Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: June, 2019

Wants and Kneads: Shelakh Lekha 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: What is your favorite aspect of a Shabbat meal? Is it the company, the atmosphere, or the food itself? What are some of the best things we can do to make a Shabbat meal special?

It’s tough to beat eating a piece of freshly-baked hallah on a Friday night or Saturday – a custom with its roots in our Torah portion this week:

The Pitch: “When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to Adonai: as the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift; you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing floor. You shall make a gift to Adonai from the first yield of your baking, throughout the ages.” – Numbers 15:18b-21

Swing #1: “The observance of the commandment to take hallah because one believes that all which man has is derived from the Lord, and that therefore the first portion of whatever man possesses must be given to the Lord as an offering of gratitude, constitutes the most effective repudiation against paganism. It gives the lie to the erroneous notion that ‘my own strength and the skill of my own hands have done all this for me,’ which is the most heathen idea of all. As the Psalm has it: ‘Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands’ (Psalms 115:3). Their idolatry is that they regard the silver and gold they possess as having been obtained by their own might, by ‘the work of man’s hands.’ These are the ‘idols’ which are destroyed by the observance of the commandment to take hallah from every mass of dough that is prepared.” – Avnei Ezel

Swing #2: “When the Temple was destroyed, and with it most of the rituals of the Priestly Cult, the rabbis ruled that Jews must still set aside a small piece of each loaf of bread and burn it to symbolize the portion once given to the priests.” – Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teusch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols

Swing #3: “And so we pray, reciting the uplifting words of the pious Sore bas Toyvim: ‘You should remove a portion of the first dough that you knead, and by virtue of this, “God will fill your storehouses to the brim” (Proverbs 8:21). … In the past, the koyen [priest] would take the heave offering and the leyvi [Levite] would take a tithe. The pauper would take the pauper’s tithe and there would also be a second tithe at other appointed times. But now, because of our many sins, the beys hamikdesh [Holy Temple] has been destroyed, and all sacrifices have been annulled except for the mitzve of the khale [hallah], which has remained. Therefore, riboyne shel oylem [Master of the Universe], we beseech You to accept this mitzve of khale and to send us many blessings, wherever we may turn. May our children not become estranged from us, for many years to come. May the mitzve of khale be accepted as equivalent of the 613 mitzves of the holy toyre [Torah].’” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Late-Inning Questions: What do our commentators believe are the symbolic meanings of hallah? At a time when many people are trying to reduce their consumption of bread, would it make sense to find less carb-heavy alternatives to traditional hallah? How do we best harmonize our health concerns with religious practice?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I am leaving for a summer sabbatical on Sunday, and I’m pleased that Rabbi Alan Cohen will be “minding the store” over the following five weeks. He will write the Friday rabbinic emails during that time. (I’ll continue to post weekly commentaries on this blog during my sabbatical.) I hope you’ll participate in services and events when Rabbi and Linda Cohen are here; they always add so much to our congregation when they are present.

The Big Inning at the End: I had a hard time connecting this week’s theme with baseball, so I’ll simply say that the new voting format for the All-Star Game is an inventive way to keep fans interested and involved in selecting the best players for the game. I hope it sparks renewed interest in the event.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mo’ Better Blues: B’ha’alotkha 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you know when you really know someone else? Is it just a feeling you get, or are there signs that should alert us that we really understand another person?

When God comes to Moses’ defense after his siblings criticize him, God claims that their relationship is unlike any other:

The Pitch: “[God] said, ‘Hear these My words: When prophets of Adonai arise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Adonai. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!’” – Numbers 12:6-8

Swing #1: “Moses achieved the exalted status of stenographer, hearing God directly, but he was the only prophet to do so. All other prophets are mere translators; they perforce must figure out precisely what God means to communicate, because their contact with the divine is less direct, and the messages they perceive reach them through a glass darkly. In more abstract terms: in all cases other than Moses’, there is a human factor in biblical prophecy.” – Benjamin D. Sommer, “Prophecy as Translation,” from Bringing the Hidden to Light: Studies in Honor of Stephen A. Geller

Swing #2: “The encounter between the transcendent God and Moses, as described in the prophetic tradition of the Tent of Meeting, is blatantly anthropomorphic. ‘With him I speak mouth to mouth’: It seems that because of the marked anthropomorphism in the depiction of God in this tradition, there was an urgent need to achieve a spatial difference between God and human beings, i.e., to make God transcendent. Even though God is perceived with a human shape, there is still a marked border between humans who sit on earth and God who dwells in heaven. However, the Priestly Torah, with its non-anthropomorphic conception, can allow for an immanent God without fear of blurring the difference between God and humanity.” – Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices

Swing #3: “Does not the Hebrew verb Habata imply a looking down from somewhere above? ‘The likeness of Adonai’ which Moses beheld refers not to a [true] likeness of God but to His Divine qualities of graciousness and mercy, qualities which Moses brought down with him from above, down to earth and into the hearts of the Children of Israel.” – The Rabbi of Ger

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators understand the relationship between Moses and God differently? What is unique about it? How many other people do you truly understand? Is God and Moses’ relationship a model for knowing other people in our lives?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m so glad that we’ll get a chance to bring our Friday night services to different parts of the Charleston area. Tonight, we’ll be in Mount Pleasant, and next Friday, we’ll be in Summerville. We’re happy to spread our wings to wherever we find an audience.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of knowing people well, if you ever doubted that future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols has a humongous heart, watch this.

Shabbat Shalom!

Hail to the Chiefs: Naso 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you ever repeat yourself? Do you ever repeat yourself? Do you ever repeat yourself? Do you ever –

All right, enough of that, but you could be forgiven if you found the end of this week’s portion to be ridiculously repetitious, in which each tribe brings the exact same offerings to the Tabernacle, and these offerings are described identically each time:

The Pitch: “The chieftains also brought the dedication offering for the altar upon its being anointed.” – Numbers 7:10a

Swing #1: “Numbers 7, in which tribal chiefs deliver their offerings to the tabernacle, reminds me of a question that’s been bugging me ever since I came across the sublime name Zillah in Genesis. (She was the wife of Lamech.) Why do parents limit themselves to just a few biblical names (Isaac, Ezekiel, Samuel, Rebecca, etc.), and ignore so many other marvelous ones? This chapter alone has Eliab, Zurishaddai, Eliasaph, Gamaliel, Ochran, Gideoni, and Ahira. Wouldn’t life be better with fewer Davids and Pauls and more Ahiras and Zurishaddais?” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “These were they who were appointed over them in Egypt, regarding whom it is stated: ‘And the officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, saying: Wherefore have you not fulfilled your appointed task in making bricks both yesterday and today …?’” – B’midbar Rabbah

Swing #3: “Moses had to make a difficult choice in this gift-giving process: Which tribe was to go first? He chose Yehudah, not, it is generally believed, for its ‘leadership’ role but as a way of doing honor to Nakhshon ben Aminadav, the one Israelite who fearlessly plunged into the waters of Yam Suf, his faith in God’s promise to protect these people utterly unshaken.” – George Robinson, Essential Torah

Late-Inning Questions: Some believe that the list of offerings brought by each tribesman is listed in full every time because each set of offerings needed to be recognized, even if they were identical to all of the other sets. Does that sound like a valid rationale? To what extent is our obligation to recognize every person’s contribution to a worthy cause? How much do we need to be recognized?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I wish to express my gratitude to so many in the congregation who stepped up last Shabbat and during Shavuot. I became ill last Friday and was briefly hospitalized. Thankfully, I’m much better now, and I’m thoroughly impressed how Daphne Hubara and other congregants stepped up to run services effectively and smoothly. It’s heartening to know that this congregation has the depth to pitch in as needed.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of being repetitious, the otherwise unremarkable career of John Lowenstein hit a high-water mark in the mid-1970s when he posted the exact same batting average three years out of four. Unfortunately for him, that average was only .242.

Shabbat Shalom!

Holy Dangerous Things, Batman!: B’midbar 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: How impressionable are you? Do you tend to be highly influenced by watching the actions of people you respect? Or are you more cautious before mimicking the way that others go about their business?

The end of this week’s Torah portion is concerned that a group of people might see the actions of the Levites and imitate them inappropriately:

The Pitch: “Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.” – Numbers 4:18-20

Swing #1: “‘Do this with them’ – that is to say, do on behalf of them, that they may live and not die, by incurring the punishment of Karet (excision), when approaching the holy of holies, since the human soul on approaching that which is holy, naturally, yearns to see beyond the boundaries that are permitted it. Therefore you must cover up and conceal so that they shall not die, as a result of breaking through to see.” – Abarbanel

Swing #2: “Sometimes a hasid comes to the tzadik in order to learn by watching how the tzaddik behaves. But the tzaddik is in a state of spiritual smallness. The hasid copies this way of being from his master without realizing that he must know where to exercise caution to protect the soul. In this way it happened once that a hasid came to Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and saw him drinking coffee while he was dressed in his tallit and tefillin. The hasid returned home and began to do the same thing! Our verse hints at such a warning. ‘But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness …’ means that they should not come to the tzaddik in order to see how the tzaddik behaves and naively act the same way. ‘And … witness the dismantling of the sanctuary …’ means that it may be that the tzaddik is in a state of spiritual smallness, because the holiness has been covered and is concealed. ‘Lest they die’ means that the people might then fall from whatever spiritual levels they had attained. For this reason, a person needs to be especially prudent to learn only during times of spiritual greatness.” – Otzar Hamachshava Shel HaHassidut

Swing #3: “‘For-a-moment’ (in verse 20): Literally, ‘as long as it takes to swallow.’ Similarly, in German, ‘moment’ is Augenblick, literally, ‘the blinking of an eye.’” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: How often are you concerned that other people might watch your actions and imitate them inappropriately? Do you ever change your behavior to make sure that no one gets the wrong impression? Are perception and reality really the same thing? Or should we not worry what others think of our actions, as long as we’re behaving ethically?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We’re excited to enter these next three days – Shabbat, followed by the festival of Shavuot, when we observe the anniversary of receiving the Torah. We hope you’ll join us, especially for our joint learning session with Congregation Dor Tikvah on Sunday evening!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of making lasting impressions, our favorite athletes have millions of fans, and countless imitators. One of the most famous examples took place at Billy Crystal’s Bar Mitzvah, in which the future comedian delivered his d’var Torah in an Oklahoma drawl to honor his favorite ballplayer, Mickey Mantle.

Shabbat Shalom and, soon, Hag Sameach!