Monthly Archives: November 2013

Keeping the Matter in Mind as We Look Ahead

As a final thought on the anniversary observed this past weekend, I am posting my sermon from this past Shabbat.



                                                Rabbi Robert Dobrusin

There are some verses in the Torah which, though remarkably simple, jump off of the page. They are transition moments in the midst of long, elaborately told stories.

        One such phrase occurs in this week’s Torah portion. Upon seeing that the brothers are angry with Joseph concerning his dreams of power, Jacob, the Torah says: shamar et hadavar, took note of the matter.

        These are simple words but a reminder of how the childhood experiences of his sons would evolve into an entirely new story, in a new place, with new realities and new challenges.

        Immediately after we read those words, we read of Jacob sending Joseph on a mission to spy on his brothers. It would seem strange that Jacob would send Joseph on such a mission right after we read that “he kept the matter of his sons’ anger in mind”. Jacob shamar et hadavar, he remembered the reality of the recent past, and now he sends Joseph into danger. Why would he do that right at that time?

There is a beautiful Midrash which understands the key verse differently. It is based on another understanding of the word “davar”, which we translated as “the matter”. The word can also mean: prophecy.

Understanding it this way, the Midrash says that Jacob understood Joseph’s dream as a prophecy. Jacob is described as taking a notebook and writing down all of the details because he was sure it would come true. He knew that Joseph was destined for glory.

        Accordingly, sending Joseph out to meet his brothers at this point can be seen as Jacob trying to jump start Joseph’s journey out to the world. According to this line of thinking, Jacob  never believes the brothers when they claim Joseph has been killed but believes with all of his heart that not only will he see him alive again but that when matters take their course, the davar, the prophecy for the future will come to pass.

        In this case, the davar that he has kept in mind is not about an action of the past, the brothers’ anger at Joseph, but about the future and his hopes and dreams for the world of his children.

        Keeping the matter in mind.

        Does it mean holding on to a memory or expressing hope for the future?

        Sometimes it means both.

        I tried to imagine standing on this bima on this Shabbat and not talking about the past. But, despite the fact that we have been inundated with memorials and TV specials and millions of written words this past week, and despite the fact that I have expressed myself on my internet blog and from this bima on this subject, I can not allow the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy to pass without some thoughts this Shabbat morning.

        I am 58 years old and I know that it is those of my generation who are shomrim et hadavar, who have kept the matter of the assassination of President Kennedy in mind. We have not let it rest and the images of that weekend are burned into our minds so many years later. Perhaps it is because we saw it impact our parents and grandparents so deeply even if we were, as I was, too young to understand its implications. Perhaps it is because the entire industry of searching for a conspiracy beyond the “lone nut” explanation feeds into general cynicism and skepticism about our government and our leaders so many of us have experienced. Perhaps it is because we are envious of a generation which produced a president who was so charismatic, so attractive, so full of hope, and one who received at least some occasional cooperation from political adversaries and was able to see part of his vision through. Whatever it is, we have not let the matter rest.

        And it makes no difference that we have learned that all was far from perfect in Camelot and that looked at without the rose colored glasses of emotion, his administration was far from perfect. John Kennedy still remains in my generation’s mind the figure who brings to mind the greatest of our leaders as Phil Ochs sang in a song I was reminded of this week:

Yes, the glory that was Lincoln’s never died when he was slain
It’s been carried over time and time again
And to the list of honor you may add another name
That was the President and that was the man.

        But, we have reached a transition point, a point in which future is more important than past. The moment was actually reached long ago but past stories are stubborn and we hold onto them. Yet, I heard a commentator say that this week that this would be the last time there would be a big fuss about the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. He said that by the by the 100th anniversary it would be a moment of history but told without emotion and without the passion it is told today and without any who remember where they were on that fateful day when they heard the news. He is right. Time moves on and even if we choose lishmor et hadavar, to keep the matter of the past in mind, to keep reading the books and watching the videos, it is the future that matters.

        So, like Jacob, we must turn the page and look forward and to that I offer a prayer.

        O God: May we see the day when indiscriminate violence no more threatens or, God forbid, takes the lives of our leaders or those whom we love.

        May we find in ourselves and inspire in others the ability to be profiles in courage as we seek to overcome whatever obstacles stand in our way to build a meaningful life and to build a better world.

        May men and women, in our generation and in generations to come be inspired by those who find such joy in governing, such passion in leading a people and may the most honorable and the best and the brightest find their way into the political system.

        May we find ways to give help to those who need it before they can act on their horribly violent schemes. May we do all we can to keep weapons out of the hands of those who do not need them and can not responsibly use them.

        And, may we all, even after 50 years, find a way to shake off the sadness and look to the future as Jacob did, remembering not just the death but the sparkle in the eye, the vision of hope and the dedication to country shown by President John F. Kennedy.

        May his memory be for a blessing as we move forward to a better future.  Shabbat Shalom.



Filed under Uncategorized

Our “Day that Will Live in Infamy”.

For our parents’ generation, it was December 7, 1941. For our children, it is September 11, 2001. For those of my generation, it was November 22, 1963, 50 years ago this Friday.

It was the day the world changed. It was the day our nation changed forever. Daniel Moynihan said it best when he said:  “We will laugh again but we will never be young again”.

And, those of us above the age of 55, will never forget that day.

For those who were old enough to understand the nuances of politics and society, it was an end to Camelot. The assassination of President Kennedy brought a sudden and abrupt shocking end to the young, smiling Presidential family which had seemed to corner the market on good looks and culture. But, they knew that it was more than that. It was also an end to the youthful, joyous, spring in the step early 1960s which had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of involvement in Vietnam.

For kids like me,  8 years old at the time, it was something simpler. It was the first time many of us saw our parents- and perhaps even more dramatically, our teachers- cry. It was the cancelled parties and games. It was the horror of watching, over and over again, the man who had made our parents and our nation cry killed on live TV. It was seeing the flags at half staff and having to ask why over and over again.

I saw President Kennedy in person  a few months before the assassination when he came to Boston College  to deliver an address. The motorcade  passed one block from  our house. The line was two or three deep but someone pushed me right into the front and he waved right at me. I will never forget his smile.

As I got to college,  with the memories of the motorcade and of November 1963 buried in the back of my mind, my interest in TV news and journalism in general sparked a fascination in the assassination. I suppose it  began in earnest when I heard Mark Lane speak at Brandeis. He was the first to make a name for himself in claiming that there was a conspiracy that was being covered up. He brought all his pictures and his films (but not the Zapruder film to be sure) and it was just what all of us wanted to hear, another thing to be cynical about in the era of Watergate. It was also a great detective story and I wanted to search for clues. And, it brought to the surface those emotions of that weekend, emotions which still felt fresh after all  the intervening years.

So, as the years have gone along, I have become even more deeply fascinated with the assassination. I have read countless books, watched all of the TV specials and in 1999, I finally made the trip I had wanted to make for many years, to Dallas, to stand in Dealey plaza and to visit the “6th Floor Museum”.

It was a pilgrimage in every sense of the word. I stayed in a hotel a few blocks away and walked towards the plaza and suddenly and sooner than I expected, I looked up and saw the Texas School Book Depository. I stopped in my tracks and just stood staring, as so many do. I did not expect to cry but I did. It was truly a cathartic experience to stand in that spot and I spoke about the lessons that I learned from that experience at Kol Nidre services the following Yom Kippur. If you’d like a copy of that sermon, just let me know at and I’ll send it along.

But, through it all, through all of the studying and the watching and the speculating and through all of the realization of the impact this moment had on our nation and the world, the memories I remember today are the simplest ones: my mother leaning out of the 2nd floor window as I arrived home from school to tell me the news; my father taking me with him to pick up my grandmother who was at the movies and hadn’t heard (it’s interesting that they didn’t stop the movie) and hearing him say to the people gathering around him as he told my grandmother what had happened: “I’m not going to be a God damned town crier”; walking with the members of our synagogue which was the closest house of worship to Kennedy’s birthplace to lay a wreath at his childhood home; and most emotional of all: seeing my mother staring out the window into the darkness and then turning to tell me, with a tear in her eye, that it would all be all right.

I still think that there are some aspects to the story of the assassination that we just don’t know enough about and, maybe 50 years later is a good time to let those questions go. But, honestly, I still find them compelling and still think we may learn something new sometime in the future.

But, that doesn’t seem important today. The most important thing to remember today is that while it was a day that will live in infamy, as happened in 1941 and in 2001, our nation survived, sadder, perhaps wiser or at least less naive, still able to smile but not quite in the same way.

I wonder what the 60s would have been like had John Kennedy lived. I wonder what our world would have been like if we hadn’t cried that weekend. We will never know.

May the memory of John F. Kennedy be for a blessing. May we who remember that weekend continue to move forward while the memories stay with us.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Talmudic Debates on the Holidays 5: Pesach

We continued our Talmud class on the holidays of the year last evening and this class was dedicated to two issues relating to Pesach.

The first issue we discussed with the tradition of bedikat Hametz, searching for the hametz on the night before the holiday begins. We looked at the Talmudic section which discusses why the search is supposed to done by a ner, which we translate as candle, but probably in Talmudic times was a small lamp.

The tradition of using a ner is based on the reading of several Biblical verses which connect the words “search” and “find” and “candle” concluding with a verse from the prophet Zephaniah in which it is said that God will “search Jerusalem with nerot, candles” to determine the sins of the people. Then a verse from Proverbs is mentioned which says that God searches with a candle the innermost parts of a person.

There is then an interesting statement about why that extra verse from Proverbs is added. The text reads that one might think that God (being merciful) would choose to search Jerusalem with a ner in order not to discover the minor sins but only to see things which were very visible and therefore would be lenient towards minor indiscretions in judging people. This idea is then ruled out based on the verse from Proverbs which clearly states that God seeks out the innermost parts in great detail.

While the Talmud doesn’t state this clearly, it is apparent that the reason this discussion arises is because of those people who might think  that searching with a candle (especially the very small candles that are given to people today in “searching for hametz”packets) means that only the biggest pieces of hametz would be found. The text from proverbs is used to eliminate that approach in favor of the idea that using a candle allows one to see into the cracks in the wall and floor and eliminate even the smallest piece of hametz.

But, I believe that the fact that the interpretation based on Zephaniah that God searches only for the major sins is brought up does, in fact, justify this approach as legitimate. And the fact that the Mishna in other section points out the fact that at a certain point “eyn lidavar sof”, there is no end to Pesach cleaning if you go too far makes me believe that there is on some level a justification for seeing bedikat hametz, searching for the hametz, as more of a ritual than an actual cleaning and the use of the candle enables us to put a finishing touch on the major cleaning with a ritual which only focuses on big pieces of hametz. Don’t forget, following the ritual, we say a declaration that whatever hametz which we might have missed is “hefker”, ownerless like the dust of the earth.

I believe that the entire discussion in the Talmud can be read as reminding us that we need to be realistic about Pesach cleaning and not go overboard beyond what could be reasonably expected.

We then studied the section in the Talmud concerning the 4 cups of wine which are drunk at the Pesach seder. There is a tradition that, in fact, 5 cups of wine are drunk and that tradition is ascribed to Rabbi Tarfon although in our texts of the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon does not refer to the 5th cup. Apparently there was a tradition that the text of Rabbi Tarfon’s statement has been corrupted and that he did in fact designate a 5th cup.

There are several interpretations as to the entire issue of the number of cups but the one that I like the best relates the 4 cups to the 4 Divine promises made in one short section of the book of Exodus: “I will bring you out”, “I will take you”, “I will redeem you” ” I will save you”. There is a 5th promise made in that same section: “I will bring you into the land”. According to this interpretation, there was a debate among the Rabbis whether that 5th promise had been fulfilled or whether it is referring to the ultimate redemption at the time of the Messiah. Those who felt the promise had not been fulfilled mandated only 4 cups. The others called for 5 cups.

According to this interpretation, a compromise was reached. There would be 5 cups but the 5th would not be drunk. That would remain for Elijah, the herald of the Messiah and the one who according to the Rabbis would answer all outstanding Jewish legal questions when he arrived (including of course the question of how many cups of wine should be drunk). So, we have Elijah’s cup not only to hope for the Messiah but to hope for an answer to the difficult questions of our lives.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Critical Moment for Israel

I am proud to be one of 775 American, European and Israel Rabbis, Cantors and Rabbinical Students to sign a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu asking him to withdraw what is known as the Prawer/Begin bill which would result in tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel being forcibly removed from the land on which they live and being relocated to urban areas in the Negev. You can find the text of the letter at

This is a critical moment for Israel as this bill would result in the dislocation of so many citizens against their will.

At issue are “unrecognized” Bedouin settlements  in the Negev which do not receive government services. The government proposes to move the Bedouin residents of these settlements into urban areas where they can receive government services.

While on the surface this may seem appropriate and beneficial to the Bedouin in some ways, it must be noted the urban areas into which they would be moved already have high poverty levels and unemployment. In addition,  the plan does not take into account the desires of the Bedouin. There has not been consultation with the Bedouin themselves who deserve, as citizens of Israel, equal treatment under the law.

This is not to say that life for the Bedouin  can not be improved. It can. But, it can best be improved by developing a plan which works together with the Bedouin instead of one which imposes a solution on them. Respect for life style and for connection with land calls for Israel to work to deliver services to these people where they currently live.

There are many reasons for the plan and one of the reasons  is to allow Israel to further  economic development in the Negev. However, as the letter points out, allowing the Bedouin to stay on the land on which they live would still allow for plenty of room for growth in the Negev and for the establishment of industry and military bases as are needed.

This is clearly a very emotional issue and I urge you to watch a video featuring noted actor Theodore Bikel who likens the planned  expulsion of the Bedouin to the story of Fiddler on the Roof and the Jews leaving Anatevka.  This video puts this plan into a context which should concern all of us.

I urge you to learn more about this issue by going to or  to read about the action taken by Truah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights. You can also read more about the plan and the knesset debates in the Israeli press at or

If you would like to write a letter to members of the knesset, you can do so by going to  and clicking on “take action”.

One of the hallmarks of Israel has always been equal treatment for all citizens. The Prawer/Begin plan ought to trouble  all of us who love and care for Israel. Please take a moment to consider this issue seriously and make your voice heard.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized