I had been meaning to ask Aaron a Talmud question this week. I liked asking Aaron Talmud questions, usually when I was preparing to say something about the Talmud in front of a bunch of rabbis, and I wanted to make sure my reading was within reason.
Here is the question I was going to ask him this week in preparation for Los Angeles ordination. In Talmud Tractate Tamid 28a, the text says of the priest chosen to remove the ashes from the altar, v’lo ner b’yado – “there was no lamp in his hand.” Explanations for the ruling vary: one opinion maintains that the priest did not need to hold a lamp because he could walk by the light of the flames on the altar; another suggests that it was all about keeping the priest’s hands free and unencumbered for the service to be performed. I wanted to ask Aaron if I could say that it’s a value for rabbis to show up empty-handed – not so full of ourselves or crammed so full of qualifications that we forget to remain open to the service before us.
And now I can’t ask him. And now we can’t ask him. Our questions could be about anything: ancient texts or what we might learn from the Parkland students he visited; a challenge the College faces or a movement-wide issue that would summon his razor-sharp sense of strategic vision; or just an invitation to explain the latest technological gadget that left most of us stymied but that he actually knew how to use, and probably how to take apart and put together again.
I can’t ask him my question now. But I can cite him as my answer – because Aaron Panken showed up empty-handed every day. Not as an ungracious guest would – in fact, the flowers from his last visit to our home a week ago are still on the kitchen table. But empty-handed as in open-handed and open-hearted to the people and the world around him. He was curious about anything and everything, from some nerdy electronics convention to a bit of Aramaic grammar to opera, which he actually got Lisa to go to for one whole season once.
He was curious about you and me, which is why his asking after us or our families never came off as conditioned rabbinic reflex, but as the genuine caring it was. It’s what made him a great camp counselor from the beginning, and a great friend every day.
His world could be only the person in front of him, or it could be, well, the world. Aaron and Lisa and their family have traveled the globe with the best of wander lust, this powerful appetite to see more and know more and experience more – from Panama to Europe to Australia and New Zealand to name just a few, and on every conveyance imaginable, and learning every step of the way. Even on the most mundane, shlepadik days, he was always imagining the next adventure.
He was empty-handed because he somehow managed to be a person of strong principle but minimal preconception – he was remarkably willing to take new questions seriously, rather than fall into clenched patterns of resistance. He was fun to disagree with, because he was smart and stubborn, but practical and never closed off. He approached hard decisions with creativity and courage. He would stick to principle, but never get stuck on himself.
He was empty-handed because he was at home not only in the scholar’s study, but in the sky and on the sea and in the raucous embrace of his family and before a Manhattan sunset and a Berkshire dawn and in the fullness of God’s world.
Aaron was a rabbi through and through, but he was an electrical engineer by training, and you knew it without ever seeing his CV. I remember when I once made the mistake of asking him how all his increased travel was going, all the packing and unpacking. At which point he ushered me into his bathroom on Stonewall Lane to proudly display the handheld steamer which he used to steam the wrinkles out of his suits as soon as he got home so they would be ready for the next day, followed of course by a full scientific disquisition on the machine, the fabric, and their wondrous interaction. Aaron Panken got excited about steam.
He was warm and delightful and fun, and an engineer – so as a strategist, he was sober and unsentimental; and as a scholar, he valued precision over polemic. Just recently, a few of us were ribbing Aaron on this very bima about the fact that his less-than-scintillating book, The Rhetoric of Innovation, had surged almost into the triple digits in sales since its publication thirteen years ago. But I am willing to bet that his is one of the few studies of Talmudic literature that actually uses bar graphs, ten different bar graphs, to be precise, to make its argument about change in Jewish law. Only a Johns Hopkins engineering major could be that kind of rabbi.
That sobriety was an important quality in his leadership. He never jumped on a bandwagon, or went in for inexact rhetorical flourishes. And that is what made his emerging public moral voice, especially over recent months, so powerful. He had just begun to speak out against the perils of this political culture, just begun to show us how to bring the authentic and complex voice of our tradition to bear on the toxicities of our own day. One of the many reasons that we feel so cheated today is that he had only begun to lead us.
He had a keen intellect, a boundless heart, an anchoring integrity, a great sense of play and a wicked sense of humor. In my sermon at this year’s CCAR Convention, I focused on the metaphor of the rabbi as an earthen altar, partaking of the holy and the human. Infatuated with my own imagery, in the hallway after the service, I could see the Panken twinkle of mischief in his eye, and then the shoulder shake that precedes the Panken belly laugh. That’s when he asked me the pragmatic engineer’s four-word question that ruined my metaphor of the earthen altar forever: “What if it rains?”
But the most remarkable byproduct of the Hopkins engineer turned HUC graduate is that Aaron Panken was that rarest of breeds: a rabbi who could fix stuff. My parents, aleyhem hashalom, always adored Aaron. From the time that he was my father’s intern here at WRT, to the marriage to our beloved Lisa that brought Aaron fully into the Scarsdale fold, Aaron was not only an honorary Stern child, but frankly, the favorite Stern child.
When my parents retired to the Berkshires, Aaron and Lisa would always visit when they would come up for the weekend, or for less time than that, if my parents even faintly suggested that they would love to see them. And pretty much without fail, when the charming young couple showed up at the door, they were greeted with a warm embrace and a punch list. “Aaron, while you’re here, could you look at the printer?” “I’m not sure why the TV isn’t working.” “Does that air conditioner vent look funny to you?” And the huge Panken heart and the admirable Panken patience and the considerable Panken skillset would make it all work.
For all of his constant achievements and well-earned stature and overcrowded calendar, Aaron never stopped being a rabbi to our family. He brought great comfort to us when my mother was dying, and afterwards those visits to the Berkshires became even more precious when my dad was in the house alone. Visits from Aaron sustained him, as they had when my mother was in the hospital, as they did when my father was in the hospital, as they did every time Aaron Panken made Jack Stern laugh or made him think or made him proud. Aaron Panken was a rabbi who could put things together – like printer cables, like broken hearts. He may have started out empty-handed, but he held all of us. He was a mensch beyond measure.
I know the tragic circumstances of Aaron’s death might make us reticent to speak of his passions, but that would not be fair to him. He loved sailing, and he loved flying. He had a thing for the sky, he had a thing for the compass of the stars, he had a thing for the water and the wind. The Messingers’ Berkshire home on the lake and the cottage my family rents are literally a five-minute drive from each other, and about twenty minutes by sailboat or kayak. I cannot recall a single time that Aaron drove. I really believe he was most at home in the sky and on the water – they were his poetry, the places where his intellect and his sense of wonder could dance. He has fallen from a Sabbath sky, and our hearts are broken. But how he loved a Sabbath sky.
To Aaron’s parents, to Melinda and her family, to Lisa and Eli and Samantha, our hearts go out to you, and if a bunch of broken hearts together can make something whole, we’re here to try. Aaron Panken lived in a remarkably wide world, and you were always at its center. We loved him, and we love you.
And on behalf of the family of rabbis we call the CCAR, I will simply quote our colleague Michael White, who wrote of his dear friend Aaron: “He was the best of us.” Two thousand Reform rabbis agree upon very little, but that one is a winner. Smart, kind, caring, compassionate, learned in Torah, committed to the Jewish people to the fiber of his being, serious in his vision and joyous in his days. He was the best of us.
V’lo ner b’yado – like a priest without a lamp, even as we stumble in this valley of shadow, we walk by other lights. May Aaron’s example guide our way. May his soul shine like the splendor of the heavens. May we know God’s comfort. These are dark days — but if Aaron taught us anything, he taught us how to sail by a night sky. “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Aaron David Panken, zecher tzaddik livracha – may the memory of the righteous always abide for blessing. Amen.
This Eulogy for Rabbi Aaron David Panken was shared with permission from Rabbi David Stern.
CCAR will be providing resources and support as we process our grief in the weeks to come. Please click here to learn more.
This is one of several eulogies that were offered. We anticipate others will be available soon.