Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: September, 2019

Get a Life: Nitzavim 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent does our society value human life? How does that priority manifest itself in our politics? In our lifestyles? In our personal choices?

As Moses’s last words to the Israelites reach their conclusion, it becomes clear that the choices the Israelites make will define their very existence:

The Pitch: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” – Deuteronomy 30:15

Swing #1: “In Chapter 11 … we are told only of a ‘blessing and a curse’. There is no mention of ‘life and good,’ or ‘death and evil.’ The reason for their being mentioned in this chapter and verse is that this section deals with the commandments of repentance. This commandment imposes a great responsibility on man, much greater than the commandments not to sin, for it affords man a way to repent. Failure to avail oneself of this opportunity is a greater sin than even the transgression of which one has been guilty. Hence, if the transgression alone carries a ‘curse’, then failure to repent of it would mean death itself. Therefore, ‘choose life’.” – Meshekh Hakhmah

Swing #2: “Look, it’s simple people! It’s a choice between ‘love and prosperity’ and ‘death and adversity’. All you need is ‘to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and keep His commandments, His laws, and his rules …’ That’s it. That’s all we have to do. I can imagine the Israelites muttering: Now he tells us! Why couldn’t he have said this before all those rules about lepers?” – David Plotz, Good Book 

Swing #3: “In reality, the undoubted truth of the matter is that man has full sway over all his actions. If he wishes to do a thing, he does it; if he does not wish to do it, he need not, without any external compulsion controlling him.” – Moses Maimonides, Eight Chapters

Late-Inning Questions: To what extent do you feel a sense of urgency when you make choices? How many of your choices are “life-altering”? What are the benefits of treating some of our choices that way? What are the downsides?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of valuing life, I hope that Major League stadiums will install netting from foul pole to foul pole starting next season. Too many fans have been struck by foul balls, and the risk of serious injury is real.

Shabbat Shalom, and very soon, L’Shanah Tovah!

Walk Back Like an Egyptian: Ki Tavo 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Does your life contain a lot of irony? How do you react when you encounter irony? Do you tend to think there are deeper meanings behind ironic moments, or do they seem more like coincidences to you?

In the voluminous list of curses laid out in our portion this week, the Israelites are told that if they don’t follow the commandments, among other things, they will need to go back from where they came:

The Pitch: “The LORD will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy.” – Deuteronomy 28:68

Swing #1: “Not even good enough for slavery! One stands in awe at the dark brilliance of this conclusion. … Deuteronomy 28, a warning to Israel, is also a terrifying revelation of the character of the Lord, Israel’s God. In the savagery of its detail, this vision greatly exceeds the flood. Is the Lord God capable of this? Indeed he is.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Swing #2: “The reference to ships is not entirely clear. Perhaps, since all this constitutes a reversal of the narrative of national liberation in Exodus, the idea of an arduous trek on foot up out of Egypt is contrasted by the notion here of a rapid voyage by sea along the Mediterranean coast back to Egypt.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary

Swing #3: “You [the Israelites] will begin to manufacture or make by hand all kinds of goods the host country lacks in order to secure your economic well being, but no one will buy these goods due to antisemitic reasons, as they do not want you to gain a foothold in their country.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Does the notion of being sent back to Egypt as slaves that no one wants seem like the ultimate punishment for an unfaithful Israelite nation? Do you read this threat as an example of God’s ability to be cruel, or do you see this as an exaggeration? Do you believe that what goes around comes around? If you do, is this text an example of justice or of something more harmful?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of irony, baseball history is filled with it, but a nice example took place this week when Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski threw out the first pitch before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park to his grandson Mike, who had recently reached the Majors himself … as a member of the opposing team.

Shabbat Shalom!

Carry That Weight: Ki Tetze 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever cheated another person? How did you justify doing so at the time? To what extent do you regret doing so?

The voluminous laws in this week’s Torah portion includes the command to be honest in our financial transactions:

The Pitch: “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that your God Adonai is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to your God Adonai.” – Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Swing #1: “According to Rabbi Levi, Moses intimated to Israel that the specific consequences of not keeping honest measures and balances are to be inferred … [that] if you do have diverse weights and measures, know that a wicked kingdom will come and wage war against your generation. And the proof? The [next] verse: ‘All that do such things … are an abomination unto the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 25:16). What warning against the abomination of using false measures and balances follows in the fourth verse? ‘Remember what Amalek did to you …’ (Deuteronomy 25:17).” – Pesikta D’Rav Kahana

Swing #2: “[Honest weights and measures] must certainly have been one of the most widespread form of cheating simply because it was difficult for the purchaser to detect or for the authorities to stamp out. Even standard weights employed in antiquity suffered considerable variation through wear and tear, besides which they may also have existed regional variations, since new weights were balanced from older, won ones. One of the most desirable benefits of official royal oversight of trading practices was a concern to enforce standard weights. Nevertheless, even with these efforts, it seems probable that the honesty of the officials was little superior to the dishonesty of the traders.” – The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2

Swing #3: “Whence comes this juxtaposition of greed and sanctuary defilement? One possibility is that an exegetical process lay behind this idea, though I know of no early ancient Jewish evidence for it. In Deuteronomy 25:13-16, the prohibitions against having unfair weights and measures leads to the general warning that [in verse 16] ‘all who do these things – who act deceitfully – are an abomination to the Lord your God.’” – Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism

Late-Inning Questions: Why do our commentators believe that having honest weights and measures is important? Why is this commandment necessary, given that we already have the command to not steal? Why does dishonesty come in so many forms? Why is it so prevalent in modern society?

The Big Inning at the End: Baseball’s history is filled with attempts at deceit, but perhaps the most ridiculous example I can think of is when New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, after being ejected from a game, reappeared in the team dugout wearing fake glasses and a fake mustache. While some applauded his creativity, I thought it was insultingly silly. I’m glad he was caught.

Shabbat Shalom!

De-Calf-Annated: Shoftim 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever suffered as a result of someone else’s misdeeds, even if you were not the target of said wrongdoing? How did it make you feel?

In one of the more curious laws of the Torah, we learn that the discovery of a homicide victim necessitates the Israelites to injure … a cow?

The Pitch: “If, in the land that your God Adonai is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known … The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. … Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of Adonai.” – Deuteronomy 21:1, 3-4, 9

Swing #1: “[The Mishnah implies] that if only one witness, male or female, testifies that the woman was defiled or who the murderer of the unidentified corpse is, this one witness cancels the ordeal of the bitter waters or the ritual of breaking the calf’s neck. Considered with other statements the rabbis made on these subjects, which indicate that they were interested in avoiding implementation of both of these rituals, these relaxed standards of testimony are not surprising.” – Judith Haupmtan, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Swing #2: “There is a great deal of wisdom in the notion that we need a way to cleanse our communities of wrongdoing, even when there is no one obvious to blame. As Jewish women, we see historic exclusion from significant roles and rituals; we encounter sexist rabbinic blind spots; we are troubled by painful narratives. We sense that the ancient rabbis were no worse on ‘women’s issues’ than other men of their time, and that in many cases they were ahead of their time – for example, in providing certain kinds of economic protection to women. But still, we feel hurt and anger when we encounter aspects of our beloved tradition that seem to undermine, limit, or even oppress women.” – Rabbi Susan Fendrick, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, editor

Swing #3: “‘They shall break the heifer’s neck’: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let a one-year heifer that has never borne fruit come and have its neck broken in a place that has never had produce in order to atone for the killing of one whom they did not allow to bear fruit.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: How can we make sense of inflicting harm on a cow upon the discovery of a person’s murder? Is there a slight bit of comfort to know that an animal is harmed rather than another human being? Or is this ritual repugnant in all ways? How do we reconcile our modern views on animal rights with the laws of the Torah?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are grateful that Hurricane Dorian, while harrowing and damaging, did not inflict as much wreckage on the Charleston area as initially feared. If you’ve made it back to town, please join us for Shabbat services tonight at 6PM and tomorrow at 9:30AM. We won’t be able to provide a full Kiddush on Saturday, but we can be grateful to be together, among other blessings.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of taking the blame for another’s misdeeds, I find it curious how often managers are ejected from games not because of their anger, but rather to prevent one of his players from losing his temper with an umpire. I guess this is one of the ultimate examples of “taking one for the team”.

Shabbat Shalom!