With Joy and Pride

As I write, it is just a few days after the horrific, unfathomable events that transpired at the Boston Marathon.  The Boston Police and the FBI are continuing their investigations.  Memorial services are being held for the individuals who were killed.  The hospitals in and around Boston are still caring for the injured.  I don’t know if you’re like me, but I find myself reading the news on-line or tuning into the TV news shows more often than usual.

We are looking for answers and left with too many questions.  Will the answers, once known, satisfy our desire to make sense of what happened and why?  Will they change anything for the families of those who were injured or killed?  Fortunately, I have not seen this line of thinking in most of what I’ve read or heard since April 15th.  Rather, I’ve seen prayers and words of encouragement written by people I know and by those I’ve never met. I’ve read about the bravery of First Responders.  I’ve met one of the doctors who has been caring for some of the injured and talked with one of the National Guard chaplains temporarily deployed for the duration.

I have felt anger, sadness and confusion.  I’ve also felt joy, relief and pride and a resolve to move forward…joy for those who are safe and sound; relief that those in need who were able to get the speediest help possible to safety and healing; pride at the outpouring of support from so many; and a resolve to move forward because it is the most constructive action I can take.

In the book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” Harold Kushner makes the point that prayer, in and of itself, cannot prevent a tragedy or ensure a favorable outcome.  Prayer can, however, “put us in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams, and pains that we do.”  In this way no one needs to face the “most joyous and most frightening moments of life” alone.  In sharing these moments together, we strengthen ourselves individually and our community as a whole.

In the coming weeks Rabbi Sokol and I will be happily celebrating with our Temple Emanuel community as we welcome two new Jewish adults in our midst.  I’m looking forward to these special moments to affirm the strength, talent and conviction of those who have worked so hard to raise, educate and watch the next generation among us to grow and grow up.

And so we move forward with joy and pride, not just for ourselves, but for our temple community and our greater community at large.  May our prayers and actions move us to more such positive and pleasant events.

Questioning the Answers

Three score and seven years ago, the founders of Temple Emanuel brought forth a new congregation, conceived in honest camaraderie, and dedicated to the proposition that all Jews in Marlborough and the surrounding communities deserve to have a place to gather for worship and social activities.

Can you tell that I’ve just seen the movie, “Lincoln”?  If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it by divulging any crucial details of Spielberg’s plot.  Suffice it to say that the focus of the movie revolves around Lincoln’s efforts to have the House of Representatives pass the bill containing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery.

Redemption from slavery is a timely topic.  While daily Jewish prayer celebrates this redemption, it is the Pesach Seder that devotes itself to underscoring the rights and responsibilities of those who enjoy freedom.  The primary method of revealing the advantages and challenges of freedom lies in the ability to ask questions and demand answers.

By the time you read this I will have already celebrated my first Pesach Seder with Temple Emanuel.  Most of us know the Ma Nishtana (the Four Questions -- or one question with four answers, depending on your point of view) that we recite during the Seder.  Are we confined to asking only these four questions?  I believe the right to ask questions is at the heart of our celebration of freedom.

I hope that the questions you asked at the Seder inspire us all to keep asking more of them and to look for innovative answers.  Judaism’s greatest appeal to me is how much it encourages everyone to do this – even long after the Seder is over.  Each generation often asks the same questions.  Many times the responses differ due to changes in our point of view and the surrounding culture.  Sometimes new answers spawn new questions.  But the search for knowledge remains.
May our freedom to ask questions bring us to finding interesting answers.

Hazzan Linda Sue Sohn

Inspiration from the First Torah is Space

Ten years ago this month, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the skies of Texas during its descent to land at Cape Canaveral in Florida.  Its entire crew of seven, Rick Husband, Will McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon, the only Israeli to ever fly into space, perished.  But there was one more casualty from my point of view. 

The goal of that particular shuttle mission, as many of them were, was to perform scientific experiments, in this case, to study the effect of dust particles in the atmosphere on our climate.  The experiment’s project leader was Dr. Joachim Joseph, a UCLA trained physicist, who was a Holocaust survivor from the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.  In the months prior to the shuttle mission, Dr. Joseph and Ilan Ramon became friends.  In the course of Ilan’s visits to Joseph’s home, he learned of the story of a small 4.5” tall Torah scroll in Joseph’s study.

As a boy of almost 13 in Bergen-Belson, a rabbi approached the young Joachim to see if he wanted to study in secret to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.  Every day, the rabbi woke him up at 4:00 AM and the two of them spent time studying together.  On a Tuesday in March of 1944, when he finally recited the blessings and read from the rabbi’s little Torah in the presence of all those in the barracks, including his mother who had been smuggled in from another section of the camp for the occasion, the rabbi presented him with the little Torah as a gift.  The rabbi told him that he didn’t believe he would survive much longer (in fact, he died in February of 1945), and he wanted this young man he had trained to keep the Torah and, hopefully, to tell the story of its survival.

Almost 60 years later, Astronaut Ilan Ramon asked Dr. Joseph if he could take that Torah into space with him on the Shuttle mission.  During the mission, Ramon held a short video conference in Hebrew for the Israeli public and was able to tell the Torah’s story.  Just as Jews had survived the Holocaust, so did this little Torah survive to become the first Torah in space.

I’ve been an avid fan of the NASA space program for as long as I can remember.  In 2003 I had been a regular Torah reader in the synagogue in Holliston for almost four years.  Then, as now, when I read from the Torah, it is a special and moving experience that connects me in a tangible way to Jews around the world both in the current day and throughout past generations.  When I learned that a Torah would go into space, I was thrilled.

Feb 1st, 2003 was a Saturday.  I was scheduled to read Torah that morning.  As I was driving the short 3-mile ride to the shul in my town for services, I listened to the radio in horror as the news of the shuttle’s fate was reported.  Immediately, I knew that the little Torah had “perished” along with the astronauts.  That morning’s Torah reading was the most difficult I had ever done.

The words of our Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, symbolize the core beliefs of the Jewish religion.  It is considered a living document as it has been consulted and commented on by our rabbis, scholars and lay leaders for over two millennia.  Each Torah scroll is considered a precious religious symbol, so revered that there are strict traditions for how to read it, care for it, and even how to hold it.

At Temple Emanuel, we don’t have regular services on Saturday mornings, the traditional day when a Torah scroll is taken from the ark and read out loud to the gathered community.  The scroll itself, as well as the letters written on it, can become brittle and begin to break down if not “aired out” on a regular basis.  This is why we remove one of our Torahs from the Ark during each Friday night service and read a short passage from it.  By doing this, we will lengthen the life of our beautiful Torahs.

It is always an honor to read from the Torah, and one of my most favorite “Jewish” things to do.  It is also an honor to teach others how to chant from the Torah.  If you are interested in learning how to do this or, even more basically, how to read Hebrew, please let me know, so that you can help carry on this time-honored tradition into the next generation.

Hazzan Linda Sue Sohn

“Do-It-Yourself” Judaism
During the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in Parashat Vayeilekh, God instructs Moses to “write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.”  Many scholars look upon this verse as the 613th of the 613 commandments.  It directs each of us to write our own Torah.  That may seem like an impossible task for most of us, but then the scholars give us an “out” by telling us that purchasing a Humash or a Hebrew Bible fulfills the mitzvah by proxy through the actions of the publisher who made the “copy” of the Torah.  While I’m not necessarily advocating that you run out and buy a Hebrew Bible right away (although I do think it’s a very good idea for every Jewish home to have one), I do think that this verse in the Torah is, among many others, a blueprint to the “do-it-yourself” ethic in Judaism. 

As I was preparing for the High Holy Days, I went through my own process of “do-it-yourself.”  I needed to go through the mahzor (our High Holy Day prayer book) to make sure that I knew exactly which pages in the liturgy of each service I would cover and which ones I would skip.  I consulted Rabbi Sokol, many members of Temple Emanuel, the outlines of last year’s services that Rabbi Alpert kindly provided to me and the outlines of the services of other synagogues I had served in the past.

Moreover, I decided to make my own white High Holy Day robe.  I love to sew.  For me, the process of making my robe made the moment of stepping before the congregation as your High Holy Day Cantor that much more special.  I did a similar thing when my daughter was preparing to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah.  Rather than purchasing the kippot for her “big day,” I crocheted them all myself (well, my mother helped out and made some, too!).  The process of making each crochet stitch bound me to the event in the way that writing a check or pulling out my credit card wouldn’t.

Similarly, I was impressed with how much the members of Temple Emanuel came together to ready the synagogue for the High Holy Days, such as by hanging the white curtains on our Ark and dressing the Torah in special covers, creating the Yizkor booklets that we will use throughout the year, to the massive amount of landscaping outside the building during the summer, to the pot-luck Break-Fast meal, to the people who helped put up the Sukkah and to those who will fill it with the wonderful pot-luck dinner for our community Sukkot celebration.

Temple Emanuel is a vibrant community with a lot of energy.  The membership is filled with individuals who believe in the do-it-yourself ethic.  I believe our small size is our greatest asset because it encourages each of us to step up to make things happen.  While our budget may be tight (which is true these days no matter what the size of synagogue is), I see a determination to get things done on our own, such as providing quality education through expert congregant-led classes and a can-do attitude when a new project pops up, such as participating in the Marlborough Heritage Festival. 

There is always room for more do-it-yourselfers.  Rabbi Sokol and I are eager to hear from you.  What do you want to learn and/or do this year that you may not have before?  How will you “write your own Torah” this year?   We’re here to help you on the path of discovery and accomplishment.  Let us know how we can help, or how you can help us.
Shanah Tovah Umtukah – may Temple Emanuel and its entire membership enjoy a sweet year filled with good things.
Hazzan Linda Sue Sohn

Strengths and Weaknesses
Our Torah (and for that matter, our entire Hebrew Bible) is filled with stories that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of our Biblical leaders.  Moses struggles with his own doubts about his ability first to lead the Israelites at all, and then once out of Egypt, with the enormity of handling the day-to-day struggles of survival and of keeping the Israelites together as a group.  At the same time, he is challenged with keeping God from losing control when the Israelites seem to lose their faith, both in Moses and sometimes, in God.  Our seminal stories in the Torah are filled with the joys, triumphs, and not so savory elements of family dynamics.  Strengths and weaknesses.

Thinking about this led me to ponder my own strengths and weaknesses as I assume the responsibility of Temple Emanuel’s spiritual leadership with my co-leader Rav-Hazzan Scott Sokol, who is at Camp Ramah of New England until the end of July.  He is eager to meet all of you, as am I.  You will find that he has a multitude of strengths, not the least of which is his experience as a Jewish spiritual leader.  As for me, I’m a bit of newbie in the spiritual leadership department.  My greatest strengths are my organizational skills and my experience in teaching Hebrew reading and synagogue skills at all levels to individuals of all ages and abilities.

Rabbi Sokol and I are keenly aware of how important Temple Emanuel’s survival is to you.  The first strength we see in your community is the leap of faith you took in hiring us to be your spiritual leaders.  In return, we bring with us many strengths: love of singing, love of Hebrew, love of teaching, love of Judaism. 

Knowing each other’s weaknesses is often just as important.  It is our strengths that we lean on to get the job done, whatever it is.  But it is our weaknesses that give us the opportunity to ask for help, which gives others the chance to share their strengths.  It is the combination of varied strengths in a community that keeps it alive and growing.  In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to meeting all of you and learning about your strengths (and weaknesses if you want).  I ask for your help now to take some time over the summer to think about what you want for the Temple Emanuel community.  Dwelling on what we lack won’t move us forward, but combining our strengths will allow us to achieve our goals.

On behalf of Rabbi Sokol and myself, all the best for a great summer.  Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek!  Be strong, be strong and together we will strengthen one another!
Hazzan Linda Sue Sohn