Weekly Message 10-17-08

 17 October 2008
18 Tishrei 5769 

Shalom Chaverim, 

Late last night I sat in my sukkah and reread the haftarah from the Book of Kings that we read on the second day of Sukkot. This haftarah describes how King Solomon ceremonially gathered the community of Israel to bless the people and to consecrate the Temple in Jerusalem (the Beit Hamikdash) as the permanent home of aron-brit-Hashem (the Ark of God’s Covenant). The beauty and grandeur of King Solomon’s blessing is inspiring and almost transports the reader back to that historic moment. But last night, sitting alone in the sukkah at the end of a long and emotional week for me and my family, I found myself drawn to one image in the haftarah and to this image’s linguistic connections to the sukkah. The Ark was placed by the priests in the Kodesh Hakodashim (the Holy of Holies), underneath the wings of the cherubim (carved, gold-covered celestial beings): “for the cherubim had their wings spread out over the place of the Ark, so that the cherubim shielded the Ark and its poles from above.” (1 Kings 8: 7) The Hebrew word for the verb “shielded” is “vayasoku;” it shares the same root as sukkah and as skach (the roofing of the sukkah), which “shields” us from the elements of nature.  

While I have thought before about a comparison of the sukkah to the mishkan (the tabernacle), the travelling sanctuary in which God dwelled, or to ananei hakavod (the Clouds of Glory), which symbolize God’s presence with and protection of B’nei Yisrael in the desert, I have not before connected the sukkah to the beautiful and intimate image of the protective wings of the cherubim. I have not imagined that when I sit in the sukkah, I am sitting, so to speak, “in the arms of an angel.”  

In contrast to the gentle shielding of the cherubs’ wings, however, the haftarah also describes the dwelling of God’s presence in the newly built First Temple, an expensive, ornate, and permanent structure – the “house” of God. For the first time, I experienced the sukkah, with its sturdy walls and skach (natural roof), with both its humility and its protective capacity, as a bridge, a balance between the permanence and grandeur of the Temple and the gentle wings of the cherubim. And as I think about these three images – the wings, the Temple and the sukkah – I realize how much these different protective structures can teach us about our own buildings, our institutions, our school. How often we focus on the significance of the physical structure or the magnitude of the visions we strive to actualize and institutions we strive to build. Yet ultimately, especially as an institution grows and become more permanent, it is the loving arms, the gentle nurturing wings, the human relationships, that define an institution’s character and its spirit.   

Sitting in my sukkah last night, I was reminded of the practical and material fragility of the structures and the institutions we build; and, I was also reminded of the heart and the spirit, the mission and vision that should envelop any person who walks through our doors, and that make us who we are as a school, a community, a people. The sukkah reminds us that as we strive to grow, to make a name for ourselves, to sustain our institutions – all of which are noble aspirations, we must also remember the sustaining and protective power of the cherub’s wings, which to me represent the intimate, personal, gentle capacity of one human being to nurture another.  

This week my family and our world lost a giant of a human being, whose life and work managed to embody both the grandeur of the Temple and the care and gentleness of the cherub’s wings. My father-in-law, Dr. Allan Rosenfield was an institution builder par excellence. Over the past 22 years as Dean, he helped to build and transform Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He was known as the “doctor to millions;” yet, somehow he lived and worked with the humility of the sukkah. Through his work, his vision, his strategic thinking and his relationships, he touched lives all over the world and left a lasting impact on the field of public health, while simultaneously making every individual with whom he came in contact – every friend, colleague, or member of his support staff who had a need or a problem – feel completely protected and enveloped by his loving wings. There is now a permanent building on the Columbia campus named for him and the school and the institutions he has helped build are marked both by the magnitude of their impact on the world, as well as by the character and the giving spirit of their builder.  

For anyone who would like to learn more about Dr. Allan Rosenfield through my eyes, I have attached the remarks I shared at his funeral on Monday. May the beauty of my father-in-law’s memory bring us joy and his legacy inspire us all; may both his life and the sukkah remind us that even as we strive nobly to build and sustain the greatness and excellence of our facility and our educational program, our school will ultimately be defined by how well we spread our wings to protect, nurture and sustain our mission and each other.  

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’simchah, 

Rabbi Marc Baker  




I was talking yesterday with my and Jill’s rabbi in Israel; I called to share with him the sad news of Allan’s passing. We began talking about Allan’s life and when I shared with him my trepidation about how possibly to do him justice today, he responded, “don’t worry, just know that you are woefully inadequate.” In fact, words are woefully in adequate to remember, to pay tribute to Dr. Allan Rosenfield – beloved husband, brother, father, grandfather, nephew, uncle, colleague, mentor, teacher, Dean, friend, Doctor . . . to the world; and in my opinion, a rare, real, true-life Tzaddik (righteous person).  

Allan has touched so many lives and so many worlds; and because of that he leaves behind so many . . . he leaves behind his adoring wife of over 40 years, Clare; his brother Jim, son Paul and daughter-in-law Rachel, his daughter Jill and me, her husband; he leaves behind five grandchildren – Maayan, Yonah, Lishi, Meital and Maor, who were blessed to know their Papa, play with him, and give him leg hugs, even as his body failed him; Allan leaves behind a close, tight-knit extended family; a multi-generational community of Windham friends who are really family; friends and colleagues around the globe; people who consider him their mentor and who looked to him for wisdom and advice; Allan leaves behind women and children all over the world whose health and rights he has championed; he leaves behind a world that he has single-handedly helped to repair and transform.  

I have had the blessing of being part of this family – of which Allan is certainly the patriarch – for almost eight years; I don’t think there was ever a time when we discussed what I would call him – he has just been Dad to me since I can remember. From the first time we met, he was always eager to engage in theological disputations with me. Sufficed to say that Allan struggled with believing in God, in large part I think because he spent so much of his life staring face to face with what he considered evidence of God’s absence in the world. I would argue back to him that to me, his life, his work, and his spirit are in fact evidence of God’s presence in the world . . . and so the debate continued!  
Through our theological conversations, which none of us could ever win but which always added drama to our Passover seders, I think I became the closest thing Dad had to a rabbi; and when we discussed my role in this funeral over two years ago (not an easy conversation for either of us), I was moved by his desire, or at least by his willingness and openness, by the trust he had in his children and in me, to allow us to give him a Jewish funeral and to help him to depart this world in a way that honors his dignity, pays tribute to his life, and that is rooted in our family’s thousands-year-old history and tradition.  

Few people are blessed as Allan was to attend not just one, but several living memorials, and to hear the testimony and the love of so many people – family, colleagues and friends – whose lives they have touched. Allan’s life story and his accomplishments have been shared and celebrated on many occasions since the diagnosis of this dreadful disease three years ago. And I suspect that we will have more opportunities to pay tribute to him in the future.  

So today, rather than tell his life story, I want to share just a few thoughts about the man whom I came to know and love over the past eight years; and then you will hear from two of Allan’s colleagues and friends (including the President of Columbia University), and several of his family members about their relationships with him, who he was, and the life he lived.   

One of my first experiences with Allan was in Israel. Jill and I were living there and he was in for one of his famous two day visits, for an Advisory Board meeting I think. We went out to dinner and began discussing my studies to become a rabbi. I shared with him the rigorous process of learning the laws of kashrut – the details and minutia of keeping kosher, but really the complex process of Jewish legal decision making. With loving skepticism, Dad challenged me: “Imagine if all of you took all that brain power and used it to help solve the world’s problems . . .” Ugh. At first I was deflated. But I realized that he just could not hold back. His challenge to me and to religion in general was simple: what are you doing to make the world a better place? If he had been someone else, he might have been playing devil’s advocate or just trying to give me a hard time; but coming from someone who walked the walk every day of his life, I heard it differently. Allan was what I like to paradoxically call a secular prophet. Passionately committed to this world; standing at the gate of our society, and of all those who knew him, he preached – in words, but even more powerfully through his actions: as long as there are people in the world without access to basic human rights and fundamental human dignity, then we must fight and advocate on their behalf. And Dad not only advocated; he led a world-wide charge for what he might have called secular-humanist values; but doing what I certainly consider God’s work. Like anyone who has the blessing and the challenge of knowing, let alone being related to, a prophetic figure, I live each day of my life – and I think I speak for many of us here – I live each day of my life with Dad’s words, his challenge, and his prophetic call to keep me honest.  

When Jill told me almost three years ago to tell me that they thought Allan had ALS, I took it hard. I vividly remember where I was and I remember my very first thought: I was angry at God. Why in the world? How in the world? It’s one thing to take our beloved father, grandfather, brother, friend . . . it is another to take someone who has saved millions of lives . . . and who no doubt would have saved millions more. Allan lived a remarkable and not short life; but I couldn’t, and to a large degree I still can’t help feeling that we’ve been robbed.  

Over the past couple of years, we have watched Dad struggle with this tragically ironic disease – how cruel that a man who had fought so mightily on behalf of human dignity would be struck by a disease that threatened to rob him of his dignity. But Dad’s struggle has been an affirmation not only of his unbreakable spirit, but also of the power of life and the human spirit in general. This was a man who could not move his pinky finger, but who insisted on going to work every day. This was a man who could was so frustrated at his inability to be understood as his voice got worse and worse, and who was still willing to dictate email after email, and to correct any word that I typed that he didn’t feel expressed exactly what he wanted to say. This was a man who I believe was ambivalent about dying until the very end. He was clear that he did not want to live out his live in bed, and when he stopped going to work a couple of weeks ago, I think we all knew the end was nearing. But just when he would say goodbye, he would say hello, he would ask his friends to set up a party, he would look forward to his next visit. How tragic but also how poignant that a man who was so passionately committed to both human life and human dignity – guiding lights of his life and career – ultimately was faced with a conflict between these two eternal values. No wonder he could be so ready and yet so unwilling to say goodbye.  

I think many of us have lived and struggled with this ambivalence, especially over the past few months as we have treasured every opportunity just to hug, hold hands with, connect with, catch a glance or a smile from our beloved Allan, yet as we have wondered to ourselves: Does he really want to live this way? Dad was blessed to be surrounded by loving caregivers – his wife, his son, his home care providers, and others – who have done all they could to make him comfortable physically, to engage him and nourish him spiritually, to fill his house with chesed – loving and compassionate energy. I think that our greatest hope as Dad’s condition has worsened has been that his soul would be free and able to leave his body when it was ready; and yesterday morning, Dad was ready.  

Dad, we feel grateful that you were surrounded every day by family and friends who love you and who were happy just to be in your presence; and we feel blessed that you left us peacefully, with the dignity that you championed throughout your entire life.  

You were and will always be our teacher, healer, our role model, husband, brother, father, grandfather, mentor and friend. We already miss you, but your life, your legacy and your spirit will be guiding lights for us and for our children forever.  


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