Monthly Archives: March 2013

A D’var Torah in Memory of My Mother

My mother died eight years ago, exactly two weeks after the date of my father’s death according to the Hebrew calendar.  So, as we enter into Shabbat, we prepare to observe her 8th yahrzeit after Shabbat ends. It is impossible for me to believe that it is 8 years since Mom died. How could the years have passed so quickly? I remember the morning that she died like it was yesterday.

I consider it to be a tremendous z’chut, a tremendous privilege, to have been present at the death of both of my parents.  My mother died peacefully at home and the experience of watching her slowly drift away left me with an absolute belief in an existence after death. This belief, as many of you know, has been strengthened by several experiences I have had since that day.

I am working on what I hope to be the last edit of the book I have been writing for several years before I look into having it published. It is a book of stories from my life and the sermons that those stories inspired. In the chapter that I wrote about my mother, I included a Yom Kippur sermon that I feel was inspired by who she was and what she believed.

The sermon focuses on the blessing we extend to our b’nai and b’not mitzvah that they “walk in God’s ways”. I believe that that expression is the closest expression we can come to in our traditional sources for the words we say to our children: “be good”.

The Rabbis interpreted this phrase as meaning: “As God is righteous, so should we be righteous, as God is merciful, so should we be merciful …” It is our hope that by emulating God, we will bring those Divine characteristics into the world. That is our purpose. That is the goal of our faith.

My mother frankly did not have very much interest in Jewish ritual. She certainly went along with it and supported us and and my father’s interest in going to shul and keeping kosher etc. But, it never really resonated with her. She loved the more emotional aspects of what the Jewish calendar could bring, the joy of the holidays and the meaning of family but the ritual itself was not a major priority for her.

And yet, she was an extraordinarily spiritual person and she really “got it right” when it came to the essence of our tradition.

Mom believed that “being good” was all that mattered in this world. She went to great lengths, some would argue too great, to make sure that no one was angry or disappointed in her or in any of us. She constantly had a smile on her face. She very rarely complained about anything. All that she hoped was that we would be good and do good.

I tried to capture that simple message in my sermon that Yom Kippur. I taught that while Judaism is about much more than just being good,  being good, as people, as communities, as nations is the sine qua non, it is the most essential part. Everything else is commentary as Hillel taught.

And while I know that different people can have different concepts of what “being good” means and we can argue about specifics from now until forever, the general idea that what is most important to us is to be the best people we can be can not be debated. It is more important than any question of any specific of Jewish law and more important than how long or how fervently we engage in prayer or ritual.

I wish my mother had been here to celebrate our kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs, to dance at her nieces’ weddings, to watch our kids go off to college, to be hugged by our dog Sami (whom she would have loved to pieces since she is part beagle and my mother loved Snoopy!), to celebrate a longer life than she did.

But, I do believe she is with us and every time I read that phrase: “walk in God’s ways”, I think of her and know that that line was written with her in mind.

May the memory of G’nessa bat Shepsel Hakohen v’Bayla be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

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A D’var Torah in Memory of My Father

Today was the 12th anniversary of my father’s death, according to the Hebrew calendar. This day, his 12th yahrzeit has brought back so many memories- but then again, the memories are always there. My father, Manny Dobrusin, died on March 16, 2001 at the age of 79. I’d like to offer these words in his memory.

My father was a teacher- at times in his life by profession, always by avocation. He taught or tried to teach me so many things and one of them  was  the importance of proper grammar.

I distinctly remember that one of his lessons during my teenage years was about the proper distinction between the word “will” and “shall”. I thought of it the other day and remembered the lesson had something to do with someone drowning and screaming out: “I will drown” or “I shall drown”, I couldn’t remember the specifics  and so I tried to reconstruct it by going to google.com- a shortcut my dad would certainly object to. Sure enough, I found the very lesson he taught me, courtesy of wikipedia.org:

An illustration of the supposed contrast between shall and will (when the prescriptive rule is adhered to) appeared in the 19th century, and has been repeated in the 20th century and in the 21st:

  • I shall drown; no one will save me! (expresses the expectation of drowning, simple expression of future occurrence)
  • I will drown; no one shall save me! (expresses suicidal intent: first-person will for desire, third-person shall for “command”)

Apparently, therefore, the difference that my father was trying to teach me between “will” and “shall” is that “will” is a statement about what one expects to happen while “shall”, when used in the third person as in the second sentence above, implies a command. When the swimmer says: “no one shall save me”, he or she is instructing the people in the vicinity to stay away. A command is being issued: No one is to save me.

Wikipedia makes it clear that very few use this distinction today (not that that would not have bothered my dad) but I’d like to assume for a moment that there is this clear difference between “will” and “shall” to illustrate a point from this past week’s Torah portion.

One of the familiar sections of the Torah begins with the words; “Veshamru B’nai Yisrael et Hashabbat”. It is usually translated as a commandment and all of the translations I have seen use the word  “shall” to indicate this: the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath”. In context, this makes perfect sense. God is commanding the people using the future tense as a way of determining future behavior: “The people of Israel shall keep the Shabbat”.

The paragraph beginning with these words is found in our Siddur (prayer book) in several places. One of them is in the amida, the silent prayer for Shabbat morning where it is preceded by a paragraph which reads:

Yismach Moshe bimatnat helko…

Moses rejoiced at the gift of his destiny when you declared him a faithful servant…two tablets of stone did he bring down inscribed with Shabbat observance (saying): “Veshamru bnai yisrael et HaShabbat”.

The juxtaposition of these two paragraphs have always puzzled me. We are not used to thinking of Moses as a happy person. Why would Moses rejoice at hearing a commandment concerning Shabbat observance? Why would that, of all things, make him happy?

I believe the answer lies in the word veshamru, usually translated “shall observe”. I think that the author of the paragraph about Moses’ happiness was translating the word veshamru differently. Veshamru is, after all, a simple future tense verb and I think the author of that paragraph translated Veshamru b’nai Yisrael as: the people of Israel will observe the Sabbath, seeing it not as a commandment but as a statement of reality for the future.

I believe that the author envisioned Moses rejoicing at hearing from God that in the future, for all generations, the people of Israel would, in fact, observe the law he was bringing down to them. That it was a commandment was not a source of joy. The source of joy was the promise that they would observe the commandment. I believe the author understood the “shall” as a “will” and Moses’ joy came from a realization that the teaching he was bringing to the people would always stay with them and would make an impact in their lives. For this author, the commandment word “shall” was replaced by the simple statement of future reality: God’s assurance that the people will observe the Sabbath.

There is no greater satisfaction for a teacher than to know that what he or she teaches would impact the students and generations to come. May the memory of all of our teachers, including those closest to us, be for a blessing. And in that spirit, may the memory of my teacher Haim Mendel ben Yoel V’Rivka be for a blessing as it always has been.

 

 

 

 

We are not used to thinking of Moses as rejoicing and

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