Thrice Blessed with Torah

By Fred Strober

Rosh Hashanah at Rodeph Shalom had special meaning to me this year. I attended both the “alternative” and “classic” services, finding each inspiring in its own way. Having played some role in shaping the back-to-back nature of the services, I felt that I wanted to participate in both, but I never thought that I would come away so moved with my very personal involvement with the Torah over the course of the morning.

Anyone who attended the earlier service has to agree that this was not your grandparents’ Rodeph Shalom. The combination of the congregational choir in the front and musicians scattered throughout the sanctuary created a great participative atmosphere, and Cantor Murley wonderfully led us from one song to the next. But then there developed nothing I’d seen before: as we readied ourselves for the Amidah, the rabbis opened the ark and invited anyone who wanted to come on the bimah to spend time with our Torahs. Literally scores of people responded, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved as to listen to our choir sing Holy, Holy Holy while families—sometimes three generations worth—went before the ark, often with the entire family in an extended hug. Several parents and grandparents whispered something into a young one’s ear, sharing a special moment. Some people just silently gazed. From my vantage point, as I watched the procession, I envisioned our ancestors, two thousand years ago, being called by the shofar to come to the Ark of the Covenant, and I felt incredibly connected to everyone in the sanctuary—indeed, to the Jewish world.

During the later service, I had the privilege of carrying the large Torah during the processional. This time, I got to feel the scroll and offer it to hundreds of people as we marched through the crowded sanctuary. During our summer Shabbat sessions regarding Profound Moments, Michael Mufson movingly recounted his experience of carrying the Torah during his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, and I had the same awesome sense as he that this was a special moment with a duty to carry out a sacred purpose. It is an incredibly gratifying act to offer the Torah to a congregant who waits to touch it with his or her prayer book and then kiss the book. You can see in everyone’s eyes the love of the Torah, and of this very special moment.

A few minutes later, I completed my Torah troika in a sense. I had the honor of reciting the prayer before the reading of a portion from Genesis, representing all of the new members of Rodeph Shalom, who stood with me during the prayer. As I backed away from the pulpit, Ben Fink, an extraordinary young man, approached the scroll, and surrounded by three rabbis—in a scene that has been repeated through the ages—began, in a strong voice and with perfect cadence, to chant the passages about God’s creation of the land and the sea. As I looked over Rabbi Maderer’s shoulders at the text she was following and read along with her, I felt as connected as I ever had to the Torah, our people and future generations as represented by Ben. It was an overwhelmingly emotional moment for me, and gave me the impetus to chant my concluding prayer the way I was taught by an Orthodox cantor in New York City over 50 years ago.

I want to thank all of the people—too many to mention here—who made these two services possible, and also to thank every one who participate in these two services for giving me the opportunity to feel so connected to our past, to you and to our future.

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