In honor of Rabbanit Dr. Avigail Rock – Ten Life Lessons I learned from Avigail
Today I want to share a few little pearls about Avigail from my experience as Avigail’s student for many years, and also from my personal relationship with her outside of the classroom.
In truth I have been giving over things that I have learned from Avigail for many years. Every time I have stood up here of shabbes afternoon I have shared thoughts from Avigail. After many years of her classes, I have learned over time to view Torah and life through an Avigail-colored lense. And that beautiful hue seeped into my life and colored my family as well. I discussed countless Torah ideas, existential questions, and personal issues with her for ages.
And Avigail is the person I would most want to go to now, to ask how on earth to make sense of such loss ,such injustice. Her void is just a gaping maw.
We all know that Avigail was an incredible teacher. I can’t even tell you how much it hurts me to say that sentence in the past tense. And in fact, it doesn’t even make sense to speak of her teaching in the past because the lessons I have learned from her are active and fruitful in my life here and now. They are a part of my life every day. They are repeated to my children on a constant basis. Her lessons live on, and I want to share some of them with you so that they that they will live on with you too.
And yes, many of these lessons I learned from her are about Tanach, but many more are about how to live as true, honest, honorable Jew. How to be a genuinely good person. How to be a loving mother and wife, a caring friend. Because she was all of these things, as well as an outstanding, brilliant, and inspiring teacher.
Today I hope that I will do just a little bit of justice to her legacy in sharing these ideas with you.
- Let’s begin with one example of her teaching methodology. Avigail had an encyclopedic knowledge of Tanach. In fact, her first class reminded me of Rabbanit Henkin’s –and similarly, woe to anyone who came without a Tanach in hand. I used the same Tanach for years and years of her classes, I think it was 14 years of teaching since she started here in the BRS womens’ kollel. And the margins of my tanach are full of notes and references to other pages in different sections or even different books of Tanach. Why? -Because we would be learning a passage and she would tell us to keep our finger there and flip to a different place in Tanach, and then keep two fingers there and flip to a third place , and a fourth and fith and a sixth and a seventh. With a just constant, natural flow she would show us a thread that ran through all these sources, something so beautiful, something we had never seen before, never considered. And I would frantically jot down all the linking pages in the margin of our original source so that I could go home and unpack the lesson for my husband or for our children at the shabbes table.
When she would compare these different sections, a message would jump out at us. And the comparison required a microscopic attention to detail, to each word, to the syntax. A great example is in her teaching of the Megillah. **** compared to the story of Yosef. (ketonet passim)
On the flip side, she had us notice when a work was rarely used, and had us consider those implications. For example, in the story of the Akeidah, the word used for the knife that Avraham was grasping to use to kill his son is called “meachelet”. A very unusual word for a knife, with a shoresh from the word to devour. So that we could feel the promise of the terrible loss threatening to burst from that blade. She taught us to feel the words, “he sent his hand” it didn’t go freely.
- a second thing I learned from Avigail was to be fearless in my learning. Avigail was never afraid of ideas, there was no stone we could not uncover. Avigail’s annual visit here often corresponded with my birthday and one year a rebbetzin friend of mine came up to spend the day with me on my birthday and we started the day by attending Avigail’s class. The topic was the sale of Yosef. And a few minutes into the class I suddenly realized I had made a terrible mistake. Because Avigail was teaching that the greatness of the brothers and the greatness of Yosef came from the fact that they sinned but then did true teshuvah for it. And I was sweating and berating myself for being so stupid, because the friend who came to the class was from a very chareidi school of thought that does not condone ever ever saying that holy personalities from Tanach were sinners on any level. According to that school of thought, the brothers were Tzaddikim gamore and there is no room to ever criticize them. And Avigail was particularly colorful that day and dramatic and really driving her point home, and I didn’t know what to do. After the class, I went out to lunch with my friend and she kept telling me Leah, this is not a good approach, the brothers were all utter tsaddikim etc. and she called me for days and days begging me to reconsider my whole education. And what did I do? I went to talk to Avigail about it. And I was a little nervous, I didn’t want her to feel criticized, but I was troubled by my friends’ reaction and I wanted to discuss it. Her response was so beautiful, she said simply, “Leah, it’s very clear from the text, but you should learn both approaches, but its’ very clear from the text. Maybe don’t discuss it with your friend if it upsets her.”
Another time – I read Alan Dershowits’s book, The Genesis of justice. He was frum, he gave a weekly radio drasha. But he was turned off of religion and wrote a critique, a book
about instances of injustice in the Torah and even criticized Gd for being unjust for example for wiping out humanity, for asking a father to sacrifice his son, and many other examples. Dershowits of course is a brilliant lawyer and lays out a very damning case full of all kinds of textual evidence. It’s a very troubling book. My Rebbetzin friend saw it on my bookshelf and of course she was horrified. And of course I went to discuss some of the ideas in the book with Avigail and I asked her if she had heard of it, she said, “this is a very important book.” She explained that these were serious questions that deserved serious answers from within the religious world. And then Rabbi Rock pulled a copy out of his back pack.
She definitely didn’t agree with the case Dershowitz presented but she wasn’t afraid to confront it either, and even more so, welcomed this type of challenge. Just amazing.
- Even though she was a phenomenal scholar and teacher, and surely volumes will be written about her academics, to me Avigail was primarily and above all things – first and foremost a mother. Our conversations were always about our children. Her first words were always her inquiries about my children and about my husband, and her first sharings in every conversation were always about her babies. I think in a way, everything she did was to help create the home life and the Jewish edifice she wanted for her children. I remember once she was in a difficult situation where one of her children was not doing well in a particular school. At that time she was connected to that school professionally and her job could have been in jeopardy for taking her child out of it but she didn’t hesitate, she switched that child. When she told me about it I was so shocked, and was worried about the repercussions, and her job, and everything that went along with that decision, and she just said “this was the right thing for him, I had to do it.” And that was it, the children were 100% first, everything else was just noise.
- Avigail loved people. She was so non-judgemental of where anyone was holding, how religious or secular they were, the choices they made even if they were not her choices. She told our class once about some people in Beit Shemesh who would come collecting money. And she said that on one hand she politically, and socially totally disagreed with some of these collectors who were not Zionists, who didn’t support the state of Israel, who didn’t serve in the army or sherut leumi, who chose not to work and instead subsisted by asking for handouts. Yet she would look at this person and say, I choose to see a man who is just trying to feed his children and she would put everything else aside and give tzedakah. She actively practiced seeing the good in everyone and in every situation. I once drove her to a lecture she was giving in the home of a very important benefactor, and I got lost and took her to the completely wrong place and made her late to her own lecture, it turned out the place was right near where we had started out from, I had taken her on this big sivuv –and I was mortified. And I could see she was stressed but as always she was so kind and just laughed with me about it. She just never showed anything but kindness in every way, to everyone.
Avigail included sources in her teaching from every type of Jewish group, especially if she knew one of her students was interested in something. She would include Chabad teachings for me and Hensha, and other Chassidic teachings for Yocheved, and would light up each time and say, “you would like this”. All ideas and all approaches from every different Jewish group deserved respect in her classroom
And she was in love with Am Yisrael. “mi k’amcah Yisrael” she would say all the time “who is like the nation of Israel”. Her classes were peppered with anecdotes about the moral character and the beauty of our people. One story she told was about a precious young soldier who was killed in a tragic accident from “friendly fire”. Three other soldiers in his platoon were responsible for the tragic accident and they were of course utterly devastated. Time for shiva came and they were too terrified to face his parents, they could not bring themselves to go to the house. The father of the deceased boy put out a statement that Avigail read to us. The father said “boys, I want you to know that I am hugging you. That we love you. Come to the house, we will hold each other up.” And with tears in her eyes Avigail said, “Me k’amcha yisrael” who is like the nation of Israel.
- Shabbes. Avigail changed shabbes for me forever. One year I made and off-handed commented to her that shabbes was the hardest day of the week for me. I had several small children, not much cleaning or household help. On shabbes day I would get up early , dress the small kids, take them to groups, come home and clean up the house, wash dishes, and sweep the floor, and prepare salads, set the table, then serve a huge crowd, clean it all up with my husband, and then we would take care of the kids for the rest of the day. And I was happy to do it, but it was really hard work. She was shocked that I said it was such a hard day and said I had get help on shabbes, had to take a nap, had to have oneg shabbes too. And she would check in to make sure I was doing it.
Then she took it a step further, she taught me that the wife is the captian of the shabbes table conversation, because it is part of the home environment that the woman creates. She said I must actively stop any conversation at the table that is not in the spirit of shabbes. And this was very difficult to do, but I started taking that advice and jokingly saying “as the captain of the shabbes table conversation I’m steering us in a different direction,” and I would bring up a different topic. This was not easy for me! It was easy for me with the kids, but harder for me with guests, but I gathered up the courage to do it and it radically changed and enriched our shabbes table. And even more than that, Avigail had a folder that she prepared during the week to use at the shabbes table. The folder wall full of parsha questions, stories, interesting articles, even pictures that she would go through at the table, engaging all the kids and the guests. She encouraged me to have my own folder and Friday nights became all about these articles and questions. The folder took first priority over the food, I didn’t start cooking until the folder was ready. And when I took it out, the kids knew it was the Avigail folder and that we were going to have a discussion.
- speaking of shabbes, Avigail would say that the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim was not fulfilled by having your friends over. That is eating with friends, hachnassas orchim is having someone to a meal who otherwise would not have a place to go to. So hosting and entertaining is not the essense of the mitzvah, it’s who and why you are hosting and entertaining that matters.
- having the courage to lower the standard – when she first moved here, she was taken aback by the lavishness of parties and simchas and even shabbes meals. She encourage us to have the courage to “lower the standard” to do less and enjoy more. With a simpler presentation you will invite more guests on shabbes, take the pressure off the parents and kids for birthday parties. (Gefilte fish story)
- Concern for others – always asked after people she knew were in a tough situation and it really pained her. Even years after I had told her about someone who was struggling with something, for example, a friend who made Aliyah and was struggling with aspects of it, she would ask and ask how they were, and send numbers of people who could help and she would text, I’ve been thinking about so and so, and I really think this could be helpful. And there were people I had told her about years before, and she would constantly ask about them and tell me to please keep her posted about their needs. Her love for am Yisrael was the essence of who she was.
- Live your ethics. Avigail and her husband were so strict about being ethical. They lived with an absolute adherence to their principles, even when they were the minority opinion. When choosing a gan for their children – their criteria was not what you may imagine – it wasn’t hashkafa, location, reputation of the school, that was the first consideration. No, they would only consider a gan that paid its workers legally and on time. Israel was having a problem with that and workers were protesting that they weren’t getting their full payents and full benefits. And the Rocks couldn’t fathom supporting a system that cheated the teachers. That was their first priority, to be yashar in all things and to teach their childrent to be yashar.
- Aliyah –every class, even teaching us about being makpid to write or at least say the Hebrew date everyday to remind us that we are in galus and that “January 23” is a non-Jewish construct. Every lesson, every day, she would remind us of the primacy of living in the Jewish homeland. It would be fitting to honor Avigail by pledging to at least explore the possibility of spending more time in Israel, whether as visits, or permanently.
My life and our world have been permanently changed, enriched, and beautified by Avigail. I miss her dearly and am so grateful to have known and loved her, and I will always love and cherish my memories of her.