Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: May, 2019

Who’s On First?: Behukotai 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you believe there are qualities inherent in firstborn children that differentiate them from other children? If so, what are they? Or do you know many firstborns who depart from what they’re “supposed” to be?

As the book of Leviticus comes to a close, special rules are specified for the sacredness of firstborn animals brought as offerings:

The Pitch: “A firstling of animals, however, which – as a firstling – is Adonai’s, cannot be consecrated by anybody; whether ox or sheep, it is Adonai’s. But if it is of impure animals, it may be ransomed as its assessment, with one-fifth added; if it is not redeemed, it shall be sold as its assessment.” – Leviticus 27:26-27

Swing #1: “With regards to firstlings, as with tithes, [Moshe] Weinfeld argues that [the Priestly biblical source] considers sanctity an inherent quality of the animal. Thus, he argues, Leviticus 27:26 views a firstling as holy by virtue of birth; consequently, humans cannot make it holy by consecration or ‘secularize it by redemption,’ which is specifically forbidden in Numbers 18:17.” – Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

Swing #2: “The conflicting laws on the firstling reflect historical development. Originally sacrificeable firstlings were entirely incinerated on that altar as burnt offerings [Exodus 13:15] … The priestly laws, however, prescribe that the meat of the sacrificed firstling is a priestly perquisite. … Finally, Deuteronomy revokes both laws, by declaring that the meat of the sacrificed firstling belongs to its owner.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27

Swing #3: “A first-born, whether unblemished or blemished, may be proscribed. How can it be redeemed? They estimate what a man would give for this first-born in order to give it to the son of his daughter or to the son of his sister. Rabbi Ishmael says: one verse says, ‘[All first-born males] you shall sanctify,’ (Deuteronomy 15:19) and another verse says: [‘The first-borns among beasts] no man shall sanctify it’ (Leviticus 27:26). It is impossible to say: ‘You shall sanctify,’ since it was said already: ‘No man shall sanctify,’ and it is impossible to say: ‘No man shall sanctify,’ since it is also said: ‘You shall sanctify’? Therefore resolve [thus]: you may sanctify it by consecrating its value [to the owner], but you may not sanctify it by consecrating it to the altar.” – Arakhin 8:7

Late-Inning Questions: Does the confusion over what to do about firstborn animals reflect a confusion of how to categorize firstborn humans? Should birth order matter? Or should we evaluate people individually, rather than how they compare to their siblings?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, is almost upon us, and this year, we’ll be learning Torah with Congregation Dor Tikvah. Join us Sunday, June 9th, in Ashley Harbor. First, we’ll gather at the home of Patti & Mickey Bagg for Minha/Ma’ariv at 6:30PM, and then we’ll walk to the home of Arlene and Peter Rosenthal at 7:00PM for wine, cheese, and a bit of Torah by the lake!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of siblings, Hank and Tommie Aaron have the most combined home runs by sibling big-leaguers, with 768. Of course, Hank hit 755 of them …

Shabbat Shalom!

Release Me: BeHar 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: What factors prevent you from reaching your full potential? How, if ever, do you feel trapped? To what extent are these barriers real or imagined? What do you think you’d be able to accomplish if only those barriers were lifted?

By establishing the Jubilee Year, the Torah provides a periodic way for Israelite indentured servants to get a new lease on life:

The Pitch: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee (yovel) for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” – Leviticus 25:10

Swing #1: “The halakhot (laws) of the Jubilee Year apply only when all its inhabitants are in the land of Israel, and not when some of them have been exiled.” – BT Arakhin

Swing #2: “A kabbalistic approach to the word yovel: It is derived from the expression ‘sending forth its roots by a stream’ (Jeremiah 17:8), a hint that all the succeeding generations are traced back to their original roots, to the prime cause which determined their development. This is the reason why the yovel is called “freedom”, a reminder of when man was free from sin. All of mankind originated with the pool of souls at God’s disposal, and eventually this is where the souls will return to.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Swing #3: “According to the plain meaning, the word yovel connotes moving from one place to another. In fact, the deer is also called yovel because it is always going from place to place.” – HaAmek Davar

Late-Inning Questions: What do you think it meant to Israelites to have the periodic ability to be free to pursue their own livelihood? How important is economic freedom to you? Is it more important than other kinds of freedom? What kinds of freedom do you value most?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We’ll have the good fortune to partner with the Charleston Jewish Federation in welcoming Dr. David Breakstone of the Jewish Agency to our synagogue Tuesday, May 28th, at 7:00PM. Dr. Breakstone has received rave reviews for past speeches and we’re looking forward to seeing him in person.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of valuing freedom, fifty years ago, baseball players were not allowed to be free agents and to sign with teams of their choosing. Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals famously refused to play rather than accepting a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. He said, “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” His stance likely cost him several more productive years in the majors, but he paved the way for many other players to reach their economic potential.

Shabbat Shalom!

Lulav is All You Need?: Emor 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: What do you do when you’re happy? Do you celebrate with other people, or do you tend to be joyous privately? Does it ever make you uncomfortable if people “overshare” their good fortune? Is it even possible to “overshare” good fortune?

While this week’s Torah portion reminds us that Sukkot is the festival of our joy, there are different ideas of why we’re supposed to feel so joyous:

The Pitch: “Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to Adonai, to last seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.” – Leviticus 23:34-36

Swing #1: “The Yemenite Jews place great emphasis on the commandment of the Four Species because of its aesthetic requirement, as Rabbi Shlomo Korah wrote [in Arikhat Shulhan]: ‘Even though by the strict letter of the law an etrog need be no larger than an egg, the larger the etrog, the finer; likewise with the length of the lulav, myrtle and willow, people take pride in larger and longer branches.’” – Dr. Aharon Giamanti, “The ‘Four Species’ in Yemenite Tradition”, from A Divinely Given Torah for Our Day and Age, Volume II

Swing #2: “The expression of rejoicing occurs three times in connection with Sukkot. … But no such expression occurs even once regarding Pesah. This is because the fate of man’s crops is still in the balance on Pesah, and he does not know whether there will be a yield or not. Similarly, on Shavuot, only one expression of rejoicing is mentioned. … This is because the corn has already been harvested and gathered in the barn. Two expressions of rejoicing are not mentioned, because the fruit of the trees have not yet been picked and their fate is still in the balance. On Sukkot, however … when both the corn and fruit are already stored inside, three expressions of joy are justified.” – Yalkut Shimoni

Swing #3: “‘To make atonement for the first sin’ (Genesis Rabbah). Which first sin is being spoken of here? In Midrash Rabbah, Parashat Bereshit, in the verse ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day,’ meaning one that says ‘echad.’ This is Yom Kippur. Which is to say that the first day of the six days of creation was Yom Kippur. This means, consequently, that the sixth day was the day on which Adam HaRishon, the first human being, was created, and [therefore, also] the first day of Sukkot, and on that very day, according to the reasoning of the sages, Adam ate from the tree of knowledge. So therefore, ‘And on the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees (etrogim)  … to make atonement for the first sin.’” – Kol Kol Yaakov

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, why should one feel joy on Sukkot, and how should it be expressed? If we’re not feeling particularly happy around the time of Sukkot, how can we be expected to express it? How does a joyous time on our calendar contrast with simple moments of everyday joy?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It isn’t too late to have three chances to win! Our Spring Fling will take place this Sunday from 2:00-4:00PM, where we will draw our three winner of Pennies From Heaven raffle. Plus, I’ll be in a dunking booth …

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of joyous expressions, more and more batters tend to flip their bats in ecstasy after hitting a home run. To some, this kind of enthusiasm adds a colorful element to the game. To others, it is a form of taunting opposing pitchers. Which opinion do you find more compelling?

Shabbat Shalom!

“Well, Isn’t That Special!”: Kedoshim 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you believe that “normal is boring”? To what extent do you seek out unique items, people, and experiences? Or is ordinariness underrated?

As the theme of this week’s portion is holiness, there are numerous musings about what it means to be holy:

The Pitch: “You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I Adonai am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. So you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure, the impure bird from the pure. You shall draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as impure. You shall be holy to Me, for I Adonai am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” – Leviticus 20:24-26

Swing #1: “The fourfold occurrence here of the verb hibdil, ‘to set apart, separate,’ recalls its repeated occurrences in Genesis 1. In fact, these two passages account for well over a third of the attestations of the hiphil of bdl. If, as seems likely, this is not coincidence, the point would appear to be that the distinction of Israel from the nations is as fundamental to cosmic order as the separations through which God first brought order out of chaos. This is a natural implication, given that the primordial institution of the Sabbath has been made known and commanded to Israel alone. More telling is the fact that the passage just quoted views Israel’s own separation of fit from unfit foods as a continuation of the process of her own separation from the Gentiles so that even so humble an activity as eating replicates the ordering that is fundamental to God’s good world.” – Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil

Swing #2: “Oddly enough, in the midst of these moral precepts and warnings against pagan affections in the religious realm, is a reminder about the laws of cleanness. But what appears to be out of place here (and belongs instead to Leviticus 11) is attached to what has been considered out of place there. The point, however, is that the writer of Leviticus did not wish the two to be separated; cleanness and holiness are twin concepts. One cannot stand without the other.” – The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1

Swing #3: “[God says,] ‘You will be special to Me, engaged in My Torah, engaged in My commandments!’ And thus Scripture states, ‘… and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine’. [God says,] ‘As long as you are separated from other people, you are Mine. But if not, you are Nebuchadnezzar the Wicked’s and his companions!’” – Tanhuma d’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators seem to understand “holiness”? Is it best defined as being special, being unique, being separate, or some other term? When it comes to being Jewish, how holy do you have to be? Is it wrong to be like other people in some ways and uniquely Jewish in others?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I am so grateful for all the kind words surrounding Shoshana’s Bat Mitzvah last Shabbat. And luckily for us, the celebrations in our synagogue continue: tonight, we’ll honor our Beit Din (6th grade) graduates at 6:00PM services, and tomorrow, we’ll honor our Confirmation (12th grade) graduates at our 9:30AM services.

The Big Inning at the End: How does baseball define someone who is special? Typically, those people are inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But, as statistician Bill James once put it, the main problem with the Hall of Fame is that it’s a self-defining institution: simply, you’re a Hall of Famer if the Hall of Fame says you are. Should the Hall of Fame include only the greatest players of all time, or should it be more expansive to tell a broader story of the game’s history?

Shabbat Shalom!

Consistency: Aharei Mot 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you ever think that certain rules don’t apply to you? Are there rules – written or unwritten – that you feel are made only for a limited audience?

After the Torah text states priestly laws concerning Yom Kippur, the audience suddenly is told that all of Israel must similarly observe this sacred day:

The Pitch: “And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” – Leviticus 16:29

Swing #1: “The people are addressed for the first time. Heretofore [in this chapter], they were referred to in the third person. … [It] is the first of several signs that this and the following verses comprise an appendix to the text.” – Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16

Swing #2: “Not only the form, but also the content of what is said here allows only one conclusion: A congregational leader or preacher is at work here. Is it one of the priests who performed the difficult work of slaughtering and aspersing blood – and now in conclusion admonishes the congregation to keep the festival ordinances?” – Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary

Swing #3: “We should not think therefore that the commandment to afflict oneself on that day applies only to the non-priests. The words “to you” make it plain that it applies to the whole nation including the priests.” – Or HaChaim

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators believe that requiring all Israelites to afflict themselves on Yom Kippur is a Godly requirement or a priestly requirement? Why might the ancient priests feel that all Israelites need to follow the same rules they do? Are consistent laws a necessity for creating a fair society? Or are there circumstances in which different rules can equally serve the needs of different groups?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’d like to thank the many people who have wished my family Mazal Tov on Shoshana’s Bat Mitzvah, which takes place tomorrow. We are touched by your constant support and feel grateful for the person Shoshana is and will become.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of rules that apply to all people, some baseball fans advocate for replacing home-plate umpires with robots – at least when it comes to calling balls and strikes. They argue that the strike zone is interpreted differently depending on the umpire, which leads to confusion among players. Is this idea fair or foul?

Shabbat Shalom!