By Rabbi Joel Mosbacher
“We who are given the gift of life, no matter how short or long it happens to be, do best by imbuing its every moment with meaningful actions that are complete, whole, and innocent. If we can have the strength to do so (and it is far from easy), then we, too, can one day face death with deeds that speak to our life’s goodness and the way we lived it well.”
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, who was President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of these words, indeed imbued every moment of his life with meaningful actions, and those actions inspired so many others to lives of goodness.
To our great sadness, Rabbi Panken died suddenly this past Saturday at the age of 53.
Rabbi Panken was an extraordinary teacher of Torah and leader of the Jewish people for more than three decades. He grew up in the Reform Movement and was deeply passionate about the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.
He was at once so erudite, so very self-deprecating, and so exceedingly funny. He was the kind of teacher who I would follow around when he was teaching at a rabbinic conference or Reform Movement Biennial; I didn’t care what he was teaching – I just wanted to soak in his every word. He was pretty much always the smartest person in the room, but he didn’t ever make you feel small for being in the presence of his wisdom. He could make the most complicated text approachable, and make many an obscure text relevant to modern life.
But as great as was his Torah knowledge, the tributes I have heard offered from Rabbi Panken’s friends and colleagues, students, fellow faculty, HUC-JIR Board members, and so many others, all agree: his menschlichkeit, his humanity, was even greater. And that is saying a lot for one of the greatest Jewish scholars of our time. He remembered each person’s story, recalled details of their family life, and, in the most genuine way, would ask with sincere concern and singular focus after the well-being of each person he knew.
Just this past Thursday at the reception following HUC-JIR’s graduation ceremony at Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi Panken made a beeline for Elyssa and me in the midst of a room filled with hundreds of people. Why did he take that moment to make us feel that we were the only people in that room? Because he wanted to tell us that he had been bragging to people about the incredible work Shaaray Tefila was doing around welcoming a refugee family – a story I had told him at breakfast a few weeks ago.
Rabbi Panken’s life was far too short. He was taken far too soon from his family circle, including his parents Beverly and Peter, his wife Lisa, his children Eli and Samantha, and his sister Melinda, who served Shaaray Tefila as an assistant rabbi in the late 1990’s.
Today, on the day of his funeral, countless people will gather to testify to his life’s goodness, and the way he lived it well. Today especially, let us each take a moment to remember that life is a gift, that each day is a gift, and that we have the opportunity, the strength, to cherish each moment, to bring blessing to the people in our lives.
At the graduation on Thursday, he offered words for the difficult times in which we live:
“Here’s the thing: the Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived and built again and again and again. We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity.”
Rabbi Panken’s death leaves a chasm in the heart of all who knew him. His great gifts of mind and spirit will be a blessing to his family, his colleagues, his students, the Jewish people, and the world. We will need all of our courage and fearlessness and creativity to move forward from this loss. But we will live through it.