Last Shabbat, my teacher died. Tragically, suddenly, unexpectedly. An experienced pilot, he took to the clear blue skies, soaring high, as he loved to soar. He was with his flight instructor on a routine training flight, no different than the hundreds if not thousands of flights he had taken before. This Shabbat, however something awful happened. The plane went down. The instructor survived, but last Shabbat my teacher died.
Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l was the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Eighteen years ago, long before his ascent within the administration of the College-Institute, he taught me Talmud and he taught me how to apply ancient teachings from the Talmud and other sources to contemporary issues.
Aaron (we all called him Aaron, not Rabbi Panken, or Dr. Panken; just Aaron-that’s what he preferred) was gentle, witty, kind, gracious, generous, and very funny. He was also one the most brilliant persons I have ever met. He had the ability to be both serious and silly simultaneously. Aaron was a rabbi by vocation and an engineer by training. He applied his engineering background to his academic work and in recent years to his strategic planning for the College-Institute. Whenever I saw him we’d have a quick conversation. He’d ask about my family, my work, what I was doing that was interesting. And he was genuinely interested in knowing more about what I was doing.
I’d like to say I had a special or unique relationship with him, but I didn’t because he treated everyone this way. When we spoke, nothing distracted him. He didn’t look over my shoulder to see who else was in his field of vision. He didn’t adjust his stance to indicate that he was ready to move on. He gave me time, just as he gave everyone else time, making us feel that there was nothing else as important at that moment as that conversation we were sharing. Those conversations will be no more.
A tragic moment like this can crush a person’s soul and try a person’s faith. Without faith or trust, we could wither away. With faith to nourish us, we can survive and even thrive, during the most difficult of situations. The Prophet Jeremiah, in this week’s Haftarah proclaims, “Blessed is the person who trusts in God, whose trust is God alone. He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream: It does not sense the coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh; it has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit. (Jer. 17:7-8)
Rabbi Andrea Weiss, incoming provost at HUC-JIR suggests through Jeremiah’s metaphor about the tree
that, “heat and drought are an anticipated reality, conditions that even the most securely rooted and amply watered tree must confront. . . Even the most virtuous person-one who wholeheartedly trusts in God-will confront challenges in life [but] with the divine help of ‘the Spring of Living Water’ the devout will be resilient and thrive even in the most trying times.”
I am grateful that my own faith and trust in God is strong and is nourished. It would be hard for me, I believe, to confront the challenges of this week in particular without that sustenance. We are blessed and we can experience the bounty of blessing by trusting in God. Having wellsprings of trust and faith to sustain us in the face of life’s inevitable despair and uncertainty is most helpful and healing.
It has been a terribly sad week for our extended HUC-JIR family. Thank God, however, I can access the Spring of Living Waters to sustain me. I hope to draw from this spring and its spiritual nourishment to moisten my heart and soul which is now dry from despair, but that will nourish me and regenerate me, as I turn Aaron’s death into a mission to carry forth his unfinished work.
May the memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l be for an enduring blessing.
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin