As a final thought on the anniversary observed this past weekend, I am posting my sermon from this past Shabbat.
SERMON FOR PARASHAT VAYESHEV, NOVEMBER 23, 2013
KEEPING THE MATTER IN MIND AS WE LOOK AHEAD
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.