Monthly Archives: June 2015

Again

Again.

We have seen it happen again.

This time in Charleston, South Carolina. This time in a church with people praying and studying Bible.

This time at the hands of a man who, according to accounts, said he entered the church to kill black people.

And, of course, he had a gun.

When will it stop?

When we will finally and effectively address the issue of guns in the hands of people who have criminal records, or who are unstable, or who embrace violence?

It is long since time.

I have had the privilege of visiting the beautiful city of Charleston on two different occasions. It is called “the holy city” because of its history of tolerance of different religious faiths and its beautiful and historic places of worship.

Now, it is known for another reason. A reason which brings tears to our eyes and pain to our hearts.

Let it also bring all of us the courage and determination to face the issue of violence and hatred and heal our land.

May the souls of those who were brutally murdered rest in peace and be for a blessing.

May their families find comfort and may they find peace.

May we not rest until we bring an end to this horror.

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The Supreme Court Ruling on Jerusalem

Many years ago, I gave a Rosh Hashana sermon on the subject of Jerusalem. One of the points that I made was how unbelievable it is that our State Department would not use the term: Jerusalem, Israel. I referred to a page of locations for consular offices which did not list the consulate on Agron Street in the middle of West Jerusalem as being in a specific country as all others were identified. Rather, this consulate was listed as being in Jerusalem. Just Jersualem. Not, Jerusalem, Israel.

It was inconceivable to me at the time and I have to confess that even now, it strikes me as inconceivable. Anyone who has spent any time in Jerusalem at all would clearly identify the Western Part of the City as being in the State of Israel as it has been since Israel’s founding in 1948. The Knesset is there. The Supreme Court is there. The entire workings of the Israeli government are found in Jerusalem. How could it not be considered as part of Israel?

So, from that perspective, it is easy to be disappointed in the Supreme Court ruling yesterday that prohibits people born in Jerusalem from having “Israel” identified as the place of their birth on their passports. A law passed during the more recent Bush administration allowed such designation. While President Bush signed the law because it was part of a larger appropriations bill, he refused to enact it. The family of a child born in Jerusalem after the law was passed challenged this refusal. President Obama has, as every president before him, refused to specifically identify Jerusalem as part of Israel and the majority of the Supreme Court sided with the President on procedural grounds and also because of the complexity of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people on the status of the city.

Yes, it is easy to be disappointed in the fact that someone born in Jerusalem could not list Israel as their place of birth and it is unfortunate that the consulate is still not listed as being in Israel.

But, honestly and dispassionately for a moment, I completely understand why the Supreme Court made its decision and I think at this moment, sadly, it is the correct decision to make.

The ultimate status of Jerusalem will remain in question until an agreement is reached on the status of the city as part of a comprehensive peace settlement. I believe that that should be no question at all conceding Israel’s authority or control over the parts of the city which have been part of the state since 1948 and from my perspective, the Kotel as well. But, the rest of the city, especially those sections whose population is predominantly or almost exclusively Palestinian should be the issue of serious negotiation and compromise within the structure of a peace agreement.

The attempt by Jews to settle in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and around the old city is deeply troubling. Evictions of Palestinians from homes they have held for generations in favor of Jewish settlers is a despicable occurrence. Attempts to solidify a Jewish presence in some neighborhoods for the purpose of establishing a foothold in those neighborhoods are wrong. Yes, a Jew- or a Palestinian- should be able to live wherever they want to live. But, in the context of the situation today, it is wrong to try to force this issue and to deny the character of neighborhoods or attempt to force Palestinian residents out in order to bring Jews in.

Our connection as a people to the city of Jerusalem is precious. References to Jerusalem and our love for her are found throughout the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur, poetry and music. Establishing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 1948 was the culmination of a dream to return to the city and the impact of the return to the Old City and the Kotel in 1967 for our people can not be understated.

But, it is shortsighted for us to think that Jerusalem is not still an issue. It is an issue and will remain so until the conflict is settled. God willing that day will come and when it does, if it takes more than one day for the US government to recognize Israeli authority over at least part of the city of Jerusalem, it would be too long. But, for now, I believe, somewhat regretfully on an emotional level, but unquestionably on a practical and pragmatic level, that the Supreme Court decision was correct. Now is not the time to change a 67 year old US government policy. That would be wrong.

God willing, the day will come when our nation will not find it difficult to say that the consulate on Agron Street is located in words which seem so natural to us in Jerusalem, Israel.

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Running Like the Wind

Those who are regular followers of my blog postings know that I often write about personal interests. After the sermons, Torah commentaries, observations on the serious news stories of our day, I like to let people know about my own hobbies and interests. Whether it’s classic situation comedies, traveling the backroads of New England and of Michigan as well or favorite memories from my childhood, the blog gives me an opportunity to write about the things I love.

And I am about to do it here.

But, let me warn you all, this one might surprise you and it might upset some of you. I will probably hear a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t like this particular pursuit and I’ve heard most of them already, some from my adoring family members who take great exception to my interest. But, I am not going to be defensive any more.

I love horse racing.

I find it beautiful, fascinating and very, very exciting.

I haven’t been to the races for many years and that shouldn’t be surprising as racetracks are closing around the country, victims of other forms of sport and other forms of gambling. But, I used to go, usually once a year or so with $20 dollars in my pocket to bet. That was enough. I really wasn’t there to win money which is fortunate because I never did. I went to take in the atmosphere, to try to understand the nuances of the racing form, to listen to the veteran horseplayers share their wisdom or their frustration and to watch the beautiful horses run like the wind.

I would like to believe that the horses want to run and love it. I think that’s true but I’m not sure. I’d like to believe that every trainer treats their horses with the greatest of care. I think that might be an exaggeration. But, I just love to watch the horses run.

This Weekend, American Pharoah (and that is spelled correctly) will try to be the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes. So many horses have won the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness in recent years only to fail to win the 3rd and final leg. I’m hoping that he will do it and most importantly, that he and all the other horses will survive “the trip” without injury, without getting bumped- any more than usual anyway- and that American racing fans will have a new hero.

I don’t watch much horse racing either in person or on TV but when I do, I just find it fascinating despite all the reasons why people say I shouldn’t. It is thrilling and nerve-racking. It is also exquisitely beautiful.

So, now my favorite horse racing story and like any story I tell about my life, it’s 100% true.

When I was a rabbi in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, there was a lovely woman who was a member of our congregation. She was in her late 80s and was such a sweet person.

One Saturday evening, she called me on the phone and told me in her slow, halting, Kentucky accent that her brother had died at age 94. I asked her if she would go to the funeral which was going to be back home in Kentucky.

She said that she was going: her younger brother was going to pick her up at a bus station in Western Pennsylvania and take her down to Kentucky. I asked her where he was going to pick her up and she said in a very slow, deliberate southern drawl way: “Breeeeeeze-wood”.

I had never heard of Breezewood and she explained to me that it is a town at the junction of two major interstate highways and that that was where he would meet her there: “Breeeeeeeze-wood” she told me. She must have said that name 10 times

So, that night as I tried to sleep, I kept hearing that word: “Breeeeeeeeze-wood” in my mind over and over again. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. In the morning, I opened the Philadelphia Inquirer Sports Page as I always did and my eye was drawn to the evening’s race card at not so nearby Brandywine Raceway. I never looked at it but for some reason I found myself turning to look at the list of horses. There, in the first race, running at 20-1 odds was a horse named Breezewood. It was bashert, it was fate.

I thought for a moment and then got in the car and went to the ATM Machine and took out 100 dollars, a fortune for me in those days certainly. Late in the afternoon, I drove to Brandywine Raceway and saw that he was now running at 30-1. I went up to the window planning to put $100 on Breezewood to win.

I chickened out.

I bet $2

He won by 3 lengths. I won some $60. I would have won somewhere close to $3,000

I learned something that night but I’m not sure what.

But, that story is one more reason why I hope that American Pharoah, incorrect spelling and all, wins the Triple Crown.

And if I haven’t convinced you that there is something to love about horse racing, listen to this absolutely brilliant song by Dan Fogelberg. I can’t listen to it without a tear in my eye and that is no exaggeration.

I wish all of these majestic, gorgeous creatures a safe trip. And I hope American Pharoah wins!

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Sermon for Parashat Naso: The Voice of God

This is the sermon I delivered at Beth Israel Congregation on May 30, 2015
SERMON FOR PARASHAT NASO 2015
Rabbi Robert Dobrusin

This morning, I want to take you on a journey that is going to end with perhaps the most critical lesson we can learn from Jewish theology.

I do want to warn you in advance that there are two potential roadblocks on this journey. The first is a rather brief but detailed discussion on Hebrew grammar. Please don’t be discouraged by that part of the journey.

And, please do not be discouraged by another aspect of my sermon. I am going to base my thought on a commentary which presents a significantly anthropomorphic view of God which some might find difficult. Even if this doesn’t appeal to you, bear with me, the final point is worth it.
There are probably quite a number of people in this synagogue today, and in fact synagogues around the world, who took a look at the words of the Maftir reading which we read earlier and decided it just wasn’t worth thinking about very deeply. I would assume that at first glance today’s Maftir reading struck most people as, frankly, boring and of little serious import.

The reading consists of the final accounting of the gifts each tribe brought to the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert. The previous twelve sections of the parasha described in 12 long paragraphs the gift presented by each tribe. Each of the 12 paragraphs was – with the exception of the name of the tribe and its chieftain- exactly the same. By the way, we will read them all next year when we read the third section of the triennial cycle so get ready for big excitement.
Now, the maftir concludes the reading by recording the total of the gifts presented. Of course, this is 12 times each individual gift.

I agree it is not very exciting.

But, then something happens in the reading which I think is fascinating when read closely and read with the commentaries. In chapter 7, verse 89, we read: “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice midabayr ailav addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim. Vayidabayr ailav, thus, He spoke to him.
After the accounting of the gifts, Moses goes into the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, to speak with God as had been the plan. The tent of Meeting, the tabernacle, was designed to be a focus for the people as they sought to be assured of God’s presence and was to be the place in which Moses could speak with God as only he could.

I am interested in the English phrase: “he could hear the voice addressing him”. If you translate it this way, the entire paragraph makes sense and concludes with: thus He, referring to God, spoke to him, referring to Moses.

But, there is something unusual in the Hebrew text. Those of you who are familiar with Hebrew will appreciate this right away but I want everyone to understand it. Often certain Hebrew letters will contain a dot in the middle called a dagesh. This dagesh serves several purposes. First, it can change the pronunciation of a letter, so the letter vet with a dagesh becomes a bet: a “b” sound becomes a “v” sound.
Secondly, the dagesh can, in essence, double the letter to indicate intensity so, for example in Hebrew, the word shavar without a dagesh means “he broke” while shebayr with the dagesh in the letter means “he shattered” and the word is actually pronounced: shebbayr with the two “b” sounds ending and beginning the first and second syllables.

But, sometimes a dagesh serves a different purpose: to indicate that a letter which is part of a grammatical structure has been omitted in a word. Often this is done in order to make the word easier to pronounce. A dagesh is inserted into an existing letter rather than inserting the grammatically required letter.

Now, if you look at the verse I quoted before, you will see that the word midabayr, which is the word translated as “addressing him”, has a dagesh in the letter daled. We would not expect to find it there.
Some actually have argued that it is a scribal error as if someone had been eating a cookie over a scroll with the text and a crumb fell just in the right place. A scribe then mistook it for a dagesh.

But, most reject that explanation and say that it is indicating that a letter has been omitted and that this is actually a complex Hebrew grammatical structure called the hitpael which is the “reflexive” form. Just like in French when we would say je m’apelle, inserting the m to make it: “I call myself”, in the Hebrew the letter tav is added before the root of the verb to make it reflexive. But, here instead of adding the tav which might have made the word difficult to pronounce, a dagesh is added where we wouldn’t expect it.

Many commentators say that the reflexive here is meant to indicate that Moses really didn’t hear God directly but rather God was talking indirectly to Moses. But Rashi, the greatest Torah commentator of them all offers a different explanation:
Rashi says k’mo mitdabayr, it is the reflexive and kvodo shel maalah lomar kayn midabayr bayno livayn atzmo u moshe shomaya mayalav. He says that God was really talking to the Divine Self and that Moses heard God doing this.

Moses comes in expecting to talk to God and finds God talking to Himself or Herself, whichever you prefer. We don’t know what God was saying but it doesn’t matter at this moment. What matters is that Moses walks in on God and God is talking to Himself.

Now, let me ask you: what would you do if you walked in on your boss in her office and found her talking to herself? This is not just theoretical. I’m sure it or something like it has happened to you. It has certainly happened in our office many times as I often talk to myself- only when preparing a class or a sermon, I assure you.

So what would you do in that circumstance? Maybe you would turn around and walk out. Or, maybe you would clear your throat quietly to signal your presence and hope that it wasn’t embarrassing.

But, if we read the text of the Torah in a different way, we can surmise that Moses did something different. Listen: ‘When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he heard the voice middabayr, talking to Himself, vayidabayr aylav and he spoke to Him. I propose reading that last phrase as implying that instead of meaning that God spoke to Moses, it means that Moses spoke to God.

Moses walks into the tabernacle, into God’s office, hears God talking to the Divine self and speaks to God.

And, what does he say?

I imagine that he said this: “Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, you do not have to talk to yourself. You can talk to me. Whatever your dreams, your hopes, let me in on them and I’ll pass them along to your people and we will help to make them come true”. Moses concludes by saying to God; “You may be One but you are not alone”.

As the critical lesson taken from this fanciful scene, I would propose to you that God, in fact, took Moses’ advice. God stopped talking to Himself and started talking to us.

We do not hear God’s words as Moses did but we do hear God speaking to us through our highest ideals and aspirations. When we listen to that voice and respond, we become, as our tradition commands us to be, partners with God in achieving the Divine plan for a world of perfection.

This is our responsibility. We fulfill it when each of us, of whatever religious faith does what Moses did: leave our sanctuaries and live by the highest ideals and aspirations that have been revealed to us.
In that way, we prove that God has someone else to talk to and that someone listens.

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