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Rabbi Daniel Allen z”l — my hevruta

The best 'hevruta' spars with you to challenge your assumptions and enable you to reach new understandings together (in memoriam)

Dear Abba,

I’ve been playing this moment over in my head for a while now. I’ve imagined your funeral too many times to count. My remarks sometimes were focused one way and sometimes another. In some of the imaginary proceedings I didn’t even speak.

But here we are, the real thing. Nothing imaginary about it. In fact besides a few other moments in my life – marrying Sari, the birth of my kids and your grandkids – this is about as real as it gets.

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a few things without interruption. Try to resist the urge to jump in – I know that you are listening. And I believe in my heart of hearts that in some ways we have had this conversation before, though never like this.

It’s no secret that you and I did not have what one would describe as the warmest or fuzziest of relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there wasn’t love. There was. A lot of it. We just didn’t know the best ways to tell one another. But I know you love me, and you know I love you too.

It’s bothered me for some time now, why we never figured this out. What was blocking us from really telling each other how we felt? It certainly was not for lack of emotion. We are two peas in a pod. Full of emotion and passion, stubborn to a fault, and boy do we love a good argument. We are so much the same. Just like you and Grandpa. These traits run deep in the Allen family, and perhaps deeper in Allen men. We come by it honestly and each of us has had our ups and downs as a consequence of our genetic inheritance.

But that’s not the whole story. Lots of fathers and sons are similar like that.

But we have other things too.

We are both rabbis. Different rabbinates, different paths of service to the Jewish people, with different talents to share. But that’s not really the story either.

No. I think the best way to characterize our relationship, and the reason that it manifested in the ways that it did, is because you were my havruta, my study partner.

The relationship with a hevruta is central to the enterprise of Jewish learning. Torah, and bringing it out into the world, is a creative act best done with someone else. Hevruta’s don’t only learn and decipher and decode the text. That certainly is what it looks like is happening. But with every debate over grammar, over the logic of this argument or that one, in trying to crack the code of the passage to greater understanding, something else happens in the process; something far more profound than understanding God’s words and their impact in our lives.

An act that appears to be centered on the text is really centered on the people sitting around the text. Abba, what and I learned in our seemingly endless debates over Israel, over American politics, over various issues facing the Jewish world, was about you, and about myself. Each machloket, each sacred battle, each time that Allen pointy finger came out, we weren’t fighting. We weren’t yelling, God forbid. We were exploring more and more about one another and deepening our love.

Of course, we both know it didn’t always feel like that, but that’s what it was. I know that’s what it was because we kept coming back for more. Thirsty to know what drives us, what keeps us awake at night, and the reasons we get up in the morning – we kept coming back to our beit midrash – most often the dining room table – to continue writing the Torah of Abba and Uri. And every once in a while I got the coveted Danny Allen pause and tilt of the head, coupled with, “You could be right.”

And each time we got better at it. Like the proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron So a person sharpens the wit of his fellow.” Which brings to mind another saying from our tradition, ma’aseh avot siman labanim, the deeds of the parents are the guideposts for the children.

How many conversations did you have like this with Grandpa? How many times did the three of us have them together around the table in Jerusalem. How many times were Sarah and Noah and Morris and Joel and Miriam a part of this sacred family, and deeply Jewish, practice? The instances are too many to count just as the depth of our learning and loving cannot be measured. By the way, I’ve started to see this pattern emerge with me and Doron. I’ve seen it with you and him too.

You could be anyone and everyone’s hevruta. Not because you had some kind of argumentative streak in you or just liked to pick a fight. Sure, sometimes it was for sport. But in truth it is because that is how you showed respect and love for family and friends, for colleagues and co-workers. And that is the way you demonstrated your curiosity about people and about the world. That is how you learned. That is how you taught me to learn.

But besides being convinced of one’s own positions, the greatest hevrutas are able to concede the point, to rethink and recalibrate the mind, to see it from another angle. That doesn’t mean that it’s correct. It simply means that there is usually more than one way about everything. You taught me that too. Over the years your passions never waned but the way you thought about them did. That’s also what a hevruta is for.

Your best havruta though, and the one with whom you met your match, was Imma. Her style is different. Less bull in a china shop and more kill em with kindness. That’s why you were such a perfect match – complimentary opposites – exactly as hevrutas should be. And with Noah you had your own kind of hevruta and with Sarah too. Like I said, you could be anyone and everyone’s hevruta.

One of the most famous stories about a hevruta pair in the Talmud is about R. Yochanan and Reish Lakish. After a lifetime of being a bandit, Reish Lakish is first the student, and then the study partner of R. Yochanan. One day in the beit midrash, the debate turns personal, and as a consequence of being distraught over the offense, Reish Lakish died.

A new havruta was appointed. Elazar ben Pedat sat before R. Yochanan and affirmed each of his opinions and agreed with every one of his rulings. To this R. Yochanan cried out – don’t you think I know I’m right?! When I was with R. Lakish, every point I would make, he would raise 24 objections. Where are you son of Lakisha! Where are you! The mental anguish was so great that R. Yochanan cried himself to death.

Today, I have a new understanding of what R. Yochanan had lost and the nature of his grief. He lost a treasured lens not only into Torah and God and the nature of the universe, but he lost someone to teach him about himself. I’ve lost my greatest teacher, and the greatest access point outside of myself to greater self awareness and understanding. I’m going to have to find a new hevruta now, and I know none will be your equal.

I remember asking R. Shmuel, my rosh yeshiva, why he seldom learned with a hevruta. He could always be seen in his little room off the beit midrash with stacks of books and papers, learning on his own. Meanwhile the rest of the study hall was abuzz with the sound of students toiling in Torah. He explained that after a while, he developed a kind of internal hevruta in his mind. An inner voice that would challenge him, correct him, ask questions of him, and offer new insights he would not normally have seen.

Abba, all of us who were privileged to have you as our hevruta will need to develop that inner Danny Allen, and for me, that inner Abba. WWDD or WWAD – What would Danny Allen do, or What would Abba do, will now and forever be our mantra, our access point to deep curiosity and passion, to caring, to reaching out beyond ourselves to meet each other, to know each other and to love each other.

Even in recent years I have tried to develop that inner Abba voice. It often comes out around the High Holidays when I can still see you in that little house in Florham Park leading the congregation. I waited for the end of the service in anticipation of your closing prayer. Though I’m pretty sure you didn’t write it, I give you attribution every time. And now that I am privileged to lead my own High Holiday services, I always conclude with the following poem. It feels fitting to recite today in your honor, because today will most certainly be amongst the Holiest days of my life, and because your life is our blessing.

For all of us who love you and will miss you, may this be a part of the voice that will long endure in our hearts.

During the coming year:

May you enjoy good health and happiness.

May peace reign over our country and throughout the world

May you have a kiss from your beloved

a smile from a child, a warm cozy house

with the aroma of good food baking in the oven

May you have wise governors and merciful tax collectors

good friends and helpful neighbors

May you enjoy the fruits of your labors

celebrate birthdays and anniversaries,

and may the sun shine on your face – but not too much

May you see a rainbow

May your team score a touchdown

May the Sabbath Queen enter your home

and enable you to follow the teachings of the Torah with love

May you enjoy peace of mind, and may all your dreams be sweet ones.

May the world be a better place because you are in it,

and may you find delight in, reading a good book, finding a bargain, doing a good deed and giving tzedakah with an open hand

Whenever it rains — as it will, may you have an umbrella

And may we meet on the streets of Jerusalem in the year to come.

About the Author
Uri Allen is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, NY where he lives with his wife Sari and three children Doron, Aderet and Yedidyah. He is also a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a part of the fourth cohort of Clergy Leadership Incubator.
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