Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: August, 2018

Declaration of Dependence: Ki Tavo 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you best express yourself? Are you best at writing, speaking to someone over the phone, speaking to someone in person, or making a public speech? Or, perhaps, are you best at non-verbal communication?

Even though the book of Deuteronomy is mainly one-sided — almost entirely consisting of Moses speaking to the Israelites — our portion this week refers to one occasion when we hear from the Israelites:

The Pitch: “You have affirmed this day that the LORD is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him.” – Deuteronomy 26:17

Swing #1: “The Hebrew term he’emarta, ‘you have declared’, is in the causative inflection of the verb ‘to say,’ implying that ‘by reason of the good deeds you have performed, you cause the Lord to say that He will be your God.’” – Abraham ibn Ezra

Swing #2: “The recollection of the moment in which Israel affirmed that YHWH would be her God remains as a sign of the freedom in which she chooses to serve him. The re-presentation of that moment of choice keeps alive the element of human autonomy in the dialectic of divine suzerainty. This is the element that distinguishes covenantal theonomy from theocratic tyranny.” – Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence

Swing #3: “In Exodus 6, God establishes a relationship with a people already in existence. Therefore, He can legitimately say, ‘You are my people.’ However, in the time of Abraham, there is as yet no people, so in Genesis 17 when the Lord makes a covenant with Abraham, He simply says of Abraham’s children, ‘I will be their God’ (Genesis 17:8). … However, even though both sides are represented, all the initiative is God’s. After a period of maturation, the formula [in Deuteronomy] becomes two-sided.” – Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators understand the Israelites’ declaration of fidelity to God? To what extent is this declaration made out of free will? How do we best declare our commitment to our  most cherished ideals?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Typically, Selichot is a service done late Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. It helps us prepare for the upcoming High Holidays by exploring themes of faith and repentance. As we did last year, we will incorporate a brief form of the Selichot service at a Sunday morning minyan. Please join us at 9:00AM on Sunday, September 2nd.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of public expression, some of the most creative encounters between a baseball player and the press took place throughout the 1990 season, when Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Don Carman posted a list of 37 cliches on his locker, which he used to answer reporters’ questions. Among them: “I’d rather be lucky than good,” “That’s the name of the game,” “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” and “I know you are but what am I?”

Shabbat Shalom!

Foreign Relations: Ki Tetze 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we best resist making overgeneralizations about those who are different from us? Why is it tempting to draw inaccurate conclusions about how everyone in a particular group acts?

While the Torah doesn’t always take kindly to those in some foreign nations, a passage in our portion this week gives two groups the benefit of the doubt:

The Pitch: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” – Deuteronomy 23:8

Swing #1: “The expression Edomite (deriving as it does from adom; ‘red’) may be taken as an allegory for sin, for it is written in the Book of Isaiah (1:18): ‘Though your sins be red like crimson …’ Hence the Scriptural verse may be interpreted as follows: ‘Do not regard your sins as wasted threads of crimson, for you can turn them into your brothers by transforming them into merits through true repentance, and they will speak in your favor, as the Sages say: “Acts of insolence will become as merits for him.”’” – Yesod HaTorah

Swing #2: “On the subject of Edom, Bruce C. Cresson says that ‘it is scarcely hyperbolic to say that never a kind word is spoken about Edom in the Old Testament’ … Bert Dicou contends that Edom assumes the position of the representative of foreign nations deserving of divine judgment … [Roger] Syren classifies only Deuteronomy 2:4-6 and 23:7-8 as positive.” – Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story

Swing #3: “The word [ger] may be used of individuals or groups. Abraham was a ger at Hebron, and Moses in Midian. A man of Bethlehem went with his family to settle as a ger in Moab. The Israelites were gerim in Egypt.” – Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to think that we need to make a special effort to welcome those of other nationalities? Are human beings instinctively suspicious of those who are different than us? Can this verse from the Torah be applied to the way that we treat foreigners, immigrants, and diverse populations within the United States?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: This Shabbat will be our second annual “Camp Shabbat”. On Saturday, August 25th, feel free to dress casually for services — ideally while wearing a t-shirt from a Jewish summer camp! We’ll be singing songs and doing other rituals to remind us of the best moments of the camp experience.

The Big Inning at the End: Welcoming the foreigner has benefited the game of baseball greatly. This year, a record-high 27 percent of Major Leaguers were born outside the United States.

Shabbat Shalom!

He Reports, You Decide: Shoftim 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you prefer to follow the news? Do you use the internet the most, or do you rely more on television, radio, or even print media? How do you determine which news sources you trust?

As he continues his farewell speech to the Israelites, Moses recalls when the people insist to hear God’s words through a prophet — not from the direct source:

The Pitch: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear the voice of the LORD my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.’ Whereupon the LORD said to me, ‘They have done well in speaking thus.’” – Deuteronomy 18:15-17

Swing #1: “Once a person accustoms himself or herself to hearing the voice of God issuing from everything, the supernal meaning now comes that has eluded the person, and this spiritual wisdom. For certainly, concealed and hidden spiritual wisdom contains divine meaning. Moreover by means of getting in the habit of paying attention to the voice of God issuing from everything, the voice of God is revealed now [even] in spiritual wisdom. Until finally, in the spiritual wisdom itself, one finds the true appearance of God. And everyone who continues to search and philosophize increases the holiness of faith and cleaving [to God] and the light of the holy Spirit.” – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Swing #2: “Given the already-observed tendency in Deuteronomy to look to the distant future while addressing the Moab generation, it is likely that what is envisioned here is a succession of prophets who will serve to mediate Yahweh’s word to the people, rather than a single individual.” – Peter T. Vogt, Deteronomonic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

Swing #3: “The prophet whom God will raise up must be ‘from among your own people’ (Deuteronomy 18:15). This means also that he must arise in the Land of Israel.” – Sifrei Deuteronomy

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators believe are the  proper qualifications of a prophet? To what extent is a prophet expected to simply be a messenger for God’s words, not necessarily someone who predicts the future? How is this role similar to that of the modern media? How do we determine whether all, or parts, of today’s media are unbiased messengers of truth?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Next Shabbat will be our second annual “Camp Shabbat”. That Saturday, August 25th, feel free to dress casually for services — ideally while wearing a t-shirt from a Jewish summer camp! We’ll be singing songs and doing other rituals to remind us of the best moments of the camp experience.

The Big Inning at the End: These days, talking about sports media and the way that sports news is reported is an industry unto itself. Should people who report and talk about sports be celebrities, or is it better for them to fade to the background and to make sure the games take center-stage?

Shabbat Shalom!

The Boy Who Cried “God”: Re’eh 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How good are you at predicting what will happen in the future? Do you know people who seem especially skilled at predictions? If you do, do you think they’re especially intelligent, exceptionally lucky, or both?

Our portion this week reminds us that just because a prediction comes true makes that person a prophet:

The Pitch: “If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, “Let us follow and worship another god”—whom you have not experienced—even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the LORD your God is testing you to see whether you really love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.” – Deuteronomy 13:2-4

Swing #1: “The Kotzker rabbi once was asked, ‘Berachot 56b-57a teaches that “if one sees an elephant in a dream, miracles will be done for him … and if one sees a myrtle in a dream, he will have good luck with his property [like a myrtle, which has numerous leaves].” Well, I saw an elephant in my dreams and I saw a myrtle and no miracle happened for me and business didn’t prosper at all.’ Replied the Kotzker: ‘One who eats like a Jew and drinks like a Jew and sleeps like a Jew and lives like a Jew, dreams like a Jew. But if you gorge yourself like your enemy and you get drunk like your enemy and you sleep with animals like your enemy and you live like your enemy, do you expect the interpretation of your dreams should then be like a Jew?’” – Chasidic Anthologies

Swing #2: “YHWH was intolerant of the gods to the point that he continually warns his votaries against situations in which they might be led away from him. For example, Deuteronomy 13:2-19 warns against following a prophet or diviner, even one who works miracles, if he advocates the service of any deity other than YHWH. Note that nothing in Deuteronomy 13 suggests that the other gods do not exist. The fear is not that Israel will be led into philosophical error, but that another deity will claim her service …” – Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible

Swing #3: “According to my religious teaching, miracles are not the distinguishing marks of Truth and do not provide moral certainty about the divine mission of the prophet. For seducers and false prophets too can perform signs, whether through magic, secret arts, or perhaps a misuse of a gift given to them for a good purpose.” – Moses Mendelssohn

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, how does much should a person’s character determine the degree to which they should be trusted? How should we treat a “boy who cries wolf” when that “boy” actually is correct? How much truth must one person speak before we believe him/her again?

Summer Training: Even though it’s still the first half of August, it feels like summer is rapidly coming to a close. I’ll be reflecting on my health initiative during my sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah, which I will then post on my blog following the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of those who make predictions – and profit from them – count me among those who are extremely concerned that sports betting will soon be legal nationwide. Maybe the conditions that caused the 1919 Black Sox Scandal have changed, as Major League players make a lot more money than they used to, but even successful players can be lured by gamblers offering even more cash, thus potentially compromising the outcomes of games. Just ask Pete Rose.

Shabbat Shalom!

Throwing Stones: Ekev 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: When we try to fix what is broken, how often do we focus on the cause of the break, and how often do we focus on the solution? Under what circumstances should the cause of the break matter?

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering, he mentions in vivid detail one of the low moments of their journey:

The Pitch: “Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.” – Deuteronomy 9:17

Swing #1: “Only the stone tablets which were ‘before your eyes’ were broken. The letters which had been engraved upon them flew away and remained whole.” – Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin

Swing #2: “It says: ‘There is a time to every purpose under the heaven … a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5). This is applicable to Moses: there was a time for him to cast away tablets and a time to hew new ones.” – Deuteronomy Rabbah

Swing #3: “The word [for ‘I threw them’] is spelled defectively, without a yud. [This indicates that the letters inscribed into the tablets of] the Ten Commandments flew away from them [i.e., from the broken tablets].” – Baal Turim

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators appear to minimize the impact of Moses breaking the original tablets of the Ten Commandments? Do they see the damage of his action as unfortunate or necessary — or both? When do acts of destruction lead us to moments of wholeness? How can that happen?

Summer Training: Spending the week in high altitude makes drinking water even more essential, and makes every step tougher. I’m told that, after two weeks, the bodily effects of high altitude are neutralized. But I won’t be here long enough to test that out …

The Big Inning at the End: One of the funniest recent baseball stories was when White Sox pitcher Chris Sale took a pair of scissors and destroyed an admittedly awful uniform he was expected to wear. It’s amusing when so-called professionals do something far below their maturity level.

Shabbat Shalom!