Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: July, 2020

The One and Only: Vaethanan 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: What sentences in Jewish prayers are most familiar to you? What makes them particularly memorable?

The last line of the prayer known as “Aleinu” is particularly well-known to Jewish worshipers, frequent or occasional, but it also is based on a pivotal quote in this week’s Torah portion:

The Pitch: “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and one earth below; there is no other.” – Deuteronomy 4:39

Swing #1: “It is not sufficient merely to ‘know’ it; this sublime knowledge must be taken into your very heart, so that your will and your virtues both should function in conformity with what you know. This task constitutes the entire ‘worship’ incumbent on the Jew.” – Rabbi Israel Salanter

Swing #2: “Considering that Jews took monotheism to the top of the charts, the Bible has so far been surprisingly weak on the concept. But now we get the full-throated endorsement of one and only god that we’ve been waiting for.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #3: “One of the primary goals of [Deuteronomy] is to inculcate a sense of total loyalty to him. The emphasis on Yahweh’s uniqueness leads to the conclusion that he alone is able to bless the people and guarantee their security and prosperity.” – Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reapprisal

Late-Inning Questions: Does it surprise you that strict monotheism was not a vital concept in the earlier books of the Torah? Why would there be a shift in tone in Deuteronomy? Is it problematic for other religions to claim a different name and identity for their deity (or deities) and then to say that “we’re all praying to the same God”? If not, are we really strict monotheists after all?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’m looking forward to starting Adult Education classes in a couple of weeks. Keep your eye out for information on how to take part!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of praying to one God, it’s amusing that many sports fans have “religious experiences” when praying that their favorite team succeeds. (Not that I’m speaking of personal experience …) But in all seriousness, it’s certainly reasonable to pray for the speedy recovery of ball players who tested positive for COVID-19 — and to hope that it doesn’t spread even more.

Shabbat Shalom!

I Hate It When a Plan Doesn’t Come Together: D’varim 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever needed to give a motivational speech? What strategies did you employ in your speech? To what extent were you successful?

Most of the book of Deuteronomy is a lengthy motivational speech by Moses to the Israelites, in which the information usually matches previous sections of the Torah — but occasionally, it doesn’t:

The Pitch: “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.’ I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.” – Deuteronomy 1:22-23

Swing #1: “At this time Moses found even this a cause for remonstrating with the people, for when there is an opportunity to hear the Law expounded, it would be entirely proper to want to crowd around the master, pushing others aside in order to be able to hear every word.” – Rabbi Isaac Meir of Ger

Swing #2: “[In Numbers] it seems clear that God commanded Moses to send out the spies; the initiative certainly was not Moses’. … [But in Deuteronomy] the decision to send the spies is made by Moses at the people’s urging; God has no role in the decision. So which was it? Some interpreters decided that the latter was most likely the case, for surely an omniscient God would not have ordered that the spies be sent only to become angry later at the reaction to their ill report.” – James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was

Swing #3: “Reish Lakish says: [The implication of these words is that it seemed good] ‘in my eyes,’ but not in the eyes of the Omnipresent.” – BT Sotah 34b

Late-Inning Questions: What version of the story of the scouts makes more sense to you: the version in which God asks Moses to send the spies, or the one in which the Israelites and Moses make the decision? How does either version of the story alter our view of the story, if at all? Are small disagreements about facts really big disagreements in disguise?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Tisha B’Av commemorates numerous calamities in Jewish history, as well as our enduring spirit. Join us for meaningful teachings and services next week: Wednesday at 8:30pm for Ma’ariv, a teaching, and the reading of the book of Lamentations; Thursday at 7:15am for Shaharit and Kinot (songs of lamentation) and at 2:00pm for Minha.

The Big Inning at the End: Happy Opening Day … and speaking of disagreements about seemingly small facts, does it matter whether Babe Ruth really pointed to the outfield bleachers before his home run in the 1932 World Series? Or does the true story of his “called shot” — whatever it is — impact how we should feel about the Sultan of Swat?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

The Blame Game: Matot-Masei 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: When have you been let down by people you’ve looked up to? How did you reconcile your disappointment with the positive feelings you’ve had for them, and still might have?

As the book of Numbers nears it conclusions, Moses — who so often takes the burdens of the people upon himself — is uncharacteristically willing to cast blame and seek vengeance:

The Pitch: “‘Yet [the females] are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every [Midianite] male among the children, and slay also every [Midianite] woman who has known a man carnally …” – Numbers 31:16-17

Swing #1: “Balaam bears a message for Moses about the fate of leaders. Both Moses and Balaam are named to leadership. Both are ambivalent; they wish to go but are fearful. … After passing a test signifying obedience to God’s will by identification with the people entrusted to their care, a test carried out by a female (Zipporah and the she-ass), each fulfills these obligations, only to be beaten in the process.” – Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Swing #2: “The words of Moses to his army were ominous but rich with irony. He had many Midianites relations of his own, and yet the fact that the women and children of Midianites had been spared seemed to move him to a terrible rage.” – Jonathan Kirsch, Moses: A Life

Swing #3: “During [Moses’] anger the Holy Spirit departed from him. Hence you may learn that the impetuous man destroys his wisdom.” – Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer

Late-Inning Questions: Moses is known in the Hebrew Bible as a man of humility and loyalty, but also with a periodically hot temper. Does this side of Moses surprise you? Should we look at Moses more as a hero with flaws or as an ordinary man reacting to extraordinary challenges? How much are our opinions of others dependent on expectation rather than reality?

On Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Be sure to wish loved ones a happy new year by sending them honey — contact Marcia Goldstein at by July 20th. In a year with so many challenges, we could all do with a little more sweetness.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of how we form opinions of others, it’s interesting to see the wide discrepancies of reactions to great ballplayers accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs — for instance, many people feel differently about Mark McGwire than they do about Barry Bonds. Is this due to our opinions of the players’ personalities, or perhaps whether or not the players have confessed?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

The Iron Lady: Pinhas 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Does (or did) your family have a matriarch? If so, how does (or did) this woman impact subsequent generations?

The Hebrew Bible’s matriarchal characters are sometimes mentioned in passing, and this week, we find an all-too-brief reference to Serach, whose impact goes far beyond the Torah text:

The Pitch: “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serach.” – Numbers 26:46

Swing #1: “Serach not only lived a long life on earth, she never died. She is one of several righteous people who are said to have entered the Garden of Eden alive.” – Targum Yonatan

Swing #2: “Moses went to [Serach] and said to her: ‘Do you know anything about where Joseph is buried?’ She said to him: ‘The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile River so that its water would be blessed. …’” – BT Sotah 13a

Swing #3: “[Serach] had a large family which was called her name and which was included in the tally of the families of Asher’s descendants.” – Nachmanides

Late-Inning Questions: How many of our commentators’ stories about Serach were familiar to you before today? Does it make you curious to learn more about her? Why are seemingly minor literary characters the inspiration for creative storytelling?

On Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: I’m grateful to be a part of this warm and welcoming synagogue in Buffalo, NY, and I’m glad to promote its activities. Let’s start with this: Be sure to wish loved ones a happy new year by sending them honey — contact Marcia Goldstein at by July 20th. In a year with so many challenges, we could all do with a little more sweetness.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of people mentioned briefly, it’s fascinating that a man with a scanty entry in The Baseball Encyclopedia — Archibald “Moonlight” Graham — turns into a pivotal character in W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, which was the basis for the film Field of Dreams. Baseball, like the Torah, is the basis of remarkable midrash.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Irreplaceable: Hukkat-Balak 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: What people in your life possess a unique skill or gift? How would you compensate for those qualities when those people are not available to you?

Jewish tradition teaches that the Israelites had water in the wilderness due to the merit of Miriam, and her death gives the reader a moment to recognize how special she was:

The Pitch: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” – Numbers 20:1

Swing #1: “In our own day, Miriam’s well has become for us a symbol of Jewish women’s creativity, spirituality, collective experience, healing, and wisdom.” – Ellen Frankel, Ph.D., The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah

Swing #2: “With regard to Miriam it is not written: ‘By the mouth of the Lord’ [as with Moses’ death]. Rabbi Elazar says: Miriam also died with a kiss.” – BT Bava Batra

Swing #3: “[Miriam’s death was recorded in the Torah] only to show that Israel later sinned. Israel had no water there without Miriam, and [her days and years] were not specified when describing her death, as was done for Sarah.” – Zohar

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentators seem to think that Miriam is given proper credit for her role in the Israelite community? Is it our responsibility to emphasize Miriam’s contribution to the Torah narrative? How can we best celebrate our ancestors whose stories are too brief?

Shabbat Shalom, and wear a mask!