Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: November, 2018

Say No To This: Vayeshev 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Does “giving into temptation” have a negative connotation? Should it? Does it depend on what’s driving that temptation? Or, when we speak of being tempted, are we always referring to something that is not advisable?

We read in this week’s Torah portion that, after being sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph is refuses the romantic advances of Potiphar’s wife:

The Pitch: “One such day, [Joseph] came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, [Potiphar’s wife] caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, ‘Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! …’” – Genesis 39:11-14a

Swing #1: “It seems, on first reading, as though [Joseph] refused without any reason. As our sages have said [in Midrash Sifrei], ‘A person should not say I don’t want to eat pork, because, indeed, I’d like to. But precisely because I would, the reason I behave as I do is because God wants it so!’ It is by means of just such reverence toward being alive that one is blessed to understand the real reasons for choosing good and rejecting evil. And so it is that by means of ‘And he refused’ [without offering any reasons] that he was rewarded with the reason. For mere human intelligence is able to mislead and go astray. Whereas only wisdom that comes from reverence toward being alive is accurate and correct.” – S’fat Emet

Swing #2: “[Potiphar’s wife] was no wanton and no nymphomaniac driven helplessly to snatch at every man within reach. She was a great lady. She was a dedicated person, even as her husband, the eunuch, was. Her passion for Joseph was not a sudden and furious flare-up of lust, already sated a hundred times indiscriminately and still insatiable. It grew slowly, and it came into the open only ‘after these things.’ … And long before it came into the open Joseph was aware of it, and went through the gesture of discouraging it.” – Maurice Samuel

Swing #3: “The court-ladies told her: ‘You must break this resistance, one day, when you two are alone. He is a man like any other, and cannot long withstand your charms. Doubtless he already reciprocates your passion.’ Zuleika took their advice. Early next morning, she stole into Joseph’s bedroom and fell upon him suddenly. He awoke, broke loose, and left her lying there. She cried in despair: ‘Has so beautiful a woman ever revealed her consuming love for you? Why so churlish? Why this fear of your master? As Pharaoh lives, no harm will come to you! Only be generous, and cure me of my wretchedness! Must I die, because of your foolish scruples?’” – Sefer HaYashar

Late-Inning Questions: The Torah text doesn’t give a reason why Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances. However, when this section of the text is chanted aloud in synagogue, one of the words is sung with a shalshelet cantillation, a long series of notes that implies hesitation. Do you agree that Joseph was tempted by Potiphar’s wife? If so, was it because he took a moral stance, or was he more concerned about Potiphar’s potential reaction? Is it better to refuse temptation or to not be tempted at all?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are so proud of our annual Hanukkah tradition known as the “Night of Giving”, taking place this year on Sunday, December 2nd, at 6:00PM. Join us at Publix in West Ashley, Mount Pleasant, or Summerville to light the first Hanukkah candles of the holiday, and then purchase a bag of non-perishable groceries to give to the Kosher Food Pantry. It’s a great way to celebrate by giving back.

Also, we are thrilled to debut our first CinEmanu-El video, “Opening and Closing the Holy Ark”. Check it out: https://youtu.be/zo-oZsXBm5E

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of temptation, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred believes that no amount of punishment will eliminate some players’ temptation to take performance-enhancing drugs. Do you agree?

Shabbat Shalom!

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: Vayishlakh 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we best pass our legacy to a new generation? Is it best done through stories, photographs, or other material items? To what extent is it our responsibility to leave a legacy, and to what extent must our descendents recognize it themselves?

In this week’s Torah portion, when Rachel dies in childbirth, she tries to leave a legacy to her new son by giving him a name  – a name that Jacob changes:

The Pitch: “They set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. … But as she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath – now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.” – Genesis 35:16, 18-20

Swing #1: “[The] Hebrew [word] nephesh, despite its traditional translation ‘soul,’ never refers to that which continues to exist after death, through the nephesh departs when one dies. In this connection, H. W. Wolff observes, ‘man does not have [nephesh], he is [nephesh], he lives as [nephesh].’” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “The text does not read: ‘The same is the pillar of Rachel to this day,’ for Rachel herself did not need a monument. ‘One does not rear monuments to the righteous, for their words are their memorial.’ Righteous men and women do not need pillars of stone to perpetuate their memory. Thus the pillar which Jacob set up was intended only as ‘the pillar of Rachel’s grave,’ marking the site of the grave so that those of her descendants who might wish to visit the grave and pray there might know where it is.” – Homat Esh

Swing #3: “‘Son of my sorrow (Ben-oni)’ she calls her second son upon dying. She who desperately cried ‘Give me children, or else I die!’ (Genesis 30:1) ironically dies upon bearing a son.” – Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach

Late-Inning Questions: Are our children’s names an extension of our legacies, or more of a wish for how they will live their lives in the future? Are we responsible for maintaining the legacies of others? Or do we simply forge new paths based on what we think is best?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: In order to utilize technology for our Singing Circle Kabbalat Shabbat, tonight’s Friday night services will begin at 4:45PM. Cap off your Black Friday by joining us in song and gratitude.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of legacies, it’s curious how so many Major League teams are making statues of their all-time great players outside of their stadiums. Sometimes these statues are created while that player is still alive. Does a statue leave a lasting impression on the fans who see it? Is this the best way to maintain a player’s legacy?

Shabbat Shalom!

Angels in the Open Field: Vayetze 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you consider someone to be your “guardian angel”? Do you think you play that role in someone else’s life? What are the characteristics and qualities of such a person?

As Jacob grows from a young adult to a patriarch, he periodically senses Divine protection:

The Pitch: “Jacob went on his way, and messengers of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahanaim.” – Genesis 32:2-3

Swing #1: “There is a marked narrative symmetry between Jacob’s departure from Canaan, when he had his dream of angels at Bethel, and his return, when again he encounters a company of angels. That symmetry will be unsettled when later in the chapter he finds himself in fateful conflict with a single divine being.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary

Swing #2: “The presence of divine messengers does not obviate the need for human messengers. This juxtaposition suggests that, in situations of danger and interpersonal difficulty, the coalition of divine presence and human initiative and planning is important. God’s presence does not control so much that what human beings think, do, and say in such moments is irrelevant. The same time, the struggle with the ‘messenger’ [God in subsequent verses] makes clear that God may enter anew into human plans.” – The New Interpreter’s Bible

Swing #3: “God sent His angels to him to keep him safe while on his journey.” – Radak

Late-Inning Questions: Why do you think God sends Jacob angels more than the other patriarchs? Is it because Jacob’s life journey is more perilous than that of his father or grandfather? Or is it because God is less confident that Jacob can succeed on his own? Do we all need, to paraphrase the George Gershwin song, someone to watch over us?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are so proud of our annual Hanukkah tradition known as the “Night of Giving”, taking place this year on Sunday, December 2nd, at 6:00PM. Join us at Publix in West Ashley, Mount Pleasant, or Summerville to light the first Hanukkah candles of the holiday, and then purchase a bag of non-perishable groceries to give to the Kosher Food Pantry. It’s a great way to celebrate by giving back.

The Big Inning at the End: One of the advantages of having a Major League team named the Angels is the multitude of punny possibilities there are; for instance, I continue to be amused each High Holidays when we read the line about human beings as “little less than angels.” I guess that, this year, we’re all Texas Rangers – since the Rangers were the only team in the American League West with a worse record than the Los Angeles Angels this year.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rage Against the Pristine: Toldot 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: Why is it that those who follow the rules often are undermined by those who don’t? Does this speak more to a lack of boldness by those who do follow the rules, or a society that wrongly rewards those who don’t?

When the Esau’s blessings are taken away from him due to Jacob’s larceny, Esau’s initial instinct is, understandably, anger:

The Pitch: “Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, ‘Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.’” – Genesis 27:41

Swing #1: “According to another opinion, Esau approached Ishmael and told him to kill his old rival Isaac. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I will murder Jacob, and between us, we will be able to divide up the world.’ Although these were Esau’s words, his thoughts were very different. ‘Let Ishmael murder my father, and I will take care of Jacob. But then I will kill Ishmael to “avenge my father.” In the end, everything will be mine.’” – Shtei Yadot

Swing #2: “One of these glimmers comes to light when Jacob is forced to flee his brother’s ire. We cannot help but be struck by the irony that Jacob, who is now ‘the child of promise,’ has to vacate ‘the land of promise,’ while Esau, now bereft of birthright and primary blessing, is able to remain in that same land.” – Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider

Swing #3: “Said Rabbi Yudan: As soon as the Israelites came to do battle with Esau, the Holy One blessed be He showed Moses that same mount where the patriarchs were buried and said to him: ‘Moses, tell the Israelites: You cannot overcome him since the reward due to the honour he paid to those buried in this mount is still due to him.’” – D’varim Rabbah

Late-Inning Questions: The ancient rabbis never forgive Esau for wanting to kill Jacob, yet they are reluctant to criticize Jacob for actually following through on acts of trickery. Yet modern commentators are far more sympathetic to Esau. Why do you think that is? Do we need years of perspective before evaluating the characters of our ancestors? Are we too quick to judge people for their decisions? If so, why are we in such a rush?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Our Sisterhood’s annual Giving Thanks dinner takes place next Friday night, and as of this writing, there are only 11 spots left. If you haven’t already, make sure to RSVP for this wonderful annual tradition!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of people who get ahead by cheating, is it not bothersome that Gaylord Perry, who won more than 300 games by admittedly throwing the illegal “spitball”, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who still maintain that they never took steroids (in spite of evidence to the contrary), are not?

Shabbat Shalom!

Comforting Those Who Mourn: Chayei Sara 2018

This Shabbat cannot, and will not, be like any other. It is the first Shabbat since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Tonight and tomorrow, we will join congregations across the country for the AJC’s #showupforshabbat campaign, as a sign of solidarity and remembrance for those who perished in last week’s attack.

It is uncanny how often the Torah portion of the week speaks to the concerns of the moment, and this week, the portion of Chayei Sara is no exception:

“Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

Responding to this verse, the Talmudic tractate of Sotah teaches us another verse from our portion: “The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written: ‘And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son’ (Genesis 25:11), so you must comfort mourners.”

This Shabbat, all of us are like Isaac, reeling from loss and facing an uncertain future. But as the Talmud teaches, all of us also must imitate the Godly role of comforting one another; we cannot wait for someone else to do it for us.

Being at synagogue this Shabbat won’t eliminate the ghastly hatred of anti-Semitism, nor will it erase the wounds felt across the Jewish world. But it will remind ourselves that hatred and pain will not define us, and that we can and will move forward when we lift one another’s spirits.

If you’re in Charleston, please join us for services at Friday, Nov. 2nd, at 6:00PM, and Saturday, Nov. 3rd, at 9:30AM. On Saturday, we’ll be pleased to hear several times from Danny Siegel, our Scholar-in-Residence.

Hope to see you there.

Shabbat Shalom!