Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: November, 2019

The Weakest Link: Toldot 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: How much of your reputation is based on that of your family? Do you feel a need to live up to your family’s reputation? What happens if you don’t?

Isaac often is seen as the essential yet underwhelming link between Abraham and Jacob, even though the biblical text tries to accord him the same amount of honor as his father and son:

The Pitch: “‘I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs …’” – Genesis 26:4

Swing #1: “The military motif can scarcely be disassociated from the divine promise to the patriarchs … that their descendants shall be as numerous as the stars, so that all nations of the world shall bless themselves by their offspring, i.e., that the nations of the world would like to be similar to Israel. … In all probability, this population explosion is envisaged as the prerequisite of military conquest.” – Yochanan Muffs, Love & Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel

Swing #2: “Reiterating many parts of His initial promise to Abraham — the gift of land and countless seed, the source of blessing to all the nations of the earth — God now transfers His promises to Isaac simply because of his father’s obedience.” – Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis

Swing #3: “A man will say to his son, ‘May your seed be as the seed of Isaac.” – Rashi

Late-Inning Questions: Does Isaac have a responsibility to live up to his father’s example? Or, after surviving his father almost killing him, could we understand his reluctance to do so? How much do we need to defend our surname, as opposed to our family name?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It won’t be long before our JBQ (annual Kosher barbecue competition) — this year, it will take place Sunday, December 15th. Contact the office to buy your tickets and to offer items for our silent auction!

The Big Inning at the End: The Toronto Blue Jays have several talented young players — Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio — whose respective fathers were accomplished big-leaguers. What must it be like for a team to be led by players who grew up watching their dads achieve on-the-field success?

Shabbat Shalom!

Caved In: Chayei Sara 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: What do our possessions say about ourselves? Is it appropriate to evaluate others based on their possessions? Do you agree with the idea that when you own things, the things begin to own you?

For numerous possible reasons, Abraham wants to make sure that, after his wife Sarah’s death, he can purchase and own the Cave of Machpelah for her burial:

The Pitch: “Then Abraham bowed low before the people of the land, and spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying, ‘If only you would hear me out! Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.’” – Genesis 24:12-13

Swing #1: “It is ironic that much as he used Sarah during her lifetime as the instrument of acquisition, Abraham does so still upon her death. … Abraham uses Sarah’s very body as the means for garnering exactly what he desires. It is as though he is determined to employ Sarah for one last ploy, for old times’ sake. It is for this reason that he is unwilling to gracefully accede to Ephron’s generous offer of a burial plot, for Abraham’s chief interest is not the burial of his wife so much as it is the deed, the contract, the irrevocable ownership of property in the land of Canaan.” – Burton L. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics

Swing #2: “The site of the Makhpelah Cave is the gate of [the Garden of] Eden through which all souls ascend, and its light is very great. Even so, for him [Ephron] it was a place of blackness and obscurity. This is why he very happily sold it to Abraham.” – Likutei Moharan

Swing #3: “Our sages regarded [this] incident as constituting one of the ten trials to which Abraham was subjected. The greater the contrast between the promise and the fulfillment, between the vision and the reality, the greater the challenge. ” – Nehama Leibovitz, New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis)

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators evaluate Abraham’s insistence on owning the Cave of Machpelah? Was Abraham’s transaction necessary given that God had promised his descendants the land in the first place? Or was it necessary for Abraham to show outsiders a legacy of ownership in the area? Is it wrong to purchase something mainly to prove something to other people?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: It won’t be long before our JBQ (annual Kosher barbecue competition) — this year, it will take place Sunday, December 15th. Contact the office to buy your tickets and to offer items for our silent auction!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of ownership, billions of dollars are spent every year on baseball (and, of course, other sports) memorabilia. For many, these purchases are part of a hobby; others, however, see them as a way to prove their devotion to their favorite player or team. How much sports “swag” should a true fan have?

Shabbat Shalom!

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Vayera 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: How much information do you usually need before making a big decision? To what extent do you rely on instinct, and to what extent do you need research and time to think?

As God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Amorah, God claims this decision will not be made impulsively:

The Pitch: “‘I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.’” – Genesis 18:21

Swing #1: “Yahweh’s decision to make an inquiry echoes the diction of the similar divine inquiry at the Tower of Babel, and both scenes thematically echo Yahweh’s inquiries into the human misdeeds in the Garden of Eden. In this mode of emplotment in [these] stories, the humans are allowed sufficient agency and leeway to commit mayhem before Yahweh joins the story and resolves the crisis.” – Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory and History in the Hebrew Bible

Swing #2: “The particular nuance of what now happens depends on how we understand Yahweh’s going down and knowing as he presents them. If they are read as intent or an announcement of what he will next do … they suggest that is doing a final check on the situation in the two cities to confirm what he suspects from their outcry. This suggests a certain uncertainty on Yahweh’s part.” – W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal

Swing #3: “The design of the Deity to punish man is, therefore, introduced by the verb ‘to descend’: ‘Let us go down and there confound their language’ (Gen. 11:7); ‘And the Lord came down to see’ (Gen. 11:5); ‘I will go down now and see’ (Gen. 18:21). All these instances convey the idea that man here below is going to be punished.” – Moses Maimonides, Guide For the Perplexed

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to believe that God has already made up God’s mind about Sodom and Amorah while speaking with Abraham? Is God trying to prove to Abraham that this decision is not impulsive? Or is God really not sure? When are impulsive decisions beneficial? To what extent do you believe that God’s decisions are impulsive?

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of making key decisions, Astros manager A.J. Hinch was roundly criticized for not using his star pitcher, Gerrit Cole, during the 7th game of this year’s World Series. Hinch is among many managers who relies on statistical analysis to inform his game-time strategy. But if the Astros had won the game without using Cole, would Hinch have gotten credit, or would that have been forgotten?

Shabbat Shalom!

Bless You!: Lekh Lekha 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever sought someone else’s “blessing”? Why did you feel you needed it? Was the blessing granted? What, if anything, did you feel you needed to do to earn it?

God had blessed people before Abraham, but this time is different:

The Pitch: “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2

Swing #1: “Yahweh’s choice of Abraham was presented as indicating the cosmological significance of a particular lineage: Adam had received God’s blessing of life (‘to be fruitful and multiply’); his descendant, the ‘new Adam,’ Noah, had received the same blessing; and finally, Noah’s descendant, the ‘newer Adam,’ Abraham, did as well. Thus, the putative lineage of Adam-Noah-Abraham-Isaac-and-Jacob was distinct from other nations because it was understood as standing in unique relation to God as the recipient of God’s blessing of life and that upon which life depends, a bountiful land.” – Steven Grosby, Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient & Modern

Swing #2: “Genesis 11 contains the story of the nameless builders who wanted to build a tower in Babel and who wanted to make themselves a name and a future. However, in Genesis 12:2, it is YHWH who promises that ‘I will make your name great.’” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Swing #3: “Another interpretation: ‘So become a blessing.’ The Holy One said to [Abraham]: From the time that I created my world until now, I have been obliged to bless my people. Thus it is stated [regarding Adam and Eve]: ‘And God blessed them.’ So I blessed Noah and his children, as stated: ‘And God blessed Noah and his children.’ From now on, you are responsible for the blessing.” – Tanhuma

Late-Inning Questions: To what extent do our commentators believe that Abraham has already earned God’s blessing, and to what extent is it conditional? Should a blessing always be conditional, or should they be like gifts that can’t be returned? What kinds of blessings have the greatest impact?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I hope you’ll join us tomorrow morning as we pay tribute to veterans at our Shabbat morning services.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of blessings, I ran across something charming called “The Baseball Blessing”: “May you always find your arm slot, may your swings be pure; through every bruise and bad hop, I hope that you endure. May your change-up find the strike zone, may your blooper find a hole; let all your dreams hit down the line stay just inside the pole. May the wind blow out when you’re at bat – this is my wish for you; and if you’re ever in a jam, I hope that you turn two.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Be Kind, Rewind: Noah 2019

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you reversed a major decision you’d previously made? Did you reverse it impulsively, or did you think about it for a long time? Are you glad you reversed it?

The flood story in the Torah is a literal rewinding of the original Creation narrative:

The Pitch: “In the 600th year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the 17th day of the month, on that day, all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open.” – Genesis 7:11

Swing #1: “The surge of waters from the great deep below and from the heavens above is, of course, a striking reversal of the second day of creation, when a vault was erected to divide the waters above from the waters below. … The Flood story as a whole abounds in verbal echoes of the Creation story (the crawling things, the cattle and beasts of each kind, and so forth) as what was made on the six days is wiped out in these forty.” – Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary

Swing #2: “Spatial separations made in the name of purity enact the humble bowing down of his creatures before the overwhelming majesty of the Lord. Everything in creation is arranged in order; each thing on a lower rank to be kept apart from one above, contact between them to be mediated by sacred powers given for the purpose.” – Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature

Swing #3: “Originally, this rain descended in a regular manner to give people a chance to still repent when they observed that Noah’s prediction was about to even at that stage the rain would have proven to repentance come true. Had they done so, it would have been beneficial. Only their failure to respond even to this phenomenon turned this rainfall into disaster.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: Do you agree with Rabbeinu Bahya that the people had a legitimate chance to prevent the flood before God went through with it? Why didn’t they seize the opportunity to repent? How can we best recognize the moments to take bold action?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Over the next three Shabbatot, we will have guest sermons: tomorrow, from one of our teens, Sophia Fox; on November 9th, a tribute to veterans; and on November 16th, from CJF’s new shaliach (Israeli emissary) Naama Fux. Saturday mornings at Emanu-El continue to be special.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of seizing the moment, congratulations to the Washington Nationals on their stunning World Series victory. It’s hard for me to remember a team with more resilience or a better ability to come through when all seemed lost.

Shabbat Shalom!