Holy Light: Remembering Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld

Tetzavveh By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 22, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

This past week at the Seminary, we commemorated the first Yahrzeit of Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld, whose young lives were extinguished one year ago (February 25, 1996) in Jerusalem by the bomb of a Hamas terrorist. Matthew was a second–year rabbinical student spending the year studying intensively at the Seminary’s Beit Midrash, and Sara, who had just graduated Barnard, was about to become his fiancee. We used the occasion of their Yahrzeit to dedicate in their memory a spacious room where Seminary students gather each day till late at night to study Talmud in small groups, havruta–style.

Shaken by the brutal end to their brief lives, countless donors from across America contributed to refashion this room into a sacred space that will forever bear the names of Matt and Sara. Its furnishings consist of small tables and straight chairs, computer terminals and shelves of reference volumes, bright lights and warm coffee. And the Hebrew signage outside testifies to the faith that good deeds spring from diligent study.

Matt and Sara died the week of our parasha, Ki Tetsave, and surely represented “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting (Exodus 27:20).” Moses is told to instruct Aaron to light the seven–branched menorah in the tabernacle with oil usually reserved for human consumption. Neither animal fat nor oil extracted from grain, but only pure olive oil is to be used to illuminate the Tabernacle at night “from evening to morning before the Lord (27:21).” Matt and Sara had already given ample evidence in their young lives that their oil was richly worthy of kindling the light of Torah and lifting the darkness from lives without meaning.

Put differently, Rashi speaks of the need to kindle the menorah until it is capable of burning on its own. The enabling flame must not be withdrawn too soon. Though still students, Matt and Sara’s love of Judaism and passion for Torah radiated brightly, warming everyone who came into their presence. They had attained a level of religious maturity and intensity that only violence could terminate.

In the Tabernacle, the menorah stood not far from the curtain that covered the ark with the Tablets of the Covenant. Lit each night, the menorah served to shield the Holy of Holies from being engulfed in darkness. Occasionally the Torah shortens the Hebrew reference to “the Ark of the Covenant” to simply “the Covenant” (ha–edut — literally “the testimony”), giving the Talmud the chance to comment that “the light offers testimony to all the world that the presence of God resides in Israel’s midst.” Down to our own day, light is symbolic of God’s in–dwelling in the custom of the eternal light hung above the holy ark in our synagogues. Though the ner tamid of the menorah was kindled only every evening (tamid meaning “regularly” here), it evolved into a perpetual light in the synagogue because of the Talmudic homily.

That light of God’s presence is what Matt and Sara personified so singularly. Their lives were testimony to the unbroken power of Judaism to imbue our daily existence with awe and wonder, a sense of mystery and meaning. Their faith burned calmly and steadily; it did not flicker nor flare up. The beauty of their intensity lay in its evenness, like the tranquility of Shabbat candles.

The Talmud also makes it explicitly clear that the menorah was kindled each evening for human benefit. The Rabbis felt that the force of the preposition elekha, “to you” (“instruct the Israelites to bring to you” — 27:20) should eliminate any idea that God might somehow need our light. They stressed that the menorah did not stand astride the table of display on which twelve loaves of bread rested, as it might in a human dwelling where food is eaten from a well–lit table. It is our vulnerability and insufficiency that religion comes to alleviate. God helps us construct a system of meaning and a pattern of living to endure and transcend the calamities that assault us from within and without. Or, as we say each morning when donning the tallit, “by Your light do we see light (Psalms 36:10).”

Nothing could be more grievous than the senseless, premature death of two young people of such promise. While Judaism does not try to mollify our rage or ease our pain with pat ultimate answers, it affirms the goodness of life through ritual, community and study. And if we allow ourselves to seek shelter inside that enveloping web, we shall find the solace and sense to continue.

By creating a sacred space for constant study, the family, friends and fellow mourners of Matt and Sara have extracted meaning from the void, preserved the shadow of their flame, and brought pure olive oil to keep the menorah, Judaism’s tree of life, burning brightly. To remember is to be blessed.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat T’tzavveh are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.