On Sunday morning, December 11, over 100 guests entered a beautifully decorated social hall, festive in blue and silver and candlelight, to attend Lamdeinu’s eighth annual Chanukah Breakfast, just a week before lighting the first candle of Chanukah 2022/5783. And so began a wonderful morning of Torah-permeated music, inspiration, appreciation and warmth. The room was filled with Lamdeinu students, teachers and supporters, and family and friends of our two honorees. Post-Covid isolation, everyone was anxious to meet and greet in person, as we enjoyed a tempting buffet breakfast with music playing in the background. The breakfast was chaired by Ina Tropper and myself with the expert guidance of Lamdeinu Program Director Debbie Negari.
Dean Rachel Friedman opened the program and spoke about Lamdeinu and its mission to “study in depth and be inspired.” She focused on her parshanut hamikra class, of which honoree Ruth Krasner has been a member since well before Lamdeinu was established in Teaneck! Most Lamdeinu classes welcome both men and women as students, but parshanut is for women only. All classes are interactive; however, parshanut is the prime example of guided study with chevruta, a partner, followed by lecture and intense discussion.
This past semester, the parshanut chevra of which I am a devoted member, has been examining the stories of Yaakov and Eisav and discovering that seemingly innocuous textual phrases harbor a wealth of meaning when viewed through the lens of commentators throughout the centuries. We are exploring not only the commentaries themselves but also the historical context in which the commentators lived, learned and taught Torah to their contemporaries. By doing so, we deepen our understanding not only of the Torah narratives but also of the experiences that motivated our commentators to produce their thoughtful and innovative exegetical works. If you thought you knew these stories well, think again!
In her dvar Torah, Dean Friedman focused on the phrase “ben zekunim” in Parshat Vayishlach, referring to the relationship between Yaakov and his favorite son, Joseph. She spoke of its complex meaning, despite its usual translation as simply the “child of his old age.” Dean Friedman emphasized the approach of Chizkuni who offers a psychological motivation for Yaakov’s regard for Joseph as his “ben zekunim” even though Binyamin is actually younger. According to Chizkuni: “To Yaakov, Yosef would always be the paradigmatic ben zekunim… Why so? Because to Yaakov, the birth of Binyamin would always be associated in his memory with the tragic loss of his beloved wife Rachel. Yaakov could not relate to Binyamin as the beloved ‘son of his old age’ because of the painful memory of Rachel’s tragic death at the time of Binyamin’s birth. Therefore, the loving moniker ‘ben zekunim’ always remained the nickname for Yosef who was actually the older son of Rachel.” Dean Friedman then connected Chizkuni’s psychological approach to the meaning of “ben zekunim” to the historical setting in which Chizkuni created his commentary. Drawing from a recent book by Dr. Joseph Periel, Dean Friedman noted: “The Jews of this era most desperately needed comfort, and to read the Tanach in a way that spoke to their tribulations and challenges. When everything around you is storming, people want to study a simple Torah—Torah peshutah—and with a teacher who will strengthen and inspire them. …”
Dean Friedman then called honoree, Mrs. Ruth Krasner, to receive the Lamdeinu Torat Chesed Award. She described Ruth, inter alia, as a woman who fully embodies the Mishnaic saying: Make your Torah part of your regular routine, say little but do much and greet everyone with sever panim yafot, a pleasant countenance. Ruth is one of several faithful students who followed Dean Friedman from her prior position in New York. Ruth commuted from New York to Teaneck to continue her Torah study among a diverse group of highly motivated and intelligent women, under the guidance of Dean Friedman and her illuminating method of learning Torah. Ruth, a devoted student and recognized champion of promoting adult Torah study, especially by women, spoke passionately about her love of Torah learning and her loyalty to Lamdeinu, where everyone is encouraged to study, think, ask and express their ideas openly. She said “It is through study, such as our lernen at Lamdeinu, that we add meaning to our lives and the lives of those with whom we share this experience.” She quoted the poem “Lamdeini Elokai, Teach Me, My God,” by the renowned Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg, with translation:
Teach me Hashem to bless and to pray
For the secret of a withered leaf, the glow of ripe fruit
For this freedom to see, to sense, to breathe
To know, to hope, to fail
Teach my lips to bless and to praise
Each new day, morning and evening
Lest today be like yesterday and the day before
Lest my day be ordinary.
Dean Friedman then presented the Gemilut Chesed award to Esti Mellul, recognizing her three years of dedicated work as Lamdeinu’s program director. A singer and musician in her “alternate persona,” Esti coordinated and led a beautiful melave malka for women in pre-Covid times, participated in Lamdeinu Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations, and was chazanit, cantor, at several Rosh Chodesh tefillot and celebrations for women. Before Covid isolation hit the U.S., Lamdeinu had been meeting regularly on Mondays through Thursdays in the beautiful beit midrash at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck. Without a blink, Esti facilitated the switch of Lamdeinu’s programming immediately and seamlessly to an all-Zoom format, complete with breakout rooms for chevrutot. Although we missed being able to be together in person, we soon adapted and had the added benefit of including lecturers and students Zooming in from Israel and other locales.
In her remarks, Esti pointed out the contrast in attitude between the early hatred and actions of Joseph’s brothers toward him, and the positive and inclusive attitude nurtured at Lamdeinu. In the Yosef saga, that brotherly enmity grew with each of Joseph’s dreams, as shown clearly in the text. Enmity turned into the action of the selling of a brother, lying about his fate and causing much strife. (Eventually, of course, it all worked out in accordance with the Heavenly plan.) At Lamdeinu, she noted, all dreams and ideas are considered and discussed in an inclusive and respectful manner, with students studying the commentaries, building on each other’s approaches to understanding the text, while never venturing far from the core text of the Chumash and its lessons for us today.
Always with one ear tuned to the classes Esti was privileged to coordinate, she spoke knowledgably and enthusiastically about the dean and the teachers whom she heard present their material so well and so clearly while showing respect for each student. She stated, “Whether the students are creating their own parshanut ideas in Dean Friedman’s class, grappling with a halachic question with Rabbi Berger, delving even deeper into these parshiyot with Rabbi Fridman, learning the historical context of the neviim with Rabbi Angel or any other class, all are encouraged to learn, to ask, to question and to answer—both by the teachers and by their fellow students.”
Lamdeinu is currently meeting on Zoom and hopes to segue back to in-person classes and special programs. Our spring semester will begin in January. Look out for our new schedule and contact Program Director Debbie Negari for information or to register at [email protected] Come and join Lamdeinu, and you too will study in depth and be inspired!
By Mollie K. Fisch