Tag Archives: Tisha B’Av

Remembering Matt and Sara on Tisha B’Av

14 Aug
Love Finer Than Wine Edited by Edward C. Bernstein Foreword by Mike Kelly, author of The Bus on Jaffa Road

Love Finer Than Wine
Edited by Edward C. Bernstein
Foreword by Mike Kelly, author of The Bus on Jaffa Road

On this Tisha B’Av Day, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem is paying tribute to its four alumni who were murdered by terrorism: Sara Duker, Matt Eisenfeld, Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein. I’m honored that Pardes asked me to produce this short video and discuss Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker to be included in today’s commemoration. May their memories be for a blessing.

Remembering Matt and Sara on Tisha B’Av

24 Jul
Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

As Tisha B’Av approaches, my late friends, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, will be very much on my minds. Twenty years ago this fall, Matt and I began our second year of JTS Rabbinical School at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Sara came to Israel for the year to work in a biology lab at Hebrew University and to be near Matt as their loving courtship was continuing to blossom. They died on February 25, 1996, in a brutal suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem. Matt and Sara’s lives, their tragic death and their family’s quest for justice are profiled with great care in Mike Kelly’s acclaimed book, The Bus on Jaffa Road. In 1997, one year after their death, the Jewish Theological Seminary dedicated a Beit Midrash in Matt and Sara’s memory. In conjunction with that ceremony, I compiled a scrapbook of many of Matt and Sara’s writings that their parents shared with me. The selections include handwritten journal entries, essays, sermons and scholarly papers, in which they each express passion for Jewish life and Israel. Since 1997, the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash Memorial Volume has been on display and available for perusal at the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

As the twentieth anniversary of Matt and Sara’s death approaches, I’ve undertaken to transcribe, edit and publish the Memorial Volume so that the general public may read Matt and Sara’s writings and experience the depth of their souls. They might not be with us physically, but their spirit lives on. This collection is scheduled to be published in early 2016 under the title: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).


Tisha B’Av is a time when the Jewish community reflects on Israel’s physical and spiritual security. Like so many times previously, both seem precarious now. And yet, we continue to persevere with great hope that the future will be better. Matt and Sara each recognized the challenges faced by Israel and the Jewish people, both external threats and threats from within resulting from Jewish infighting. From their collected writings, here are two selections that seem appropriate for this season of reflection on the state of our people. May Matt and Sara’s memories be for a blessing, and may their enduring spirit inspire us all to create the better, more peaceful world that they sought.


Israel and Our Ongoing Spiritual Revolution, by Sara Duker
Winner, Israel Aliyah Center Essay Contest, 1995

“Israel put the kippah back on our heads,” declared our Ramah director during the summer of 1991, in an effort to demonstrate the impact the founding of the Jewish State had upon young American Jews of his generation. Jews, once reluctant to acknowledge their Jewish identity began to come out of the woodwork in response to astonishing underdog military victories, pressing national needs and the realization of two-thousand-year-old hopes. Today, on Jewishly active college campuses, similar ideals are invoked in order to bolster Zionist pride and activism. Zionism is considered one among many outlets for Jewish expression, a source of national and cultural heritage, including among those who do not consider themselves ritually religious. However, changes in the State–both the development expected of a modern country and problems unique to Israel and its society–have uncovered an erosion of Jews’ automatic support for Israel and our ability to use Zionism as a quick ticket to Jewish pride. Thirty years ago, [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel foresaw the potential crisis in Jewish national building and personal identity in his book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, in which he emphasizes the need for continued Jewish vision, “realizing that,” even in 1995, with advanced technology, a booming economy and prospects for peace, “the economic, political, and spiritual development is still in a stage of beginning.”

Is Israel unique? Does it set an international standard of care for its citizens and hold a moral banner even higher than most democracies? Are those Jews who founded and live in the State stronger and more Jewish? The answers seem easy to a Jewishly active college student, until she is confronted with “ISRAEL: THE HIJACK STATE” emblazoned on a pamphlet being distributed in the student center by a socialist group. A young man with great visions of social justice claims that Israel is nothing more than a capitalist, imperialist arm of the most corrupt elements of the western world. It has greedily expropriated the land of the natives, and continues to exploit the laboring class, he says. Other students find their assumptions about the sacredness of their nation challenged by mainstream political correctness–the best liberals have taken up the cause of Palestinian rights, and Zionism is dismissed as a glorified racism. Even students who tend to be removed from the campus political arena (with the hyperbole it often engenders), can’t help but be aware of the newspapers, which tell us that Israel is far from perfect. Political parties experience corruption there, too. Extremism characterizes political debate, with deep [divisions] between the religious and secular Jews. And, no matter what our national and religious beliefs are regarding the West Bank and Gaza, there are few Jews who do not experience at least some discomfort with Israeli politics toward the Palestinian Arabs. The temptation arises to distance oneself from such a contentious state–to deny one’s Jewish connections (or apologize for them), or to claim an American Jewish ideology separate from Israeli dilemmas. It often seems tempting for us Americans to pursue Judaism as we think best, and to leave difficult ideological decisions of defending the Jewish State to Israelis.

How are our Israeli peers faring? A young Israeli man in New York, recently released from his three-year tour of duty in the [Israeli] army, used to tell anyone who asked him that he did not believe in God. He believed in his people and the horrors that have happened to them. He went to the army, he said, so that a Holocaust, which decimated his parents’ generation, would not do the same to his.  An American olah [immigrant to Israel], a tour guide in Yad Vashem, related incidents during her presentation of the required tour to Israeli soldiers being inducted to the army. She says that she hears frequent grumbles from her mostly secular groups when they are addressed with the Holocaust. “This doesn’t affect us,” they say. “When are we going to get over it and move on?” If this group–at the forefront of Israel’s material progress and  already uninterested in the religious nature of its country–finds that even national tragedies are losing their power to motivate and unify, what then will inspire the next generation of Israeli Jews to continue to fulfill the heavy demands of their people?

Until now, we have taken for granted that Israel would “put the kippah on our heads,” that Israel would do much of the work of shaping Jewish identity. As Israel continually struggles with its own identity, it is important to be reminded of the essence of Heschel’s statement: “The State of Israel is a spiritual revolution, not a one-time event, but an ongoing revolution.” The key ideas are “spiritual” and “ongoing.” A spiritual revolution goes beyond the national security and material support Israel was built to provide to Jews, to look at a larger raison d’être. We pour forth catch phrases about history, martyrdom, God’s land and community, but how often do we think carefully about what each of these really means? Why is Jewish community so important in our time? Is our history unique? Do we believe that we are God’s chosen people and Israel is a chosen land? What implications does this have for our behavior–not just on a large political scale, but for the everyday life of a Jew? How does this inform our treatment of one another? If we do not believe in God as a presence in Jewish history, then what other ideologies do we have to guide us? What is the role of Diaspora Jewry? What can we contribute beyond our yearly checks to UJA? This is not to suggest that we can automatically provide deep and meaningful answers. Each reconsideration of old questions constitutes a revolution, by recreating and renewing our visions of Israel.

This process, of course, must be ongoing. We face a startling sense of inadequacy when our notions, unchallenged, become irrelevant in the face of new situations. The effort of building a physical home and the cooperation it required was a communal, spiritual process for the pioneers, but we lacking that same urgent sense of need, soon find that the tangible construction is not enough to answer the spiritual questions of this generation. We have not come into full national self-awareness. And, as with any other process of development, disuse of spiritual sense causes it to erode. In the end, Israel will not guarantee our Judaism until we give the labor of our hands as well as our hearts and minds to guaranteeing Israel’s Judaism.


Reflections on the Assassination of Yitzchak Rabin by Matthew Eisenfeld in His Journal.
[Monday, November 6, 1995]

The night before last, יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin] was killed by a Jewish assassin who believed himself to be serving the Jewish people. Rabin had been a general who had fought in Israel’s wars and died as a man who worked tirelessly for peace. His accomplishments among others are a peace treaty with Jordan and a formation of an autonomous Palestinian state in which Yasser Arafat, a former enemy, became an ally. I admired Yitzhak Rabin and had confidence in the Israeli government because of him. I feel like the country is in disarray at this point because nobody can really fill his shoes.
What sickens me even more is that a lot of Israelis don’t seem to understand the significance of what has happened. People say things like, “another victim in the peace process. It hurts that we’ve lost a Jew to a Jew, but really is he any more significant than any other terror victim? One shouldn’t mourn too much.”
Or worse: “Rabin should not be allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery because he was a traitor.” They just don’t understand–the Prime Minister has been killed. Will this country ever be the same again?
In the בית מדרש [Beit Midrash] yesterday, the school tried to conduct classes as usual, but we students voted otherwise with our feet. We said תהילים [Tehillim/Psalms], sang dirges, cried and listened to a הספד [Hesped, eulogy]. I am subdued, sleepy and feel lousy. My nose keeps running and I’ve got a canker sore at the place where my tongue connects to the bottom of my mouth. I’m bothered by cigarette smoke and the fumes from the candles which are lit in the crowds that gather to walk quietly and cry. Today I will try to walk in the לוויה [levayah/funeral procession] and watch the funeral speakers on TV. I want to hear the nations of the world speak and pay tribute to יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin]. I want Israelis to understand whom they’ve lost.

יצחק רבין יהי זכרו ברוך
[Yitzhak Rabin, yehi zikhro varukh, may his memory be for a blessing.]

#TieBlog #Devarim

1 Aug
Parashat Devarim begins "These are the words...." Hence, a crossword puzzle tie.

Parashat Devarim begins “These are the words….” Hence, a crossword puzzle tie.

Parashat Devarim begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab” (Deuteronomy 1:1).

When Moses is first called upon by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he tries to get out of the task by saying he can’t speak. Now, 40 years later, Moses delivers to the people a long succession of speeches that are compiled in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. Moses has found his groove as a speaker, and he spends the fifth book of the Torah reminding the people of their sacred mission. His facility with Devarim/ words inspires this week’s crossword-themed tie.

Speaking of words, there is another important link between the Torah portion and the season. This is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, the fast of the Ninth of Av commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The sages teach that sinat hinam, causeless hatred among Jews, easily enabled the Roman destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Therefore, this season is a time to reflect on the words we say and how we say them. Let’s focus on words of kindness, rather than words of hatred.

12 Jul

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, 1903-1994

A boat laden with a cargo of wine was attacked by a huge whale. The beast rammed the boat repeatedly and tossed it every which way. The Captain of the vessel feared that the boat might capsize. He ordered the crew to cast overboard the entire cargo. The cartons broke apart in the water and many bottles ended up in the belly of the whale. During the attack, a number of passengers, a Jew among them, were swept over the side and swallowed by the whale. The story has entered the annals of the legends of the sea because of its strange ending. Sometime after the attack on the boat, the body of a huge sea creature was washed ashore. Fishermen rushed to the carcass and began to cut it open. Inside its belly they found the Jewish man selling wine to his fellow passengers (From Rabbi Stanley Schachter, Laugh for God’s Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet, KTAV, 2008, p. 128).

The contrast of destruction and rebirth, implied in this story, is particularly poignant at this time of year. The period of the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av is a solemn time that recalls the siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Temple by both the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE. We are now in the climactic third week, having entered the month of Av this past week. The Mishnah in Tractate Taanit teaches: mi-shenichnas Av me’maatin b’simchah, whoever enters the month of Av reduces his or her joy. This is because of the prominence of Tisha B’Av and the various disasters associated with that day throughout Jewish history.

The late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994, pictured above), notes that precisely at this time of year, we experience one of the great ironies in Jewish tradition. Namely, despite the somber tone set by the Jewish calendar at this time of year, the Torah reading during these three weeks deal largely with themes of promise and hope, particularly the settling and building of the Land of Israel.

Let us look for a moment at today’s reading, Parashat Devarim. The opening phrase of the first verse sets the scene: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1). The Israelites have arrived to the banks of the Jordan and are prepared to enter the Promised Land. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a series of sermons and laws that Moses addresses to the people before he dies. While many of Moses’s parting words are rebukes, chastisements, or curses, the underlying message is that the Israelites are about to start a new chapter. If they remain true to God, they will prosper in their new land. If they go astray, they will be punished. This theology of reward and punishment is one of the cornerstones of the book of Deuteronomy. Even as Moses warns the Israelites of the consequences of going astray from God’s path, they gaze upon their new homeland looking forward with high hopes for the new chapter in their lives. And yet, even as our Torah reading projects a message of hope for the future, we are marking this Shabbat as Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat in which our Haftarah contains Isaiah’s vision of desolation and destruction.

The juxtaposition of hope and despair extends throughout the three weeks. Going back to Parashat Pinchas, we read two weeks ago about the apportionment of the land to the tribes and the petition of the daughters of Tzelofhad to inherit the land from their father in the absence of sons. Last week, in Parashat Matot, we read about the efforts of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe to settle the eastern side of the Jordan River and their pledge to fight in Israel proper for the right to do so. The parshiot of the last two weeks have devoted significant space to describing the borders and territories of Israel and the tribes poised to inhabit them.

And yet, precisely during this season, when we read in the Torah about the great promise of the Israelites building a homeland, our tradition bids us to recall the unraveling of that promise and the shattering of the dream. Prof. Leibowitz notes that the dream is fragile, and it is up to us as individuals and as a nation to make sure that we merit the fulfillment of the dream. At the same time, as the Jewish calendar bids us to recall the destruction of Jerusalem and other calamities in our history, our Torah reading remind us of the promise and the hope of building and maintaining a vibrant nation in the Land of Israel. The Jewish calendar and the Torah reading cycle, therefore, provide us with a healthy tension—a dialectic—between recalling destruction and maintaining hope for the futre.

Without our hope for the future that things can always get better, we never would have survived as a people. There was never any justification for our suffering and persecution; however, after every dark moment in our history, there was an opportunity to rebuild, even as the bitterness of our suffering has not been forgotten.

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of JTS, writes that our sacred literature was key to our survival. Quoting David Ben-Gurion, he notes: “For 2000 years the Jewish people preserved the Book, even as the Book preserved the people.” Indeed many of the dark moments of our history resulted in the writing and compilation of the most important books of our tradition. The book of Deuteronomy, written as scholars believe in the late 7th century BCE, was a response to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The destruction of the First Temple and the fall of Judah in 586 BCE led to the promulgation of the Torah by Ezra in the fifth century BCE, as the Jewish nation began to reconstitute itself in the land of Israel. The fall of the second Temple in 70 CE spawned the canonization of the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); the Bar Kokhba debacle of 135 CE brought about the editing of the Mishna around the year 200 and paved the way for the further development of Rabbinic Judaism.

From the abyss of destruction, arose great creativity. This theme has been repeated throughout Jewish history. The terrible Khmelnitzky pogroms in the Ukraine in the 17th century were followed by the development of Hasidism and new spiritual creativity in Jewish life. Of course, in the 20th century, the calamity of the Shoah was followed by the founding of the State of Israel. We sing in “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope was never lost. This captures the essence of the resiliency of the Jewish people.

Both Leibowitz and Schorsch note in various writings that our observance of Tisha B’Av is much greater than a mourning of the destruction of the Temple. If it were solely about the Temple, Tisha B’Av would be almost irrelevant for a religion that has thrived for 2,000 years without a Temple. Rather, Tisha B’Av encapsulates our mourning for all of the dark periods in our history. It provides a focal point of catharsis after which we can—indeed must—get on with our lives to continue building, dreaming and creating.

On this Shabbat Hazon, we hear the harsh words of Isaiah in the haunting melody of Eicha (Book of Lamenations). We brace ourselves for Tisha B’Av when we mourn so many of the dark periods in our history. And yet, we also read about the Israelites standing me’ever l’Yarden, on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to jump in and begin a new chapter of life. This juxtaposition reminds us that we should not be so distraught over our difficult times that we cannot get on with our lives. We must always strive to create a better future. At the same time, even at the peak of our creativity, we must remind ourselves of how fragile life is so that we may work harder to preserve it.

May God give us the strength to meet the challenge of Tisha B’Av and remember that despite the darkest days of our history, we will continue to thrive in our creativity and constant efforts to bring more justice and compassion into the world.