Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: October, 2018

Bound For Greatness?: Vayera 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? Were you successful? If not, would you still take the same risk if you were faced with the same circumstances again?

The story of the binding of Isaac is stunning for many reasons, not the least of which is how God risks losing Abraham and Isaac’s devotion, and how, of course, Abraham risks losing his son forever:

The Pitch: “‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’ … Then a messenger of Adonai called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.’ When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” – Genesis 22:2, 11-13

Swing #1: “There is an opinion that an angel cannot read human thoughts unless God reveals them to him. It was for this reason that the angel had asked, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ (Genesis 18:9). The angel simply did not know where she was. This is also why the angel said, ‘Now I know that you fear God.’ The angel was speaking to Abraham; before this, he did not know Abraham’s innermost motives.” – Yafeh Einayim

Swing #2: “The Akedah is an earlier version of the Golden Calf. As far as may be understood, it is a justification for the sacrifice of an entire generation in order to create a people able to fulfill its promise. The entire people – that is, Isaac – is to be offered to the God who stands for unity of the people. The risk, the Akedah instructs us, is worth taking. Dramatizing a situation in which not just one generation but all future generations are at stake – bound to their faith, risking all – makes the larger-scale activity at Sinai more comprehensible.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #3: “There have even been attempts to separate two distinct stories in the Akedah chapter: the account of Isaac who was slain and burned on his pyre (verses 1-5, 9, 15-19), and that other version according to which Isaac was saved and a ram was offered up in his place. From the earlier story we lack the report of the act of sacrifice, the description of slaughter of the son; but the end of the story, the Lord blessing the father, has survived: ‘Because you have done this,’ ‘because you have obeyed my command,’ ‘I will bestow my blessing upon you,’ etc. … In this second story (verses 6-8, 10, 13-14) there was no mention at all of an angel calling from on high, exactly as verse 13 suggests: for had Abraham been taken by surprise and been prodded ‘from heaven,’ his eye would already have been lifted upward, and there would have been no place for ‘And Abraham lifted his eyes’ (of verse 13).” – Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial

Late-Inning Questions: Why do you think this story is so central in Judaism? What is its moral, if any? The story begins with the notion that God puts Abraham to “the test”; should he, or any of us, be defined by how he responds to a test? Does Abraham’s willingness show that he passed the test — or failed it?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are thrilled to welcome Danny Siegel to our congregation next Shabbat. Danny is the Conservative movement’s foremost authority on social action, and he has inspired generations of Jews to do countless acts of kindness. Be sure to be here Saturday, November 3rd, as Danny will speak before, during, and after services.

The Big Inning at the End: In baseball, as with all sports, the ultimate test is how an athlete or team responds to losing. The Los Angeles Dodgers face that now, as the Boston Red Sox are leading the World Series 2-0. I’m excited to see whether the Dodgers — clear underdogs at this point — can make the series competitive again. Something tells me they will.

Shabbat Shalom!

Who Stole the Bris Kit?: Lekh Lekha 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: What kinds of customs (religious or otherwise) make you uncomfortable? Are you able to recognize the purposes of such customs, or are you more overwhelmed by your discomfort?

Even if we are unfazed by the idea of ritual circumcision in Judaism, there’s no doubt that the subject is uncomfortable, despite the matter-of-fact way it’s introduced in the Torah text:

The Pitch: “God further said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.’ …” – Genesis 17:9-12a

Swing #1: “The covenant imposes only one obligation on Abraham and his heirs: circumcision. That’s it. This is God’s single requirement. It’s an inspired choice. Circumcision is painful enough that no one will undertake it lightly. It’s visible, and so it obviously demarcates you from others. And it’s irreversible.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “Genesis 17 sends out decidedly mixed signals regarding Sarah and her status. On the one hand, Sarah’s non-circumcision seems to betoken her adjunctive quality among the covenantal people. Her motherhood is not celebrated the way Abraham’s fatherhood is celebrated. Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4-5), but Sarah is not given the title ‘mother of nations.’ The Torah declares, She shall give rise to nations, rulers of people shall issue from her (Genesis 17:16), but the nations and peoples that she is to bear are Abraham’s. He is the father and she is his reproductive agent; Sarah is not a covenantal person in her own right. The word berit appears 13 times in Genesis 17, but not once is the word or concept associated with Sarah.” – Shaye J. D. Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Swing #3: “Like Philo, the rabbis also saw circumcision as fundamentally linked to issues of procreation. This connection becomes evident when the rabbis consider how Abraham knew he was supposed to circumcise the penis and not some other organ. After all, God instructs Abraham to circumcise ‘the flesh of his foreskin.’ How did Abraham know that God intended him to circumcise the sexual organ and not the foreskin of his heart or ears? … [Rav Huna says in Genesis Rabbah that] just as foreskin of trees refers to the place where it yields fruit, foreskin of man must refer to the place where he produces fruit. Another sage disagrees and suggests that the covenantal language itself signaled that God had in mind the foreskin of the penis [Leviticus Rabbah]. … Like Philo, the rabbis also saw an analogy between circumcision and horticultural practices.” – Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman & Arthur Waskow

Late-Inning Questions: What, according to our commentators, seems to be the most important meaning of ritual circumcision? Which meaning is most compelling to you? What are the best ways to find modern meaning in ancient ritual? Does the Jewish world today do an effective job of making such an uncomfortable practice meaningful?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Congratulations to everyone who participated in collecting goods for victims of recent hurricanes. We feel fortunate to be able to give back to those who were not as lucky as those in the Charleston area over the last few weeks.

The Big Inning at the End: Jews are far from the only people who engage in unusual ritual. But it’s striking when those not usually associated with Jewish practice takes Jewish ideas and makes them their own. For instance, Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs was known to draw the Hebrew letters of the word “chai” – life  – in the dirt before every at-bat.

Shabbat Shalom!

How Unsettling!: Noah 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: When do you prefer to be a leader? When do you prefer to be a follower? How do both leaders and followers add value to society?

At the end of the story of Noah’s descendents, we discover that a man named Terah is content establishing roots in a new place – but his son Abram will want to travel even farther:

The Pitch: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.” – Genesis 11:31-32

Swing #1: “How often is it that spiritual awakening comes even to a person who is not on a high enough level of awareness to be purified and to ascend higher. Instead, in the middle of the journey, his lower instincts overcome him, render him unable to move on. There there are the pious and the righteous ones who, as we read in Isaiah 40:4, set their hearts on, ‘making the rugged level, and the crooked places a plain.’ They clear away every obstacle from the way of the Ruler who ascends to the mountain of Adonai. They do not remain frozen in the middle of the journey. Just this is the difference between Terah and Abraham. For while there was awakened in Terah the clear vision to set out for the Land of Canaan, he changed his mind in the middle of the journey. … But Abraham, our forefather, was not content to rest. He did not get cold feet in the middle of the journey.” – Moshe ben Amram Greenwald

Swing #2: “Haran dies; Abraham and his surviving brother take wives; then Terah assembles the entire clan and decamps for Canaan. They arrive in the ancient crossroads of Harran, near Syria, where they settle. Far from random, this travel pattern is consistent with the lives of pastoral nomads, who traversed the region with herds, passed time near settled lands, then migrated to other places. … [But] Abraham is not a settled man, or a wandering man. He’s a combination, who embodies in his upbringing a message he will come to represent: the perpetual stranger in a strange land, the outsider who longs to be the insider, the landless who longs for land, the pious who finds a palliative in God for his endlessly painful life.” – Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

Swing #3: “Why did the Torah say that Abram left Haran after his father died? The fact of the matter was that Terah lived another 60 years, but the Torah did not want Abram tarred with the accusation that he had left his 145-year-old father, instead of caring for him. So the text said that ‘Terah died,’ for sinners [like the idol worshipper Terah] are said to be dead even when still alive.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: Both Terah and Abram are nomads, yet Abram’s taste for discovering new places far exceeds that of his father. According to our commentators, what character traits lead to this divergence? Why is Abram able to take the extra step? What characteristics enable us to take the extra step to pursue our dreams?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We invite you to participate in adult education at our synagogue. We hope to have an Adult B’nai Mitzvah class this year; it will meet Tuesdays at 6:45PM. Judaism 101 takes place at 8:00PM. Please join us!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of leadership, we once again turn to Casey Stengel, who remarked: “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Regret: Bereshit 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Are you good at changing plans at the last minute? Do you thrive when you need to be spontaneous? Or do eleventh-hour changes only frustrate and derail you?

Only 10 generations after the creation of the universe, God laments God’s boldest creation:

The Pitch: “Adonai saw how great was human wickedness on earth – how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. And Adonai regretted having made humankind on earth.” – Genesis 6:5-6

Swing #1: “When there is some affliction or judgement in the space-time-soul then surely it reduces from the joy of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, as is written (Gen. 6): ‘And it grieved His heart;’ and as they said (Sanhedrin 46)): ‘What does the Shechinah say? “My head hurts” etc.,’ and this person who enters into the joy can surely know according to the matter of the joy. He can also know on what part of the structure the judgement is decreed, for he knows according to the structure of the mitzvot: If he cannot perform of the heads of the mitzvot, i.e. mitzvot that depend on the head, he knows that the judgment is decreed on the heads of space-time-soul, and likewise with the remaining structure of the mitzvot.” – Likutei Moharan

Swing #2: “While the nature of what has fundamentally gone wrong with his creation remains vague, the impact on Yahweh and his decision in the face of it are not. … The fruits of human hearts bring an ache of regret to Yahweh’s heart, and with it a marked change in his attitude toward his creations. The force of this is marked by the fact that this is one of the few direct notices offered by the narrator of just what God is feeling.” – W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis

Swing #3: “Therein lies the tension: The flood is beautiful but destructive. The desert is cleansing but calamitous. The people are regenerative but resistant. This struggle, I now realized, dominates the Israelites’ time in the wilderness and is the chief story line of the second half of the Five Books of Moses. In many ways, Numbers mirrors what happens in Genesis. At the beginning of the Bible, God’s task is to create humanity and he follows a vicious cycle of creation and destruction: First he gives life to Adam and Eve, then they disappoint him, and he banishes them from his garden, forcing them to start from scratch. Adam and Eve go on to spawn humanity, who also disappoint God. He destroys them and starts over with Noah.” – Bruce Feiler, Walking The Bible

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators learn about the text’s rare revelation of God’s emotions? Does it indicate that God’s decision to destroy the world with a flood is fueled mainly by a gut reaction? At what point should our emotion overrule our sense of logic? Is this what happens to God just before the flood?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We’re resuming Emanu-El University this Tuesday; if you’re interested in celebrating an Adult B’nai Mitzvah, we’ll meet at 6:45PM, and Judaism 101 follows at 8:00PM. Classes are free and open to the public.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of regret, legendary manager Casey Stengel spoke with bitterness – albeit with humor – when the New York Yankees fired him in 1960: “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.”

Shabbat Shalom!