Pitch: “I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods beside Me.” – Deuteronomy 5:6-7

Swing #1: “The utterance ‘I am’ precedes the utterance ‘You shall not have.’ And upon careful reflection on the ‘I am, the anochi,’ — with sure faith in God’s perfection — one is saved from [violating] ‘You shall not have’ and protected from all kinds of impediments to the service of God. Our sages taught in Midrash Tanhuma that for every commandment one fulfills, there is made for that person a guardian angel. Measure for measure. Israel received all the commandments through Moses, our teacher, an intermediary. And on account of this an angel was assigned to them to watch over them. But the ‘I am’ and the ‘You shall not have’ Israel heard directly from God [without any intermediary, without any guardian]. And for this reason, [as] the reward for fulfilling the ‘I am’ God, God’s Divine Self protects a person from violating the ‘You shall not have.’” – Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin

Swing #2: “The texts of Exodus and Deuteronomy do not speak about a general understanding of community but of the formation of a particular community whose identity as a people is evoked by their relationship to the Lord and is inextricably tied to that relationship. There is a logically prior relationship to those of kingship, geographical proximity, shared experience, and the like — though these are also dimensions of this particular neighborhood as often of others — that constitutes this community. That is the relationship articulated in the initial words of the community-constituting act.” – Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord

Swing #3: “The suffix [referring to your (singular) God, not your (plural) God] refers to Israel collectively, and at the same time to each Israelite individually. The Midrash says: Even as thousands look at a great portrait and each one feels that it looks at him, so every Israelite at Horeb felt that the Divine Voice was addressing him.” – J.H. Hertz

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, why does God choose to start the Ten Commandments this particular way? What kind of “first impression” does God wish to convey? To borrow a line from an old television commercial, should it matter that we never get a second chance to make a first impression? How do we stay open to reevaluating people who genuinely try to be better than a poor first impression?

Summer Training: Surviving Tisha B’Av is usually the toughest health challenge of the year; it doesn’t get much tougher than going without food and water for 25 hours at the peak of summer. Somehow, it wasn’t quite as bad this year as in past years. Maybe drinking more water in the days leading up to it helped?

The Big Inning at the End: Traditional baseball scouts evaluate players based on what they see and hear; statistically-based baseball analysts rely more heavily on numbers from a player’s on-field production. The so-called “statheads” have become more prevalent in recent years. Which approach seems more reasonable for the modern game?

Shabbat Shalom!

Invisible Hand: D’varim 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent do you feel that you have control over your destiny? Have you been tempted to try to control forces in your life that are beyond your reach? Or do you believe that you have full agency to live as you choose?

As the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness closes, the Israelites are reminded that God has always been with them — whether they’ve recognized it or not.

The Pitch: “Indeed, the LORD your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. He has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the LORD your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing.” – Deuteronomy 2:7

Swing #1: “‘All your undertakings’ [means] literally, ‘the work of your hands.’ It sometimes interchanges with ‘all that you put your hand to.’” – Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11

Swing #2: “[Moses] has known his people for forty years, and the text conveys a depth of acquaintance with them that is not apparent in the preceding books. Never hesitant to criticize the people of Israel, he nonetheless speaks to them now with affection. … He has also known his God for forty years, but their singular acquaintance – unique among all divine-human encounters in the Hebrew Bible – is now among the most thunderous of the Bible’s loud silences. God speaks very little to Moses in Deuteronomy, and Moses never says a word to God, even in the chapters following his speech.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #3: “Therefore, do not reject His goodness by appearing as if you are poor. Rather, present yourselves as wealthy.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to think that the Israelites won’t give proper credit to God for their good fortune? Why are we sometimes reluctant to show gratitude for our blessings? Is it because we wish to give ourselves more credit for our accomplishments, or because it might be difficult to imagine a force beyond our power helping us in ways we don’t quite understand?

Summer Training: How much weight can you lose by giving blood? I have no idea, and that’s certainly not the reason to do it … but how great is it to do something that forces you to drink a lot of water and give to people in need? If you’re in Charleston and can donate, our synagogue’s blood drive continues until 4:00PM today!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of underappreciated helpers, baseball has been notoriously slow in recognizing pioneers of the game, people who made the sport better both for players and fans. On the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first Major League game, Sports Illustrated reported that many contemporary players knew who he was. Thankfully, MLB now honors Robinson annually. In that spirit, I hope the National Baseball Hall of Fame finally inducts Marvin Miller, the first head of the player’s union, whose overwhelming influence enabled both players and owners to prosper financially.

Shabbat Shalom!

Terms and Conditions: Matot-Masei 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What was the best deal you’ve ever made? The worst? Do you tend to give too much when you make an agreement, or do you hold out for something better?

As the Israelites approach the Promised Land, 2½ tribes ask Moses to settle east of the Jordan River. Moses agrees, provided that the tribes live up to their end of the bargain:

The Pitch: “‘We ourselves will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the LORD, into the land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan.’” – Numbers 32:32

Swing #1: “The children of Israel were to enter the Promised Land ‘before the Lord’; namely, their main purpose in entering the Land was to be to lead a holy life there and to preserve the sanctity of the Land of Israel by keeping the Torah and its commandments. Without the Torah, the Land of Israel is no better and no more important than any other country.” – Avnei Ezel

Swing #2: “The way the land was given to Reuben and Gad on the condition that they fulfill their promise became the foundation for the Jewish law of conditional contracts. The four basic principles are: the condition must be stated twice, once positively and once negatively (as Moses did); the positive condition must precede the negative; the ‘if’ must precede the ‘what’; and the condition must be fulfillable.” – Shulchan Aruch

Swing #3: “According to [these verses], the potential inhabitants of the land east of the Jordan answered once again as if they had been asked once more and as if verses 28-30 had not, rather, been concerned with the instructions of Moses to his successors.” – Martin Noth, Numbers

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators sense that the tribes that wished to settle east of the Jordan are willing to go out of their way to make it work? Or are God and Moses the ones making the most concessions? What are the best kinds of agreements? Should they make both sides feel a bit disappointed, or should they make both sides happy?

Summer Training: Now that I’ve concluded a lengthy road trip, I’ve learned a bit about how to handle the physical toll of long drives. One piece of advice (easier said than done, of course): try to incorporate a decent walk or two, even on long driving days. Without that, it’s easy to fall into a lull, and that’s not a good thing while operating a car.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of agreements, I loved the contract that pitcher Turk Wendell signed with the New York Mets in 2001. The deal was for three years and $9,999,999.99. And yes, his uniform number was #99.

Shabbat Shalom!

Polishing Up the Resume: Pinhas 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Why are we sometimes hesitant to trust people who are younger than us? Are we concerned that they lack enough life experience or maturity? Or are we simply used to trusting our peers?

Our portion this week speaks of the transfer of Israelite leadership from Moses to Joshua:

The Pitch: “Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.” – Numbers 27:20

Swing #1: “The elders had been ashamed to perform … menial tasks [under Moses]. But now, when they saw that Joshua had become the leader of the people precisely because he had not been unwilling to do this work, and that his ‘countenance shone as the moon,’ they all cried out: ‘Alas for that foolish pride of ours which kept us from cleaning the house of study, for now we must endure the shame and the disgrace of having to be the disciples of this young Joshua in our old age.’” – Rabbi Hayyim Joseph Azulai, Commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers

Swing #2: “This is a profound moment, because it is the first separation of church and state. Religious authority goes to the priest Eleazar, secular authority to the warrior Joshua. Neither is supreme, and they are independent of each other. This is remarkably canny of Moses and the Lord. … Splitting the authority allows the undistracted Joshua to carry out the gritty, down-to-earth work of conquering the Promised Land. Meanwhile, Eleazar can make sure to mind the Lord’s p’s and q’s.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #3: “The congregation is specifically called to witness the transfer of authority. Despite the fact that the congregation is portrayed only as an observer of the ritual, it nevertheless receives the benefits of the successful outcome of the ritual.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Late-Inning Questions: What larger lessons do our commentators learn from this leadership transition? How do leadership transitions reflect the values of society?

Summer Training: Sticking to a health plan while on a road trip is difficult. To be continued.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of leadership transitions, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well Rob Manfred has served as MLB commissioner after Bud Selig’s retirement. Manfred has combined Selig’s desire for maintaining baseball’s grand traditions with a desire for sensible innovation.

Shabbat Shalom!