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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