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Hesped [1] in memory of Rabbi Pesach Sobel z"l

 

 

Our community in Sharon, Massachusetts has lost a devoted teacher, a caring friend and a gentle person.

 

I first met Suzanne and Rabbi Sobel when they returned to Sharon from Cincinnati and started attending Temple Israel's Shabbat services. When Rabbi Sobel started teaching at the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School. I heard about the breadth of his knowledge and willingness to share it, from my wife, Maureen Mintz who heads the middle school there.

 

I had learned to read Torah a few years earlier and had been gaining confidence in my skills. I had been taught to pay attention to the little notes at the bottom of the tikkun[2] regarding "kri" vs. "ktiv"[3]. Unfortunately as I got more experience, I found that there were lots of little Masoretic[4] notes at the bottom of the tikkun that I did not understand. I had asked around and several people assured me that "kri" and "ktiv" were the only important ones. The others could be ignored, I was told. Our congregational Rabbi and Cantor always seemed so busy that I didn't think it worthwhile to disturb them with my questions about such obscure matters.

 

Soon after first meeting the Sobels I read Torah during parashat Tzav. Afterwards on the way to the Shabbat kiddush, I took the opportunity to ask Rabbi Sobel about one of the little notes that I had ignored in the Torah reading. Rabbi Sobel was delighted to explain the note to me[5]. In the space of a 3 minute conversation, he made me realize that my previous understanding of those little notes was incorrect. I was delighted to learn that not only were the little notes significant, but here was someone who understood each one and was willing to explain it to me.

 

Over the next few months, I would spend about 10 minutes every Shabbat with Rabbi Sobel going over the various little notes found in that week's Torah portion. As we got to know each other, he taught me about the large and small letters found in the Torah and many other topics that I asked about.

 

After a few years of such weekly discussions, he one day mentioned, in his inimitable, deferential way, that many Torah readers make two kinds of common mistakes. These mistakes are not worthy of public correction, but mamash[6] Torah readers try to avoid them. I realized that this was his way of gently encouraging me to improve my Torah reading. Always reluctant to cause affront or anguish of any sort, he waited several years until he was sure that I was prepared to work a little harder, before mentioning this to me.

 

The first common error is pronouncing the vowel tzeirei the same as segol. He said the most frequent occurrence of this error is with the common Hebrew word et that occurs hundreds of times in the Torah[7]. As with many of his previous teachings, I realized that he must have been hearing me make this mistake every time I read Torah. I was pleased to learn this subtlety and found it easy to improve my Torah reading to avoid this common error. I had more difficulty with the second one.

 

The second common error pointed out by Rabbi Sobel involves the kamatz katan[8]. Over a number of years both Rabbi Sobel and Rabbi Starr corrected me (privately) when I misread the kamatz katan. Unfortunately the rules for knowing how to identify the kamatz katan were a little too complex to transmit in a few minute conversation. It required actually sitting down and reviewing the rules of Hebrew grammar.

 

About a year ago, I suggested to Rabbi Sobel that he run a short class on the grammar concepts that underly the kamatz katan. Through the intervention of our mutual friend (and Torah reader) Paula Tobenfeld, Rabbi Sobel agreed to give the class at Paula's house before she moved away from Sharon. The class was held in November, 1997. About 10 people attended. I was pleased to see that Rabbi Sobel had other students who wanted to be mamash Torah readers. Rabbi Sobel prepared a study sheet that reviewed quite a few grammatical rules, covering a number of important issues in addition to kamatz katan.

 

To illustrate his grammatical points, Rabbi Sobel selected a number of psukim from the Torah. He chose a number of well known psukim from Genesis. I can imagine his process in selecting the psukim - he started at the beginning of the Torah and chose examples as he found them in the first couple of chapters.

 

I would like to share with you some of the other psukim that he chose. I imagine that he leafed through the Torah, perhaps stopping at a few of his favorite passages to see if he could find additional examples that served his pedagogic purposes. He chose two psukim from parashat Ekev, Deut: 10:1 and 10:16. After looking over the text from which these two psukim were extracted, I think it I know why Rabbi Sobel chose to use these psukim in his class.

 

This section of Ekev includes many powerful and central themes of our Torah. In verse 1, Moshe is told by God to prepare the second set of tablets. He is told to make a cabinet (or ark) for the tablets. The Hebrew word aron is used to mean both cabinet and coffin. As if to emphasize these dual meanings, Moshe's brother Aharon dies and is buried soon after Moshe comes down from the mountain. The human body, like the tablets at Mt. Sinai are God's creations. We show respect for God's creations by placing them in an aron.

 

The Torah goes on to relate what God wants from the children of Israel. Moshe reminds us that we are to walk in God's pathways and follow the commandments. The sky and land all belong to God. God has chosen our forefathers and us for this wonderful covenant. We have been taken out of Egypt and made into a great nation. There are many more promises to be fulfilled if we obey and love God; if we are kind to the stranger, orphan and the widow. In the final verse quoted by Rabbi Sobel, verse 16, God wants us to seal the covenant by circumcising the foreskin of our hearts.

 

In the last few years of his life, Rabbi Sobel had the joy to see several grandchildren entered into the covenant via the ceremony of Brit Milah[9]. In quoting this passage, I think Rabbi Sobel was getting at the crux of Jewish life. Jewish life only begins with a child's entry into the covenant. To really fulfill our covenant with God, a Jew must walk in God's pathways, follow the commandments, and show kindness to others. Rabbi Sobel epitomized all of these attributes. Through his daily actions of teaching and helping so many others around him, Rabbi Sobel demonstrated to all of us what it means to circumcise your heart.

 

Ti'hiyeh Zikhro Barukh[10]

 

Notes:

  1. Traditional Jewish eulogy.
  2. The book used by Torah readers to prepare for their readings - it has one colum that looks like the Torah with the facing column containing the same text with vowels and musical notation.
  3. Traditional emendations to the text, where the word pronounced aloud is different from the word written in the text. See for example Gen. 8:17, Ex. 4:2, Deut. 22:15, etc.
  4. Traditional notes placed by the rabbis to aid scribes and Torah readers
  5. The note was on Lev. 8:23. It said "het k'mutza". This word was doubly interesting to me because the musical note was one of the most rare in the Torah - shalshelet.
  6. serious
  7. See an example of each vowel on the word et in Lev. 16:25, 26.
  8. In modern Sephardi pronounciation it is read as "o" in "go" under certain circumstances.
  9. The traditional circumcision ceremony.
  10. May his memory be a blessing.

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