Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: May, 2020

Perspective From Rock Bottom: Shavuot 2020

Sometimes, in moments when the present or future appear to be bleak, we are prone to saying things we wish we hadn’t.

On the second day of Shavuot, observed this Shabbat, we traditionally read the book of Ruth, a tale of tragedy and redemption. Most of its first chapter deals with the tragedy, in which Naomi endures famine as well as the death of her husband and two sons. Returning home to the Promised Land, she appears to be thinking not of new beginnings, but rather her painful past:

“I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. How can you call me Naomi [“pleasant” in Hebrew], when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, when Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me!” – Ruth 1:21

The medieval commentator Rashi teaches that one explanation of the phrase “Shaddai has brought misfortune” is that “the Divine Attribute of Justice has humbled me.” If we read the text this way, perhaps we can consider that Naomi is not as despondent as she seems. Indeed, she must cope with recent misfortune. But humility implies an outward perspective, a realization that one’s struggles are only a small part of the challenges faced by society in general.

In other words, perhaps Naomi is saying that while she wishes her life were different, she understands that she is not the only one having a hard time, and that she can and must take at least some responsibility to improve her fortune. Judging from the rest of the Book of Ruth, Naomi does exactly that, encouraging her daughter-in-law Ruth to do the same.

As Shavuot begins, I hope we will approach the coming days with that same spirit. May we grapple with the challenges of isolation, sickness, and uncertainty with a realization that so many others are wrestling with the same struggles, and may that lead us to acts of compassion, kindness, and awareness.

Chag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom, and please continue to stay safe.

Be All That You Can Be: B’midbar 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: As we are about to observe Memorial Day, do you feel that the military receives enough credit for its role in American life? Is it possible that it might get too much credit?

As the Israelites are counted at the beginning of the book of Numbers, some question to what extent the census is focused on military eligibility:

The Pitch: “You and Aaron shall record [the male Israelites] by their groups, from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.” – Numbers 1:3

Swing #1: “These terms refer here to military roles fulfilled by men. However, the same root is used elsewhere to describe the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” – The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi & Andrea L. Weiss, ed.

Swing #2: “It is true that in the continuation of [the] narrative there is no question of any military activity on the part of the Israelite tribes and clearly the census, carried out from the military point of view, is for [the author] simply one element in the external organization of the people.” – Martin Noth, Numbers

Swing #3: “Based on this verse, our sages at the end of chapter 5 in Ethics of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) made the well-known statement: בן עשרים לרדוף, ‘when having attained the age of twenty, one is fit to join the pursuit.’” – Chizkuni

Late-Inning Questions: In the view of our commentators, how central is military service to this census? To what extent are the deeds of the military reflective of the quality of the nation it represents? In what ways should our appreciation of our soldiers extend beyond Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We’ll include a Memorial Day tribute in tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat virtual gathering at 5:00PM. If you haven’t registered for Friday night services in the past, click here to do so.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Serving and Protecting: BeHar-Behukotai 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How has our appreciation of those in the service industry changed over these last two months of quarantine? Has our society learned to appreciate them more?

Even though the servitude described in the Torah is far more restrictive than the rules for “servers” in modern American society, our Torah portions teach us valuable lessons of how we treat them:

The Pitch: “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest.” – Leviticus 25:35-37

Swing #1: “It is forbidden for an Israelite purchaser of a Hebrew servant to put him to menial tasks such as carrying his belongings to the bath-house or untying his shoes, as it is written: ‘You shall not impose on him the service of a bond servant.’ He can only treat him as a hired servant, as it is written: ‘As a hired servant and as a sojourner shall he be with you.’” – Mishneh Torah

Swing #2: “The phrase … ‘for my servants are they … they are not to be sold as the sale of serfs’ expresses the main corollary: God is the sole owner of land and people. The chapter, then, sets out regulations that make perpetual ownership of these impossible.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Swing #3: “This paragraph tries to awaken us to the reason why the spirit of God ‘our Brother’ who used to dwell in our midst has become so infirm. When the Torah describes ‘our Brother becoming poor,’ it refers to the ‘spirit of life within us’; the reason it seems to weaken is that it observed that we failed to study Torah and practice the commandments. There is no greater kind of poverty than the dearth of merits due to Torah study and the performance of kind deeds toward one’s fellow man. As a result, the individual Israelite’s light fails. … You are to assist such a Jew who has strayed from the true path to do teshuvah to help him rehabilitate himself. There is no other means which can ensure that the vital spirit be sustained within us which is comparable to the power of repentance.” – Or HaChayim

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators reinforce the notion of the inherent dignity of all who work?  What do you think they would say about modern society’s level of respect for different kinds of jobs?  How do we best show an appropriate level of respect?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to welcoming Shabbat in song today at 5:00PM. This week, we’ll be honored to be led by Mitch Gilbert on guitar, and we’ll also enjoy the musical talents of Zachary Gilbert, a recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music. Click here to register.

Shabbat Shalom!

Obstinate Daughter: Emor 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Have your actions ever embarrassed others more than they embarrassed you? How did you cope with that knowledge?

The status of the ancient Israelite priest is so important in the Torah that his daughters’ actions reflect directly on him:

The Pitch: “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire.” – Leviticus 21:9

Swing #1: “Here the concern was as much for Celtic purity as for sexual purity. Temple prostitution was idolatrous and therefore utterly opposed to the spiritual monotheism of Israel.” – William Graham Cole, Sex & Love in the Bible

Swing #2: “In most traditional cultures, a daughter is the most protected — and accordingly the most restricted — member of a family. Because she represents part of her father’s estate, he would rather forfeit his property than surrender it to another. And because she also represents her father’s honor, something especially precious to priests, he hopes to regain that honor by sacrificing her, thereby exorcising his own shame.” – Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

Swing #3: “As the lines for sexual intercourse are sharply drawn, women’s role in the commonwealth is conservatively established, with dominant familial power in the hands of the male, tribally based priesthood. Indeed, daughters in priestly families fare better than others in the social structure.” – J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction

Late-Inning Questions: Do you find this law from the Torah to be predictable, given the patriarchal society it comes from? Or do you find it to be unusually cruel? What amount of rebellion should be considered “normal”? Is the rebellion of the priest’s daughter understandable or over the top?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Congratulations to our USYers and Religious School students on another great year, especially given the unprecedented circumstances of the last two months. And Mazal Tov to those completing our Confirmation program. Our Synagogue youth continues to bring us much pride.

Shabbat Shalom!

Blood Diamond: Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: What symbols mean the most to you? Are there things in your life that best symbolize who you are?

As the Israelites receive more instructions for sacrificial offerings, the priests’ handling of blood carries extra significance:

The Pitch: “The priest may dash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the Lord.” – Leviticus 17:6

Swing #1: “Nonsacrificial slaughter is perceived as a rejection of the earlier conception that the blood of an animal possessed an inherently sacred quality. [Moshe] Weinfeld notes that [this verse] demands that the blood of all slain non-game animals is to be brought to the Tent of Meeting and the blood sprinkled on the altar.” – Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

Swing #2: “Loss of blood leads to death. Hence the power of life is contained in blood. If this is so, then one must deal cautiously with this power of life. And one must be attuned to those to whom life belongs: the deities and protectors of life. … There are countless ways in which blood can be used as a means of strength and of magic.” –  Hans Weissman, Blut

Swing #3: “[The fact that a] non-priest [is qualified to perform the sacrificial service on a private altar is] derived from [this verse, indicating that service at a great public altar may be performed only by a priest.]” – BT Zevachim 118a

Late-Inning Questions: The sight of blood often is considered disturbing, yet we cannot live without it. Is it uncomfortable to read about the blood of sacrificial offerings? Why are we reluctant to talk about some things that are essential for survival?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I hope you’ll join us as we welcome our synagogue’s new Board and Officers and thank those who have concluded their service. Click here to register for this evening’s Kabbalat Shabbat and Board Installation at 5:00PM.

Shabbat Shalom!