Barefoot Reading: Using Torah Study to Confront Life and Death–By Deborah L.R. Kornfeld

Rabbi Hananyah said: “When people sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Shekinah abides between them.”(Pirka Avot, Chapter 3, perek 3)

In January 2014 four women started a Shabbat chavruta. For nineteen months we would meet at B.J’s dining room and over several cups of tea and a cookie or two, we talked Torah. Three of us were older women with grown children and growing grandchildren: we were an anthropologist, a writer and an occupational therapist and one of us was a young lawyer engaged in social justice and mothering two young children. It started out as a bikur cholim (the mitzvah of visiting the sick) project, but continued as an incubator for both new insights and social justice action

B.J. had a diagnosis and prognosis that was not hopeful. She was enduring treatment procedures that often took the wind out of her and kept her away from shul. As a study partner, B.J. was a thoughtful and considered woman. She had been tried throughout her adult life, yet refused to be defined by either her losses or her illness. The anthropologist was an Israeli and brought both the anthropological point of view and a deeper understanding of the Hebrew language. The other two were traditionally observant women, searching for a more meaningful and open space to explore and learn Torah. We mostly studied the texts “barefoot”, just the text and our own stories and memories.

We confronted the weekly portions with vigor and hope. Was there something we could take back to our lives? Did the text speak to us as we confronted a difficult world or our own personal challenges? We argued with our forefathers and foremothers. We struggled with the text and with some of the classical interpretations. We discussed critically and yet, we often stood in awe of wisdom concealed or revealed in a particular parsha or perek. We sat “barefoot” with our texts trying to use our common narrative to understand, if not the “why” of our lives, at least how we should navigate through our own journey. In the course of those nineteen months something amazing took place; despite B.J.’s critical illness and uncertain future, our Shabbat morning chevruta became a strong and powerful life force. Sadly, B.J. passed away in August of this year. Our chavruta study did not save her life, but she left a legacy of learning and lessons that will endure.

Second essay in the series Four Women’s Essays on Rosh Hashanah and on Friendships