A Tree Of Life: Daniella Moffson’s First Yahrtzeit


Editor’s Note: Daniella Moffson, a student at Barnard College, was one of three students who died in a bus crash in Honduras on Jan. 13, 2016, while volunteering on a medical mission serving the poor. This week a Torah was dedicated in her memory at the Ramaz School, her alma mater. Daniella was 21.

It was unexpected. And jarring. As I tried to keep my own emotions in check, I looked around at the surprised, indeed disturbed, look on many of the faces of the hundreds of people assembled.

We saw the family and their dearest friends, and our rabbis and community leaders, walking into the shul with the Torah. We heard the horns. The drums. We recognized the songs. V’Haer Eineinu B’Toratecha. Light up our eyes with your Torah. Etz Chaim Hi. It is a tree of life. But our eyes were – are – dark and tear-filled, and we feel as though we are holding onto a tree of death, not life.

We knew that there would be a Torah dedication at the commemoration of the first yahrzeit of Daniella, zichrona l’vracha, may her memory be a blessing. But we didn’t know what that truly meant.

At that moment, I understood. As Jews, this is what we do. We look tragedy in the eye, and write and complete a Sefer Torah.

Our hearts break, and 120 people learn all of Shas – the entire Talmud, something that normally takes seven years.

We feel unbearably sad, and we bake challah, we take on a mitzvah – go to minyan, say Tehilim [Psalms], visit the sick.

And we sing and dance a new Torah into the shul. Because that very same Torah instructs us to do so. No matter how we feel, when a Torah is taken out of the ark, we stand. And when a new Torah is brought in, we dance. Maybe we didn’t quite dance, but we clapped. And when we found our voices, we sang. Maybe not with gusto, but there was singing, nonetheless.

Welcome the new Torah! Celebrate the new Torah! Respect this Torah which has sustained the Jewish people, and will sustain all of us, at this very dark hour.


We sang, and clapped, and rejoiced, because that’s what Daniella would have done. Daniella, whose very mantra was “mitzvah gedola l’hiyot b’simcha”[it is a great mitzvah to rejoice]. She radiated joy and appreciated everything and everyone in her life. She took nothing for granted and celebrated everything.

In Jewish life, the opposite is true as well. At our moments of greatest joy, we remember the destruction of the Temple. Im eshkachech Yerushalayim – if I forget thee oh Jerusalem – sung under the chuppah.

In Hallel, as we celebrate a Jewish holiday, or the new month, we sing Zeh Hayom Asa Hashem, Nagilah V’Nismicha Bo – this is the day that God has granted us and we will rejoice in it – and immediately after, we say Ana Hashem Hoshia Na – God, we beg you, save us. At our happiest times, we remember the sad times, and the people who suffered, or are suffering, as well as our own vulnerability.

And this, too, is how Daniella lived. She lived a life of chesed, always doing acts of kindness toward others. She died, so very tragically, just after completing her last mitzvah, having traveled to a foreign country, with fellow college students, to help bring medical care to underprivileged patients.

To live a Jewish life is to live a life of balance. Judaism provides a blueprint with instructions to never become so sad that we cannot continue, and to never become so happy, that we forget our own vulnerability, and, most importunately, those who are less fortunate than we.

So we completed and ushered in a brand new written Torah, and then we completed the oral Torah. The entire Talmud. And we heard a Siyum, the study of the very last lines, and the Hadran prayer was recited. The Hadran prayer is like a love song to the Talmud.

Hadran alach, Talmud Bavli, v’hadrach alan.

We will return to you, Talmud Bavli, and you will return to us.

Though we have completed you, we will never be finished with you. We will never truly be without the Talmud. As on Simchat Torah, when we arrive at the very end of the Torah and we immediately begin reading it again, we will start to learn the Talmud again tomorrow.

And what a magnificently fitting way to observe Daniella’s first yahrzeit.

Hadran alach, Daniella, v’hadrach alan.

We will return to you, Daniella, and you will return to us.

We will never truly be without you. We will cycle through another year, with God’s help, and arrive at another yahrzeit. And we will have taken on more mitzvot in your name. Because you taught us all by example, at your very young age, what it means to live a paradigmatic Jewish life. A joyous life, appreciating God’s chesed to us, while always remembering to do chesed for others.

Welcome the new Torah. Celebrate the new Torah. Etz Chaim he. It is not a tree of death. It is a tree of life.

Shira Baruch is director of admissions of the Ramaz lower school.