On Saturday evening, I put down my phone for two hours. This, in and of itself, is not unusual. I usually spend a good component of Shabbat separated from my technology. Instead, what made this Havdalah from my phone different, was what happened when I came back to it. Because, when I turned on the screen I saw five missed calls and three text messages from friends and classmates saying, “Call me. As soon as you can.”
Anyone who’s ever received a message like this knows that the news can’t be good. And it only took the first 60 seconds of the first phone call to learn that Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was killed in a tragic accident earlier that day.
But Rabbi Panken did more than teach me some of our ancient texts in that year. As many of you heard Rabbi Carole Balin describe a couple weeks ago at my installation, I was not the typical rabbinical student. I was not on my NFTY (Reform Jewish Youth Movement) regional board, nor did I major in Judaic Studies in college. I was more comfortable with numbers and science than language and poetry. I preferred rational thought and logic, over spirituality and emotional expression. I spent most of my time as a rabbinical student knowing that I was different than my classmates and waiting for everyone else to realize I didn’t fit into a box.
Most of my class met Rabbi Panken during our very first class on the New York campus of HUC. As our professor, he was tasked with the immense job of teaching us post-biblical Jewish sacred texts. Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, various non-canonical texts, Mishna, and an introduction of Talmud; Rabbi Panken worked to teach us the texts on which he had built his scholarly career. All in one semester. All while stepping into the position of President of the College-Institute. It’s a good thing he loved teaching and helping to form future rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators. I’m sure, in that year, he chose to teach rather than sleep.
Yet, it was in that classroom with Rabbi Panken that my difference was not a fatal rabbinic flaw. You see, in addition to being a scholar and a tzaddik (Righteous man) in every sense of the word, the President-Elect of my seminary was also an electrical engineer and a pilot. He saw the world as I did, with the philosophy of a scientist, and the sense of a man deeply connected with the systems and functionality of the world around him. But instead of allowing his worldview to become a chip on his shoulder, as was beginning to develop on mine, he used his unique perspective to understand Judaism, its history, its texts, and most importantly, its people. What I was beginning to worry was a weakness, Rabbi Panken took as a strength, and taught me how to do the same.
Through Rabbi Panken’s tutelage and example, I learned how to become a rabbi genuine to who I am and to how I understand the world. Now, in his absence, I must hope and pray that he taught me well enough to carry that blessing and burden on my own.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, the Israelites are given a list of possible blessings they will receive should they follow God’s commandments, immediately followed by a list of curses that will befall them if they don’t. The promised blessings and warning of curses is repeated by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, which we will read over the summer. The curses in these lists are some of the most extreme curses imaginable – violence and warfare, starvation and exile, disease and death – curses that the rabbis of the Talmud understood we would want to avoid even the mention of. And so, they make it a point to tell us “And to juxtapose the blessing with the curse…just as the curse is proclaimed loudly, so too, the blessing is proclaimed loudly” (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 37b).
For so many people, hearing of Rabbi Panken’s death truly felt like a curse, not just proclaimed loudly but proclaimed in a deafening roar. His family, his children, his students, his colleagues, his community, and the whole of the Jewish community feel his loss. Especially as many of us watched another teacher place his hands upon the heads of the 16 new rabbis and cantors during the ordination ceremony not even 24 hours after his death. An act that Rabbi Panken often declared to be one of his favorite parts of being President.
But even in this moment of pain, the blessing that was, and will forever be, Rabbi Aaron Panken, remains just as present, just as loud, as the shock of his death. His wisdom, his kindness, his passion, his curiosity, his joy, are present in every single student, congregant, camper, lay leader, and clergy person he met. Though the blessing of his physical presence might now be gone, the blessing of his impact and memory shouts even louder. And each of us are blessed to continue his legacy in our own way.
As I write this Shabbat Message on the anniversary of my own rabbinic ordination, I hear the echoes of the most important and meaningful question he asked me, one year ago today.
“Are you ready?”
Yes, Rabbi Panken. Thanks to you, I am.
Zecher Tzaddik Livracha. May the memory of the righteous continue to be a blessing.
- Shabbat Va-y’chi - December 20, 2018
- Shabbat Vayetzei - November 13, 2018
- Shabbat Noach - October 9, 2018
- Shabbat Ki Tavo - August 28, 2018
- Shabbat Vaetchanan - July 24, 2018
- Shabbat Korach - June 12, 2018
- Shabbat Bechukotai - May 8, 2018
- Shabbat Tetzaveh - February 20, 2018
- Shabbat B’shalach - January 25, 2018
- Shabbat Vayigash - December 19, 2017