On the 20th Yahrzeit of Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, z"l

Tonight and tomorrow (Sunday), the 5th of Adar, is the 20th yahrzeit of Sara Duker and Matt Eisenfeld, z”l, budding young scholars and idealists who were killed in a Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem at ages 22 and 25, respectively, probably shortly before they were to announce their engagement, while they were studying in Jerusalem for the year. They died before the millenial boom in D-I-Y Jewish expression nurtured and documented by Jewschool, but their rich, elegant, delicate, supple manifestation of love of Torah and cultivation of intentional personalities of kindness, joy, endless responsibility, and empathic curiosity left an indelible imprint on many of us who have tended integrated lives of Torah, feminism, and social responsibility. In time for the yahrzeit, my brother, Rabbi Edward Bernstein, Matt’s classmate in yeshiva and JTS rabbinical school, published a precious new volume of Matt and Sara’s illogically prolific Jewish writing, some academic, some journal, and personal. Entitled Love Finer than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, it gives a deep, broad, and intimate picture of two pioneering young Jewish adults and spiritual personalities whose young lives a generation ago blazed the trail for much of the best of today’s Jewish landscape. For this 20th yahrzeit, I am posting here a piece I wrote ten years ago and circulated among friends for the 10th yahrzeit, which also coincided with Parashat Terumah. May their memory be a blessing.
Reflections on Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker’s 10th Yahrzeit
Motzaei Shabbat Parashat Terumah, 5766
Among the myriad mitzvot enjoined toward the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Torah commands us, “And on the table you shall set the lehem panim (showbread) before Me always” (25:30).  Consideration of Rabbinic statements about this obscure mitzvah may help us to crack open the heavy door to meaning whose hinges are so recalcitrant this time of year.
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that a great miracle was done with the lehem ha-panim—as it was in its placement, so it was in its removal” (Hagigah 26b).  Rashi interprets this to mean that it remained hot the entire week (see RYb”L’s prooftext, I Shemuel 21:7), while Tosafot argue that the miracle was that the showbread remained soft all week.
Rabbi Yitzhaq taught that one who wishes to become rich, should turn to the north.  The symbol to remember this is that the table in the Tabernacle was in the north (Bava Batra 25b).  The table’s function, of course, was to hold the lehem ha-panim.
We see in these two gemarot, two characteristics of the lehem ha-panimLehem ha-panim is the symbol of wealth and it manifests the ability to maintain its freshness—its warmth or softness—throughout its life, and not just at its beginning.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pahad Yitzhaq, Pesah 58) observes that we live our lives generally with the perception that the existence of anything at any given moment is only a continuation of its existence in the previous moment.  Innovation—hiddush—is only at the time of becoming; from then on is only continuity.  We marvel at newborn babies, but from then on take human beings’ presence for granted, as the natural continuation of the baby that was born once.  We are amazed at human skill in painting a picture or building a ceramic bowl or what-have-you, but after they are completed, we appreciate and use them without any further amazement that they are still there.  This perception, which seems so obviously the truth of the ways of the world, masks a truer perspective, though, that we affirm each morning in tefillah:  God is “הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבו בְּכָל יום תָּמִיד מַעֲשה בְרֵאשִׁית” — “the One Who, in goodness, renews the work of creation each and every day, always”.  Anything could come to an end at any moment, yet most things continue to exist, are constantly remade.  We don’t appreciate this until faced with sudden, violent rupture.  Only the dropped and shattered bowl or the youthful and eager laughter torn apart by a bomb remind us that the continuing existence of things is not to be taken for granted.
The lehem ha-panim manifests equality between its inner truth and outer perception.   Unlike with most things, with the lehem ha-panim, we are able at all times to perceive and experience its newness, its freshness.  This is the mystery of true wealth:  relating to things and people with the same wonderment and appreciation when they are familiar as when they are new—never getting too used to our bounty.
In a baraita on Talmud Shabbat 152a, “Rabbi Yishmael bRabbi Yose taught that talmidei hakhamim, as they age, proliferate wisdom…while ‘amei ha-aretz, as they age, proliferate stupidity.”  Wisdom is inhabitable only through the exercise of curiosity, of eagerness to grow, change, and explore new possibilities.  The scholar, one who contemplates meaning, who is curious regarding the world’s manifold sources of understanding, who is sensitive to its nuances, and who is concerned with the implications of her actions, is the person who clears the way for her inner truth—the truth of being fresh, new, warm, malleable, and growing—to emerge all the way outside, such that it can even be perceived by everyone.
I’ve been struck in the last several days especially, but really, in subtle ways, over the past couple of years, by how much I miss Matt and Sara and how painful their violent absence remains even after all these years.  I didn’t know either of them in the intimate, personal ways that so many others did.  Sara was a senior when I was a first-year at Columbia, and I knew her as the most thoughtful and interesting—and yes, kooky—participant in our friend Avi Orlow’s Tuesday night “lehrhaus” learning group.  She was, to me, this deliciously eclectic intellectual, who unpacked the pathos of a gemara in ways I had never encountered, and responded to Western texts in what felt like a quintessentially Jewish way, even though I don’t know that I had ever encountered a Jew like her before.  I hadn’t yet felt that I hit my intellectual stride, but if I can now give language to how I felt then, I guess it’s that I somehow knew that I wanted to talk about texts again with Sara—canonical texts, new texts, and texts written only in human experience—later, some time later, when I could more clearly formulate my questions and responses.
As for Matt…Matt was the man.  I didn’t yet know how to learn and I didn’t yet know how I wanted to spend my adult life, and I was only beginning to be able to articulate what I wanted Judaism to be, but Matt was the model.  The gulf between a 20 year-old neophyte and a directed, 25 year-old, budding scholar, taking the league by storm, was just too wide, so I merely watched and listened.  The pain and shock are due to the awful and senseless tragedy of it all, the sheer loss itself, for the human beings who loved them and the world who awaited them.  But the missing is different.  I miss them so much because I miss the friendship that I think I was going to be able to have with them a little later, when the gap would narrow.  Toni Morrison writes in the dedication of Sula, “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you…”  It’s a terrible, aching, hollow misfortune to miss people because you never had a chance to reach them.   
But I digress.  I always do when I think about them.  They were kids.  It’s kind of crazy, because I still relate in my mind to Sara as this slightly mysterious, wise elder, who has mastered what college is all about, and I still relate to Matt as this older role model, this exceptional talmid hakham, even as rationally, I’m aware that I’m now five years older than he ever lived to be and I have learned Torah much longer than he did.  That just doesn’t make sense, though.  He’s still Matt Eisenfeld.  But reason confuses me here.  That’s just it:  they were such excellent human beings and scholars not because they read such-and-such number of words and remembered them.  They were talmidei hakhamim:  insatiably curious people whose wisdom proliferates with age.  They were kids, but they were old, the way Rabbi Yishmael bRabbi Yose meant it, the way we mean “old” as the greatest term of intellectual respect, when we refer to sages as “Zeqeinim” (“Elders”).  As talmidei hakhamim they were in constant movement, letting their curiosity guide them to new, unexpected territories of understanding, internalizing their new knowledge and changing with it, and following it further.  Unlike most of us, who fearfully avoid really confronting what it means that God constantly makes us anew, they wrapped themselves around that.
On Friday, I re-read a devar torah that our mutual friend Brian Sokol gave on Parashat Terumah eight years ago, for the second yahrzeit.  He recalled speaking to Matt the day before Matt was to join Sara for the first time staffing the Anshe Chesed homeless shelter.  Brian—who later started volunteering himself and even became the program’s coordinator—recalled, “When I asked Matt why he decided to do it, and if he was nervous, he smiled and said, ‘Jews sleep in homeless shelters.’”  What’s so stunning about this anecdote is that he had never even done it before!  Sara had probably just convinced him to do it, maybe mere days earlier.  But once the new idea was encountered, it was internalized.  Sleeping in a homeless shelter was as natural as saying “Hamotzi” over bread.  The crazy thing is that I think he meant it.
That’s what we strive for when we strive to be talmidei hakhamim—for our external comportment to match our internal potential, our internal truth of being continually new.  Sara summed it up a year before her death in an evaluation of her Centennial Scholars’ project on Elisha ben Avuyah [published posthumously in the first issue of Igg’rot Ha’Ari: Columbia University Student Journal of Jewish Scholarship and re-published in Love Finer than Wine — A.B., 2016]:  “I love working with the texts of my tradition, and these in particular, because they have a story to tell, if one is patient enough to listen to them….Part of my challenge has been to understand the people behind the texts as well as their sacredness—to try to maintain an intensive dialogue with my ancestors.”  That’s a talmidat hakhamim, the integrated, mobile person as described by Qohelet (8:1), “חָכְמַ֤ת אָדָם֙ תָּאִ֣יר פָּנָ֔יו—a person’s wisdom lights up their face”.
It’s what the lehem ha-panim is meant to represent in the first place—so named, according to Ben Zoma, “she-yehei lo panim—that it should have many faces” (Mishnah Menahot 11:4), sides folded up in order to face each side of the Temple (BT Menahot 94a-b, with Rashi).  These 12 loaves stand in for the 12 tribes.  While we are out toiling for our daily bread, our showbread—paid for exclusively by those taxes that everyone pays, rich or poor (Mishnah Sheqalim 4:1)—stands in for us permanently in God’s home.  The bread stays warm, soft, and fresh, from shabbat to shabbat, through those workdays when it is so easy to become slaves to habit and routine.  Resist, say Hazal:  look north, to the lehem ha-panim.  Be rich, embrace your bounty, learn and grow from the new challenges and sources of wisdom in the world.  Be old, as Matt and Sara—frozen in youth—were old.

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