Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: September, 2018

Closing Time: V’Zote Ha’Bracha 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you think great people are appreciated more during life or after death? Should it be the other way around?

On Simhat Torah morning, we read of the death of Moses, who is briefly eulogized in the Torah’s final three verses:

The Pitch: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” – Deuteronomy 34:10-12

Swing #1: “The end of Deuteronomy is punctuated by the sixfold repetition of ‘all’. Moses is incomparable in all signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants in all his land, as well as all the great might and all awesome power displayed before all Israel. The legacy of Moses is timeless.” – J. Edward Owens, Deuteronomy

Swing #2: “Moses’ prophecy and the miracles he performed were known throughout the civilized world in his time.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Swing #3: “Whenever Moses and Aaron performed miracles they were certain beforehand that their efforts would be crowned with success, since God had communicated the miracle to be performed.” – Akeidat Yitzhak

Late-Inning Questions: To what extent do our commentators attribute Moses’ accomplishments to God, and to what extent do they seem to think they are a credit to the man himself? To what extent is our personal success dependent on others? Do you think Moses is evaluated fairly at the end of his life?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: The Torah ends on a sad note, but when we celebrate Simhat Torah, our spirits are lifted when we return to the reading of Genesis just moments later! So join us Monday, October 1st at 6:00PM for Happy Hour, then services, dancing with the Torah, and fun book-themed trivia. The revelry continues the next morning at 9:30AM with more dancing and fun surprises!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of tributes after a famous person’s death, a sportswriter named Charles Dryden once conflated the life of George Washington with the hapless Washington Senators by writing “Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Heart and Sheol: Ha’azinu 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you often think about what might happen after we die? Do you feel like you know what will happen? If so, does that impact the way you choose to live your life?

The Torah makes very few references to the idea of an afterlife; yet there is an idea of “Sheol” that comes up a few times:

The Pitch: “For a fire has flared in My wrath and burned to the bottom of Sheol, has consumed the earth and its increase, eaten down to the base of the hills.” – Deuteronomy 32:22

Swing #1: “Those in Sheol are viewed as separated from God, though … God has access to Sheol. Sheol is never referred to as the abode of the wicked alone. While Sheol is never identified as the place where all go, the burden of proof rests on those who suggest that there was an alternative. … It is not viewed as a place where judgment or punishment takes place, though it is considered an act of God’s judgment to be sent there rather than remaining alive. Thus it is inaccurate to translate Sheol as ‘hell,’ for the latter is by definition a place of punishment. There is no reference that suggests varying compartments in Sheol. ‘Deepest’ Sheol refers only to its location rather than a lower compartment.” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “The word [Sheol] is widely supposed to derive from Hebrew shaal, ‘to ask, inquire,’ perhaps referring to the practice of necromancy or the notion of calling the dead to account. In biblical texts, Sheol is the land of dust, darkness, forgetfulness, where the ‘shades’ of the dead (refaim) are gathered, although there is a tendency to associate the place with premature or evil death.” – Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, Jacob Neusner, editor-in-chief

Swing #3: “It burned and consumed down to the foundations of the mountains. The ‘mountains’ are a simile for the high-ranking personages, all of whom were the first ones to be exiled prior to the destruction of the first Temple.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators seem to think “Sheol” is? Why do you think it was mentioned in Moses’s final song to the Israelites? Do you think Moses fears going to Sheol, in spite of his many great deeds? Should fear of what we don’t know ever overrule what we do know?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: After a meaningful Yom Kippur, we head right into Sukkot, the festival of our joy. And we need your help; we have only one day to put up our sukkah. Bring your tools and join our Men’s Club this Sunday starting at 8:00AM; coffee and donuts will be served.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of the afterlife, Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy liked to tell a story of a dream he had, in which he died and went to heaven, and was surrounded by the greatest baseball players of all time. Just then, the devil called him and challenged his new team to a game. “But you don’t have a chance,” McCarthy exclaimed, “I have all the players!” “I know,” said the devil, “but I have all the umpires.”

Shabbat Shalom!

“Silence Into Song”: My Yom Kippur 2018 sermon

One of the most wonderful things about popular music is when someone creates a cover version of a famous song that reinterprets and breathes new life into the original work. A striking example is the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sounds of Silence”. Like many famous songs, it’s been covered by a wide range of musicians over the years, but perhaps never as poignantly as a couple of years ago, by a hard rock group known as Disturbed. What makes this version so powerful is how it transforms over the course of the song’s five verses; the first verse is sung like a lullaby, with only the soft sounds of a piano in the background. The second verse is sung slightly louder, with a guitar added to the instrumental mix. With each successive verse, more instruments are added, while the vocals become louder and louder; the lyrics sound increasingly urgent, with the singer’s voice reaching full tilt by the song’s climactic moment.

It’s a remarkable version of the song, and it was made with an important point in mind. David Draiman, the lead singer of Disturbed, said in a Loudwire.com interview that, to him, the song is “talking about someone who is enveloped in the darkness, who welcomes it, who feels like he is a bit of an outcast in a world full of chaos, who feels like someone who’s an introvert in a world full of extroverts, who feels like someone who’s bearing witness to things that they can’t come to terms with and who’s trying to express words that fall on fears and unfortunately wisdom that doesn’t end up getting developed.”

Draiman’s interpretation of “The Sounds of Silence” reminds us of one of our society’s most urgent challenges: our struggle to understand and reach out to those who suffer in silence. One estimate tells us that 38 million American adults struggle with depression; another estimate tells us that as many as one out of every two people deal with it at some point in their lives. And since it is a condition that is mainly hidden from the public eye, it’s challenging to know how to address it properly. After all, many people who deal with depression are able to contribute positively to society, often without anyone else knowing about that inner struggle.

I can speak to this because, as a few of you already know, I’ve struggled with depression in my life. I first realized it during my so-called “gap year”; I intended to spend the year after graduating college taking standardized tests, and applying to rabbinical school, while simply working a bit to pay the bills. Instead, I wound up taking two part-time jobs — one as a teacher at a local Jewish Day School in the mornings, and one as a B’nai Mitzvah tutor at a large suburban synagogue in the afternoons. Before I knew it, I was working 12 to 14 hours per day, neglecting to eat, spending much of my spare time commuting to and from work, worrying constantly about whether I would get into rabbinical school, seeing little of my friends and barely talking to my family. I thought I could handle it, but before I knew it, as I was entering full-fledged adulthood, I was taking no pleasure in things I usually enjoyed. One night, I was even sitting at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, and I still felt miserable. The Cubs were even winning the game, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to admit that I needed help, because I worried that I wouldn’t be accepted in the professional world, or by my friends, for that matter.

In a sense, this story has a happy ending, but in another sense, it doesn’t have an ending. What I mean is, in the short term, I finally got the care I needed in order to get myself to rabbinical school and to pursue both personal and professional dreams. I’ve been able to function in society and, hopefully, contribute positively. But the long-term reality is that a struggle like this is lifelong. Psychology professor Jonathan Rottenberg writes that there is no “magic pill” to cure depression; it can only be contained. Rather, the approach that I and so many others must take is to recognize the symptoms and to treat ourselves, and others, with kindness.

Why I am sharing this with you today? I don’t do so to ask for pity, nor to make excuses for mistakes I’ve made. Instead, I do so for four reasons in particular.

First of all, because any struggle with depression cannot be endured alone. In addition to professional help, it requires a group of understanding friends and family to listen and to be present at someone’s most challenging moments. Containing depression requires a community effort. And whether you’ve realized it or not, there have been numerous occasions over this past decade when many of you, through your kindness and concern, have given me hope and support during challenging times, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Second, it’s because I know I am not alone. Depression is only becoming more common, not less common. Professor Rottenberg writes, “Depression is worse in humans than in other mammals not because our species has more flaws but because of our unique strengths. Advanced language enables wallowing; our ability to set ambitious long-term goals sets up new opportunities for failure; our elaborate culture presents expectations for happiness that cannot possibly be fulfilled.” I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone here knows someone personally who struggles with depression. It’s up to us to stay aware.

Third, our society continues to embrace cruelty. Common discourse often descends into discord. Vigorous debate often is drowned by personal insults. It seems sometimes that it takes extra effort to be compassionate. Our challenge is to be better than our ever-lowering standards of politeness and decency, especially when so many are quietly suffering.

And last but not least, I share this because of the themes of this day, Yom Kippur, when we engage in self-examination and account for the decisions we make. We know that apologizing for our misdeeds is important, but we also must realize that the sooner we can truly forgive ourselves, the better able we will be to forgive others.

This idea is in the background of our Torah reading from today. We read in the beginning of Leviticus Chapter 16 that the commands for Yom Kippur sacrifices are given just after Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed for bringing a strange fire to the altar that God had not commanded. Aaron’s immediate response to the death of his sons is striking: the text simply says, Vayidome Aharon, Aaron was silent.

What does Aaron’s silence mean? Could it be that he is callous, uninterested in mourning for his sons? We would hope not, and some classical commentators argue the opposite, that Aaron’s silence is praiseworthy, since it shows his acceptance of God’s will. That may be, but it still rings a bit hollow. Instead, I’d like to quote a passage from Orchot Tzadikim, a 15th-century book of Jewish ethics. It says, in part:

“There are times when silence is good, as when divine justice strikes against a man, as in the case of Aaron. … If a person hears people reviling him, he should be silent. … And if one is sitting among the wise he should be silent and listen to their words, for when he is silent, he hears what he does not know, but when he speaks he does not add anything to his knowledge. However, if he is doubtful as to the meaning of the words of the wise he should ask them, for to be silent in such a case is very bad: Ecclesiastes said: ‘A time to keep silence, and a time to speak’.”

I understand this passage to teach us something meaningful about how to understand when silence is helpful, and when we must break our silence. There are times when we are so stunned, saddened, or befuddled, that the only response can be silence. That’s how I understand Aaron’s initial reaction to his sons’ deaths. Sometimes words cannot do justice to our feelings, and when we are feeling despondent, silence is understandable. But we also know that, for the sake of those who suffer from depression and those who care about someone who does — which is all of us — silence cannot be permanent. We must find ways to turn silence into song. For Aaron, this happens shortly after his initial silence, when Moses commands him to do a ritual; this time, Aaron speaks up and objects firmly, and Moses drops his command, satisfied with Aaron’s response. After all, Aaron recognizes what Orchot Tzadikim does, that when we don’t understand something, we can and must speak out.

So too with all of us. For those who suffer with depression, we must allow ourselves moments of silence, times when we must be fully aware of our feelings, times when we must insist that even those who love us give us the space to do so. But once we have done that, we must reach out and speak up, and seek ways to find a better life. If you are suffering like this, take it from me: there is hope, there are people who will give you the time to be silent, and, later, the time to hear you when you are ready to speak. After our silence, we must trust others to allow us to turn silence into song.

And for those who watch the suffering of the silent, know that there are moments when the quiet is necessary, and other moments when those who are depressed need to hear from you, without judgment or blame, and to allow them to sing their song to you.

As we turn in just a moment to Yizkor, let us take the story of Aaron as inspiration. We remember our dearly departed with love. Sometimes, we do so silently. But other times, like the Yizkor service, we say some words aloud to contemplate and work through the pain of their absence. Let us respect the silence that some of us need at this time. Let us embrace those who respond aloud. Let us always find ways to enable ourselves, and others, to transform silence into song.

Poetry in Motion: Vayelekh 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What kind of writing do you prefer to read? Are you more interested in prose that is straightforward and to the point, or something more flowery and “artful”?

As Moses’s life draws to a close, he is asked to recite a poem as a final message to the Israelites:

The Pitch: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 31:19

Swing #1: “The poem is the entire Torah from beginning to end. And this was the purpose of the commandment, that each man should write a complete Torah scroll for himself, including the poem within it, so that nothing shall be missing from all the things that are in the Torah.” – Ralbag

Swing #2: “The meaning of the words ‘this poem’ is the poem which I am about to recite for you now, and that refers to the Torah portion Ha’azinu, and it is called a poem because Israel will forever recite it as a poem and a song, and also because it was written as poetry.” – Ramban

Swing #3: “But does God require a witness? Rather, the poem was to remind God not to judge Israel too harshly. For, through knowing their nature (Deuteronomy 31:21), God still chose them to be the covenanted people.” – Malbim

Late-Inning Questions: Is it significant that the Israelites needed to hear a poem at this moment in their history? Whom, do our commentators believe, most benefit from this form of communication? What kinds of words impact us the most? Can we remember the importance of words as we approach Yom Kippur, and hold ourselves accountable for the words we say and hear?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: As of this writing, Hurricane Florence does not appear to be as threatening to Charleston as was once feared, but we certainly hope for the safety of anyone in harm’s way. I am greatly appreciative of the many synagogues across the Eastern United States that have offered us hospitality and help during a scary time.

The Big Inning at the End: Ten years ago today, Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter against the Houston Astros … in Milwaukee. Why were they playing there? Because Hurricane Ike was threatening the Houston area, so the game was moved to a neutral site. Again, here’s hoping that Hurricane Florence’s threats mainly do not come to fruition.

Shabbat Shalom!

“One Tribe”: My 2018 Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon

I need to give you a disclaimer: this sermon is really not about baseball. But I ask that you follow me for a couple minutes through a few baseballic elements, and then we’ll turn our attention elsewhere.

I decided to root for the Chicago Cubs when I was seven years old for a fairly obscure reason: my father liked them, not as much other teams, but he had fond memories of a Jewish pitcher in the 1960s and 70s named Ken Holtzman. It also didn’t hurt that, in 1984, when I first discovered baseball, the Cubs almost made the World Series. I decided then and there that I would be a fan of the team for life. And so I have. My son, Jonathan, on the other hand, likes the Cubs, but his favorite team is the Arizona Diamondbacks, because when he was three years old, I bought him a hat with the Diamondbacks logo, and he likes the hat. That’s all it took — his allegiance, seven years later, is to the Diamondbacks.

My reason for picking a favorite team is no better or worse than my son’s reason, or anyone else’s reason, for that matter. In fact, the absurdity of choosing a favorite team was famously summarized by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who noted that we continue to cheer for our chosen teams no matter how they perform on the field, and no matter who plays for them: “It’s different guys every year,” he said. “You’re rooting for clothes, when you get right down to it. We’re screaming about laundry.”

Usually, rooting for laundry is harmless; picking one sports franchise over another is not a reflection of our characters. But what if it were? In recent years, as our society has become more attuned to the ethical triumphs and failings of famous athletes, fans have begun to ask if there ever is a time when we should abandon our favorite teams. Several weeks ago, the Houston Astros traded for Roberto Osuna, an excellent relief pitcher who was suspended for 75 games earlier this year due to domestic abuse charges. Osuna, unfortunately, is far from the only athlete with ethical failings, but now that we know more about the people on the field, it raises the question whether we can or should support a team that seems to place winning over decency.

The matter was summed up well recently by Atlanta Braves pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who wrote on Twitter, “Tribalism in sports, when it comes to protecting the wrongdoings of their own, is strange because fans know that it doesn’t have to be that way. … Sports fans are used to the loss of their favorite [players] and are always excited to see what’s next. Why doesn’t this apply when their favorites turn out to be bad people? … What’s the fun in rooting for a bad person? Sure, [your team] might get a few more wins but you know they feel hollow. You always have to qualify your fandom against the bad person’s actions.”

Like I said, this sermon is not about baseball. Rather, it’s about the behavior McCarthy describes: tribalism, the tendency to pick a side and then defend that side no matter what, regardless of consequences, regardless of logic, and sometimes, regardless of values.

But i don’t want to claim that tribalism is always a bad thing. It’s a natural instinct, very much a part of our psychological makeup. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale University, wrote in her recent book Political Tribes that people generally want to be in a group, and we sort ourselves into groups whether we realize it or not. She cites a study in which a group of children were randomly given shirts to wear — half of the shirts were red, and half of them were blue. Once these kids put on their shirts, they went to a computer and were shown images of other people wearing both red and blue shirts, and then were asked a series of questions. The results were striking; the kids wearing red shirts consistently said that they believed the people in the pictures wearing red shirts were smarter, better-looking, and kinder than the people in the pictures wearing blue shirts. And the kids wearing the blue shirts thought the opposite.

So it’s no surprise that tribalism comes easy to us. And there are many times when we’re glad it does. There’s a lot of comfort in being a part of a group of people we trust, a part of a group with similar interests or beliefs. Being here today, at a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, is an act of tribalism, and I’d say it’s a good one — the instinct to connect with a common group of people and a common set of beliefs, or to support someone who does, reassures us that we are not alone, and provides a connection with others at a time in history when so many of us worry about feeling isolated. It feels good to be in a tribe.

But I also worry about tribalism to the exclusion of all other concerns. We see it in the political arena, in which discussions of issues quickly devolve into a horse race of sorts, in which the only thing that matters is giving our party of choice a so-called “win”. And these days, it’s astounding to witness the remarkable mental gymnastics used to defend someone in their tribe, sometimes to the exclusion of common sense. The desire to do or say almost anything for the sake of their political tribe has stymied the legislative process and has turned many of us cynical about the actions and motives of the so-called “other”. It’s no wonder that in his final statement to the American people before his death, Senator John McCain wrote, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”

We see the negative effects of tribalism in the Jewish world, too. We continue to be caught up in rivalries between movements; while there are plenty of examples of collaboration, there also remains too much focus on labels of observance rather than frank discussions on how multiple methods of following God enrich us rather than weaken us. We continue to read of ways that religious authorities in Israel marginalize non-Orthodox practice, both at the Western Wall and throughout the Jewish State. And the state of Israel itself is now the subject of growing tribal rivalries within Jewish communities, fostering divisiveness and suspicion based on whether we agree or disagree with the decisions of the Israeli government.

Whether we like it or not, tribalism is part of the human experience, whether we’re separating ourselves based on the shirts we wear, on our sports teams of choice, or on topics far more consequential. The question is, how can we utilize the teachings of our tradition to see past our tribal instincts, and to recognize, when it comes down to it, we’re really all a part of one tribe?

One approach is to consider the meaning of this day, of Rosh Hashanah. We commonly speak of Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world, but that’s not exactly true; today, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is understood in our tradition as the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation — the day, we are taught, that God created most animals, including human beings. And so, on this anniversary, it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of the question asked by the Mishnah centuries ago: Why, when creating humanity, did God start with just one person? The prevailing answer is that it gives all of the same common ancestor, so that no one can legitimately say that they come from better stock than someone else.

Still, it’s one thing to say that we all are part of one tribe; how do we live with that in mind? For that answer, it’s useful to look at the life of Abraham, the subject of today’s and tomorrow’s Torah readings, for a proper example. First, it’s in his name; “Avraham” means father of many nations. The Midrash claims that 30 different nations could claim Abraham as their common ancestor. What’s more, we forget sometimes that Abraham was not only the first Jew, but for many years, pretty much the only Jew. The commentary Yalkut Shimoni describes Abraham spending many days wandering through many nations, making him accustomed to their ways and beliefs. All the while, he deftly manages to be both unique and cooperative. When he knows it’s time to separate from his nephew Lot, he offers Lot a choice piece of land in exchange for his distance; and even then, he doesn’t forget Lot, but rather negotiates with God his rescue from the city of Sodom. He is celebrated for fighting in a war fought between nine different tribes, emerging from it victorious, but more importantly, respected. And, when Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah for a burial ground, he insists on paying for it so there’s no doubt that it’s his, but still does it in a way that doesn’t alienate the seller.

Indeed, these are all so-called “wins” for Abraham. And I suppose that since we, as Jews, tend to be on “Team Abraham”, these stories represent success for the Jewish people as a whole. But we should also note that these “wins” do not come at the expense of other people’s humanity. For the most part, Abraham works with his neighbors, not against them. Abraham’s descendants wound up founding many tribes, but Abraham himself teaches us a thing or two about not being overly tribal.

During these coming days, our tradition asks us to look within ourselves and to account for our behavior over the past year. Ideally, that process concludes on Yom Kippur, when we ask forgiveness from God. As we seek out others to make amends, let’s be kind to those in our tribes, but don’t forget those outside of them. For it is on us to recognize we aren’t only defined by the tribes we’re in. Regardless of your favorite shirt color, your favorite sports team, political party, or method of Jewish practice, we are equally responsible to act in the way Abraham does so often, knowing that rules of discourse and basic humanity transcend tribe. May we remember that we were all created in the image of God, as part of one tribe.

“The Middle Way”: My 2018 Erev Rosh Hashanah d’rash

This past spring, when my thoughts began to turn to the High Holidays, I created a project to improve one aspect of my life. Since I have periodically struggled to implement healthy personal habits, I set a few goals for myself for the summer. I limited them to three, hoping these would be attainable and meaningful.

My first goal was to eat at least four servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day. My second goal was to drink at least eight cups of water per day, and coupled with that, to avoid drinking anything with calories. My third goal was to have at least five active days per week — measured, at least in part, by walking 10,000 steps per day.

I am grateful for the many encouraging words I received from congregants and others since announcing these goals in June. And I stand before you today to announce … partial success.

I stuck to the fruits-and-vegetables goal for the first three weeks of the summer; I tailed off after that. I had a fair number of active days, but not nearly as many as I had hoped. The one goal that I reached involved what I drank; with the exception of a couple of weekly sips of grape juice while making kiddush, I only drank water and other non-caloric beverages.

So, how can we best evaluate how I did? How can we measure my level of success or failure? It would be easy to lament that I only went one for three, that I couldn’t reach goals that I thought would be within my grasp. On the other hand, it would be tempting to pat myself on the back, to see only the positives, to celebrate that I was able to avoid apple juice and regular soda for three months.

I’d like to suggest a third way, a path suggested by Rabbi Tarfon from the Ethics of the Fathers, one of our tradition’s oldest and most revered collections of wisdom: “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to abstain from it.” Rabbi Tarfon understood that many tasks seem too gargantuan to achieve … sometimes, because they are. When it comes to personal goals, we’re often our worst enemies, expecting too much from ourselves, often in too small of a time frame. On the other hand, if we never set our sights high, we won’t accomplish much of anything. That’s why Rabbi Tarfon urges us to take this middle way, to make big goals without the illusion we’ll achieve them all, but to get so much done just by starting.

As we begin the Hebrew year 5779, as we examine past deeds and resolve to improve our future deeds, we are tempted to dream big. After all, there’s nothing like a clean slate, a new beginning, to get our minds racing about all we can accomplish and all we can be. And then, inevitably, we’ll encounter obstacles, and our optimism might turn quickly to cynicism, making us wonder why we even bother. Whatever your goals are for the coming year, I urge you to take the middle path that Rabbi Tarfon advised — not to get too high or too low, to not focus too much on whether we are succeeding or failing, and, instead, to keep moving.

Looking back on this past summer, I’m not satisfied with the personal progress I’ve made. But I’m not ashamed of it either. Rather, I’m going to take these next 10 days, and then many days after that, to rededicate myself to being a better version of myself, and to help our congregation and community be the best they can be. I urge you to join me, to start the journey and to see where it winds up. “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to abstain from it.”

You’ll Be Back: Nitzavim 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What kinds of things are much better the second time around? And what kinds of things are only worthwhile doing once?

As Moses winds down his farewell address to the Israelites, he predicts the people will turn away from God, only to return:

The Pitch: “You, however, will again heed the LORD and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day.” – Deuteronomy 30:8

Swing #1: “Only after the first steps of teshuvah does [one] begin to fathom the enormity of the damage [caused by] his sin: how he sinned, against whom, and so forth and so on. And in this way one ascends from level to level. And on each level one increases in teshuvah. For this reason, it is said earlier, ‘And you turn to the Lord, your God …’ (Deuteronomy 30:2), but later on, once one has made a beginning, and drawn oneself near to God, does the person come to the second rung, ‘And you will turn …’ (Deuteronomy 30:8). Each time more. Without interruption. Ascending from one level to another level. Through the heights of return, teshuvah.” – Joshua Sheinfeld

Swing #2: “The situation of Israel is very different [here] when compared with that in the earlier parts of Deuteronomy; behind the speaker there lies the period of disobedience and of judgment. The curses in Deuteronomy, which is here understood predominantly as law, have been fulfilled. From this standpoint the speaker looks to the future and announces a redemptive activity by which God himself creates for his people the prerequisites for complete obedience.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy

Swing #3: “Not from the root ‘to return’, but from the root ‘to dwell’, i.e. you will sit at ease, undisturbed.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that Israel’s return to following God’s commandments will be more satisfying after ignoring them? Is it better to learn from our mistakes or to never make the mistakes in the first place? How might the answer to that question help us as we approach the High Holidays, when we face up to our missteps and dedicate ourselves to improvement?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Our services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah will feature several differences from those of previous years. We will have a sermon from Shai Bibas, Charleston’s new shaliach (Israel emissary); the Torah reading will be introduced by a skit; the Haftarah will be introduced by a story told to children sitting on the bimah; and some prayers will be streamlined in order to make time for the other changes. Even if you don’t typically go to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, consider joining us this year on Tuesday, September 11th.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of satisfying returns, in the 1970s, Robin Yount was a ballyhooed prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers, but he struggled in his initial year with the team. He responded by staying away from baseball entirely for a few months, communing with nature and trying new things. It paid off; Yount later won two Most Valuable Player awards and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Shabbat Shalom, and very soon, L’shanah Tovah!