Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: August, 2019

Taking Ownership: Re’eh 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent are you in control of your destiny? When you make big decisions, how beholden are you to other people, or other forces, before making your choices?

The Torah’s rules of Israelite slavery, especially given our ancestors’ servitude in Egypt, might seem jarring at first glance — and maybe after many glances as well:

The Pitch: “If a fellow Hebrew man – or woman – is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed. … Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and your God Adonai redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-13, 15

Swing #1: “[An Israelite slave must serve] also the son [of the owner]. One might think [he should serve] also one who inherits [him as a slave]. Scripture states, [however,] ‘… he shall serve you’. And not one who inherits. Just what did you see to include the son and exclude the inheritor? After Scripture includes expansively, it excludes. I include the son because he comes after the father in designating [the female Hebrew slave as his wife] and in redeeming the ancestral field. But I exclude the inheritor because he does not come after the father in designating [the female Hebrew slave as his wife] and in redeeming the ancestral field.” – Tanhuma d’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai

Swing #2: “Serakh bat Asher the Historian teaches: So central to Israelite culture was the legacy of its slave past … that it was woven into the very fabric of its moral code. … Hagar comments: Given the lot of female slaves in the ancient world, what woman would consent to remain a slave if she was free to leave? Even a life of exile is preferable to bondage.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “Unlike the regulations concerning Hebrew slaves in Exodus 21, where distinctions are made between the sexes, evidently because the case in view is one in which the young woman has been sold into slavery with the intention of her becoming a concubine, here male and female slaves are regulated by an identical set of laws. Grammatically, masculine gender remain dominant, so even though both men and women have been mentioned, the text goes on to speak of ‘he’ representing both.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary

Late-Inning Questions: Does the inclusion of women in these laws of Israelite slavery somehow temper the questionable nature of the laws? Do you agree that slavery was part of the ancient Israelite culture and erasing this part of the culture might have necessitated a longer process? How long should we expect to wait before creating a more just society?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It will be a pleasure to welcome the Koslow family back to Emanu-El to mark the 40th anniversary of the family fund that provides our weekly Saturday kiddush. The family will participate in services tomorrow, which begins at 9:30AM.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of controlling one’s own destiny, the concept of “team control” has become a key phrase when discussing young Major Leaguers, whose trade value decreases when they approach free agency. How different would professional sports look if athletes could choose which team they could play for at any time in their careers?

Shabbat Shalom!

Have You Ever Seen the Rain?: Ekev 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: When have you felt that you’ve gotten exactly what you deserve? How does it make you feel? Do you feel this happens rarely or rather consistently?

One of the most controversial passages in the Torah claims that our ancestors would always get what they deserve:

The Pitch: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin you this day, loving your God Adonai and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. …” – Deuteronomy 11:13-14a

Swing #1: “‘And serve him (with all your heart and with all your soul)…’: This refers to prayer. You say this is prayer, but perhaps it refers to sacrificial service? Yet scripture states ‘with all your heart and with all your soul’. But is there a service that pertains to the heart? Behold scripture states ‘serve him.’ This is prayer. … So just as worship at the altar is called service, so too prayer is called service.” – Sifre

Swing #2: “[These words] are problematic in that in this day of scientific knowledge and greater understanding of the causes of rain or drought, it is difficult for us to believe literally that the presence or absence of rain is an indication of divine favor or disfavor. There is also the moral dimension to consider: Is it indeed true that rain ceases when there is disobedience to God or that the presence of rain is an indication that those who receive it are living according to the divine will? … Human beings depend of God for everything. The question is how to make them aware of it. Larger concepts – such as human life requiring the ever-present heat and warmth of the sun or the presence of oxygen – are rather abstract. The rain as a symbol of our dependency is immediately and easily graspable. … The Jewish definition of atheism is: ‘There is no judgment and no judge.’ The assertion of these two sections is exactly the opposite: There is a judge and there is judgment. Human actions do not go unnoticed.” – Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer

Swing #3: “It seems to many that the biblical passage ‘you shall put these My words …’ applies at all times, implying that you are always obliged to fulfill these precepts. Reference to them in the context of ‘and you shall quickly perish from the good land’ implies that even after you are exiled, these precepts apply. Rashi’s statement that ‘they should not be new to you’ is puzzling since they are still obligatory on us, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, as duties of the person, irrespective of the reason. Some explain that when Israel is exiled among the nations and Jews do not own their homes, only renting or leasing them, they would perhaps not fulfill the precept of mezuzah. Similarly, they would not fulfill the precept of tefillin since it requires no distraction from them. It would therefore only be right that the Jew be dispensed from the obligation to wear tefillin in the diaspora. For how is it possible for his mind to be free from distraction when he lives in exile among other peoples! [But] if this reasoning were allowed to prevail, the precepts of Judaism would be foreign to them when they finally returned to their homeland.” – Gur Aryeh

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to feel that we should make a direct correlation between human action and reward and punishment? Are fulfilling the commandments a reasonable goal, or merely an idea to which we can aspire? How would Judaism change (if at all) if fulfilling the commandments is merely an ideal?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It’s always a privilege to join KKBE our annual Shared Shabbat. Due to construction at KKBE, both services will be held at Emanu-El. Please note that the Friday night service will take place at 8:00PM and will be run according to KKBE traditions.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of getting what we deserve, there seems to be far less complaining about the use of performance-enhancing drugs ever since guilty players were suspended 80 games (essentially half a season) for their first offense. Do you think this penalty is still enough to deter potential perpetrators, or should the punishment be even harsher?

Shabbat Shalom!

This is Only a Test: Vaethanan 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever felt that you were being tested? If so, was this test fair to you? What kinds of skills did you need to “pass” it?

As Moses continues his closing speech to the Israelites, it’s clear that when the people have tested God, it tests God’s patience:

The Pitch: “Do not try your God Adonai, as you did at Massah. Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that your God Adonai has enjoined upon you.” – Deuteronomy 6:16-17

Swing #1: “The meaning of ‘as you did at Massah’ is that you should not question whether the Lord is in the midst of you to perform miracles or that you make your worship of Him dependent on material success … and only then shall we observe His Torah. For their intention at Massah was that they would follow the Lord if He gave them water through a miracle. Otherwise, they would forsake them. This was accounted a great iniquity.” – Nahmanides

Swing #2: “This means: Do not test one of God’s prophets by issuing a challenge to perform miracles.” – Maimonides

Swing #3: “In times of distress, the people try their God to see whether he can help them. This theme comes to the fore during the wanderings in the desert, and especially at Massah or Meribah, when the people were thirsty and had no water. … In fact, the same event of distress may serve as a test by God as well as a test by man: God tests the man to see whether he remains faithful in spite of suffering, while man tests God to see whether he will prove himself as God and release him from suffering. This actually happened in the case of Massah.” – Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators feel that the Israelites have tested God fairly in the past? Has God tested the Israelites fairly? How do we best teach ourselves to trust others? Are tests always necessary, or can we find faith without them?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I’m pleased that our Adult Education classes will resume next week. We invite those who would like to study for an Adult B’nai Mitzvah to come to the synagogue Tuesday, August 20th, at 7:00PM. That night at 8:00PM, Judaism 101, our introduction to Judaism, will begin a new year. And after morning minyan on Wednesday the 21st, please join us for breakfast and Morning Mo(she), our continuing series on the wisdom of Moses Maimonides. More to follow!

The Big Inning at the End: According to Lehman’s Baseball, “No athletic performance test or series of tests will ever be able to accurately predict baseball performance due to the strong emphasis that the game places on skill.  You don’t need to have blazing speed if you can ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t’”. So maybe testing is overrated …

Shabbat Shalom!

Og My Goodness!: D’varim 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: What is your favorite tall tale? What do you like about it? What is enjoyable about legends that contain exaggerated characters and/or ideas?

As he begins recounting Israel’s wanderings, Moses includes a side note on one of the foreign kings — a giant in every sense of the word:

The Pitch: “Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!” – Deuteronomy 3:11

Swing #1: “Og is pictured as a giant, requiring a tremendous bed that had to be made of iron in order to bear his weight. This may also relate to his being the last of the Rephaim, being connected with beings who are now associated with the world of the dead.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #2: “When God brought the flood on the world, Og sat on the steps of the ark. He bound Noah and his sons by an oath to feed him, stating that he would be a slave for him and his sons all his life. Noah agreed to this, and made an opening in the ark so that he would be able to feed him every day. Og thus survived the flood.” – Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer

Swing #3: “This crib was kept in the city of Rabat B’nai Ammon (now Amman, Jordan). When they conquered the Refaim who lived there and only Og survived, they left this crib there to show that they had conquered a nation of giants like Og and took the kingdom from his hand. They therefore left his crib there.” – Nachmanides

Late-Inning Questions: Does the Torah seem more or less credible to you when you take into account details that seem different than our notion of reality? Does it not bother you, perhaps because you believe that God can do anything? Or do you see the Torah as a parable to teach you deeper lessons?

The Big Inning at the End: It’s amazing how stories of Babe Ruth still live on in baseball mythology. Particularly, the account of his “called shot” (his home run in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, when he allegedly pointed to the stands and then hit the ball to that exact spot) remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the fact that we’ll never know whether Ruth called his shot only adds to his legendary mystique.

Shabbat Shalom!

Justice or Just Us?: Matot-Masei 2018

Pre-Game Chatter: We know that we can’t please everyone, but why do we sometimes still try? Do we feel that we can do the impossible, or are we quixotically determined to make as many people happy as we can?

What seemed to be a triumph for Israelite women’s inheritance rights earlier in the book of Numbers now is qualified as only a partial victory:

The Pitch: “The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites. They said, ‘Adonai commanded my lord to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot, and my lord was further commanded by Adonai to assign the share of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters. Now, if they become the wives of persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they become [wives]; thus our allotted portion will be diminished. And even when the Israelites observe the jubilee, their share will be added to that of the tribe into which they become [wives], and their share will be cut off from the ancestral portion of our tribe.’” – Numbers 36:1-4

Swing #1: “The men of Menasseh complain that they stand to lose because the general tribal holdings will be diminished if the women marry out of the tribe. After God bids Moshe to tell them that they, too, like the [daughter of Zelophehad], are making a valid point, God calms their fears by limiting the women’s choice of mate to men in their own tribe. Thus, these five women lose a measure of freedom, even though they succeed in saving their father’s name. On this not the book of Numbers closes, suggesting, perhaps, a major theme in human relationships – how to solve problems so that no one feels that he loses when the other gains.” – Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Swing #2: “One may point out the sensitivity Scripture shows to injustice toward women, hastening to correct it. This example, one may surmise, should probably serve as a guideline for future Jewish lawmakers who, based on the example of Moses, will listen to women’s complaints and correct wrongs inflicted upon them. [However,] the biblical daughters-of-Zelophehad amendment was a halfway reform of the law. As a general principle, to be applied legally in other cases, it served a useful purpose. It pointed the way to the future Jewish lawgivers as innovators. However, on the question of a woman’s right to inherit according to Jewish law, its outcome was detrimental.” – Tal Ilan, from Exodus to Deuteronomy: Feminist Companion to the Bible, Athalya Brenner, editor

Swing #3: “The laws governing marriage and inheritance are dictated by the economic interests of the household of destination and its male head. This is clearly the whole point of the levirate law, as also of the law governing the exceptional case of a daughter inheriting property.” – Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Household in Ancient Israel & Early Judaism”, from The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible, Leo G. Perdue, editor

Late-Inning Questions: Is it fair to hold the Torah to modern-day egalitarian standards? Or is it better to rely on modern rabbis to incorporate new standards of equality and fairness in contradiction to Torah law? Is the Torah a document of equality, or the basis with which to create a more perfect Jewish society?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of trying to make everyone happy, one of the more amusing experiments by legendary St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck was to allow fans at the ballpark to vote on what the team’s manager should do next. Maybe owners could do that now via Twitter poll?

Shabbat Shalom!