Study With Rabbi Perlin (5/7/2020)

In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken – His Words and Teachings to Live By

A TBS Class with Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D. on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 1 PM

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a degree in electrical engineering, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1991 and received his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. As a rabbinical intern and rabbi, he served at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY, before going on to serve the College-Institute in a succession of leadership roles: faculty member, dean of students, dean of the New York campus, vice president for strategic initiatives, and as president, until his tragic death in a plane crash at age 53, on May 5, 2018.  The week before he died, Rabbi Panken came to TBS to kick off Rabbi Perlin’s retirement events and to speak at Friday night services.  Zichrono l’vracha ~ May his memory forever be a blessing.



What is the Source of Rabbi Panken’s quote on Life?

Published on (

In the Fullness of Days

D’var Torah By: Rabbi Aaron D. Panken 10-24-10

Chayei Sarah (literally, “the life of Sarah”) begins as Abraham buries his late, beloved wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, in the area of present-day Hebron. Immediately after her burial in chapter 23, the biblical text moves right along to Abraham’s next task: that of ensuring the next generation’s establishing its appropriate familial patterns. He charges his chief servant (probably Eliezer, mentioned in Genesis 15:2) with finding a wife for his son Isaac; this quickly leads to one of the more famous arranged marriage stories of our biblical tradition.

Sandwiched between the funeral and the future is a short phrase the Torah employs to describe Abraham in his old age (Genesis 24:1): “And Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way.” While many, including Abraham, achieve the title of “old” (zakein) in the Bible, the particular words “well advanced in years,” (ba bayamim, literally “coming along in the days”) only appear in connection with Abraham and a few other great leaders of our people: only Sarah (Genesis 18:11), Joshua (Joshua 13:1 and 23:1) and David (I Kings 1:1) earn this title. Such selective application of words like these triggers commentator attention, and provides an opportunity for discussion of the unique qualities shared amongst Abraham and these other key figures.

One sixteenth century commentator with roots in Adrianople and Salonika remarked on the inner meaning contained in these words. In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Torat Moshe, Rabbi Moses Alshech (d. circa 1593, in Safed) reads the passage in this most creative way:

“And Abraham was old, well advanced in age [literally, coming along in the days] . . .” He came with all his days-all were complete, without defect or lack, full of content and life. And this is [what is meant by what is written in Genesis 25:7] “these are the days of the years of Abraham’s life. . . “-that is, that he lived with all of his days. And, similarly, about Sarah it is said [in Genesis 23:1]: “the years of the life of Sarah”-that all of her years were years of life. They were upright and their years were upright.

Abraham, to the Alshech, was not just a garden-variety older man who had lived a long life. Instead, he was to be respected not simply for the duration of his years on the earth, but also for the particular quality of what he did with his allotted moments of life. Abraham distinguished himself by ensuring that all his days were complete, without defect or lack, full of content and life. The implication is that Abraham’s (or Sarah’s, Joshua’s, David’s; or in essence, anyone’s) greatness lies not in simple longevity, but in the use of every precious moment to its greatest effect. It is in making every second count, and using each one in upright, fully developed ways, that we become great.

One of the great thinkers of the early modern period combined this thought with a midrashic statement and an idea from the Zohar, to extend it to its logical end. The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, known in Hebrew as Ha-Gra) who lived from 1720-1797, made the following insightful comment on the use of this term in Genesis:

Rabbi Aha said: you have a person who is in “old age” but not “in the days,” or “in the days” but not in “old age,” but here [with Abraham] you have a person who has “old age” corresponding to “days” and “days” corresponding to “old age.” (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 59:6) It is possible to clarify this according to what is brought in the Zohar about this verse (Genesis 47:29), “When Israel’s time to die drew near . . .” When a person dies, all his days come for an accounting before the Holy and Blessed One, to show the measure of the tzaddik in that not one day passed of his years without Torah and mitzvot. This is not so for the reshaim, (evil ones), whose days hide themselves and are ashamed to come close before the Holy and Blessed One. And this is as they said: “you have a person who has ‘old age,’ ” that is to say he is a guilty older person without ‘days’ to come for him, for all his life was in sin and evildoing and his days hide themselves from coming before God. And you have a proper and pious person, and his days come to testify to his completeness before God, but he does not come after a long life for he died in his youth. But Abraham lengthened [his] days, and came before God with [all of] them.

Such a picture of the end of life is enough to make us seriously reconsider our choices. According to the Vilna Gaon, the young and innocent who perish have one advantage, for their deeds are pure and these deeds come to speak before God on behalf of the deceased. For those of us who are somewhat older, the challenge is far greater. Merely imagining the scene of all our days and actions parading before God should give us pause and, ultimately, provide sincere motivation to live life better.

Combining the Alshech’s and the Vilna Gaon’s words above, we come to a message of significant beauty that alights on the simple words ba bayamim. 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. Any steps we take along this path will help us grow to be more like Abraham and Sarah, Joshua or David. Not perfect, of course, but worthy of being remembered with favor by our people for many years to come.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College?Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Putting the Needs of Others Before Your Own

Published on (

It’s All in the Approach

D’var Torah By: Rabbi Aaron D. Panken 12-6-10

Though you might not know it from the back of the plane, those last few minutes of your trip are statistically the most challenging. Studies by the National Transportation Safety Board,1 the Boeing Corporation,2 and many other trustworthy aviation sources reliably point to the fact that final approach and landing are the most complicated parts of air travel (excluding the TSA check and finding a cab at the airport, of course).3 As a pilot, I can attest to the concentration it requires to land, even on a clear day with no clouds and calm winds. When one throws in a crosswind, a low ceiling, reduced visibility, and ample precipitation, managing the approach to a successful reunion with the earth becomes a fascinating endeavor that requires practice, concentration, and strict attention to proper procedure. The good news: thanks to frequent, recurrent training that focuses on well-defined key objectives; excellent design and maintenance of aircraft and facilities; good decision making; and flight deck cooperation; these approaches happen safely and routinely, thousands of times each hour, all across the face of the earth, and in every imaginable sort of weather.

Vayigash (“he approached”) is a Torah portion that centers on the approach. This verb (nun-gimel-shin, “to approach” or “to draw near”) appears five times in this parashah alone (Genesis 44:18, 45:4 [twice], 46:28, and 46:29 [reading the Egyptian place-name Goshen as cleverly linked to this root]), forging a moving literary context for the fascinating interactions between Joseph, his brothers, and his father as they bring a torn family back together. Brothers, long squabbling and harshly separated, now approach one another carefully and respectfully, fully cognizant of their difficult past, yet invested in a stirring attempt to reunite and transcend past hurts…

This moment of reunion could have gone many ways, and it is only Joseph’s careful choice of approach that causes it to come out successfully. Had Joseph comported himself differently, seeking revenge or the public embarrassment of his brothers, this reunion could easily have ended in tragedy. But his approach is far more thoughtful than that, despite what must have been his intense inner feelings toward his brothers.

Rashi reflects on what Joseph must have been feeling in his Torah commentary. First, Rashi explains the reason that Joseph expels his Egyptian servants before revealing himself to his brothers:

He [Joseph] was not able to suffer the fact that there were Egyptians standing around him and hearing his brothers embarrassed by his announcement to them.

Thus, despite the severe initial betrayal and decades of distance, Joseph is still able to feel for his brothers and their pain. Instead of choosing to give them measure for measure, he instead considers their well-being, and grants them privacy for what he knows will be a difficult and frightening moment for them. This is, in a word, remarkable…

The key to bringing this family back together is Joseph’s incredible ability to focus on what is important. The goal, here, is not self-aggrandizement, compensation for prior hurts, or gain over other siblings. Joseph’s singular goal is to see himself as a messenger of God, with a certain purpose to achieve: that of assuring the survival and well-being of his family, no matter what. Once the brothers understand that Joseph really does see it this way, their fear may not end entirely (in fact, it does not, see 50:14-21), but they now know they can live with him in one family. Perhaps they even learned something by watching him in the process.

What can we learn from this complex and rich narrative? It is a wonderful lesson about putting your own needs and desires in check when something more important is at stake. And it applies wherever critical goals are involved: whether building a synagogue or a Jewish community, landing a plane, or overcoming decades of familial strife, keeping one’s focus on what really matters is the key to success. It’s all in the approach.

  1. See (p.36)
    2. See (p. 22)
    3. Transportation Security Administration (TSA)


In an interview for Reform Judaism magazine shortly after Rabbi Panken was installed as president of HUC-JIR, he shared this reflection about majoring in electrical engineering and why he transitioned to a career in Jewish life:

I realized that as an engineer, I would be spending the vast majority of my time in a laboratory with at most two or three other people. I wanted meaningful learning and the kind of interactions with people I’d enjoyed during my Jewish youth group days. I also felt that something else was missing – something I could only describe as “real work” within a community.


Finding Unity in a Bomb Shelter in Jerusalem

By Rabbi Aaron D. Panken , 7/25/2014

Source: JTA  Published: 7/25/2014

When the siren sounded, the Rolling Stones’ tortured 1969 track “Gimme Shelter” popped into my head, oddly enough.

That haunting song offered a stunning reminder of the endless horrors of war, reawakening a sleepy world with a vivid musical picture of human pain in times of combat. Merry Clayton’s evocative vocalization of disturbing lyrics over a harsh musical background focused global attention on the awful realities of the Vietnam War.

Nowadays, though, one hardly requires a song to experience war – live news feeds, endless websites and constant e-alerts satiate us with such input constantly. Such has certainly been the case with the ongoing Gaza-Israel crisis of the past weeks. Often ignored amid the images we see, however, are the more human sides of military conflict.

Last week in Jerusalem, I witnessed this more human side. It started in a crowded lecture hall when the alarming, warbling music of the first siren in the city immediately captured the attention of all present. Quickly, though not very quietly, we filed into the miklat – the shelter located in the basement of almost every building in Israel.

Many Israelis do this with a practiced nonchalance learned over many wars and missile attacks. They roll their eyes at the inconvenience, remark on the fact that a little siren can take precedence over even the most important conversation or event, chuckle at morbid jokes and generally riff on the annoyance of such happenings.

It is, I suppose, a way of normalizing the abnormal – if quotidian life can continue even in the face of the fear, then the victory of Hamas, Hezbollah or whoever the present enemy may be is thereby restricted and limited. In the shelter, the most remarkable equality reigns. Babies, young children, teens, soldiers, the elderly are all there – the entire cycle of life walks down those stairs to seek safety, with all its glories and challenges blatantly displayed. Those bedecked in yarmulkes or dressed in the black suits and hats of the haredi Orthodox stand alongside those who live Reform, Conservative, secular or more postmodern lives, along with Israeli Arabs, Druze, Christians and others. Some pray, others recite Psalms, some chat, but most sit quietly and await the “all clear.” For a few minutes, the divergent, contradictory and competitive streams of life in Israel all converge, and human safety becomes the sole communal objective.

Walking on the street in Jerusalem when the alarm sounds, the scene is even more profound. As people move to their private shelters, whoever happens to be on the street is welcomed in, no questions asked. Shopkeepers, normally reticent to share their precious stockrooms with strangers, welcome passers-by into their inner sanctum without hesitation. Doors everywhere fly rapidly open, and the true value of hakhnasat orhim – welcoming the stranger – happens all over the country. On buses and in cars, the same principle holds true, for wherever one stops, one is welcomed. Such shared vulnerability unites the country, reminding everyone of their inescapable linkage to state and people, shared government and collective fate. This particular night, I happened to be with a group of our North American students who had come to Jerusalem just days before to begin the first year of their studies to become rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators. It was surreal for them, to be sure, these young visitors so recently transplanted into a new and foreign culture at a very challenging time.

Along with a palpable nervousness, what emerged with them as we left the shelter together and dispersed into the balmy Jerusalem night was a sense of being at one with their people. A people sheltered together, against whatever the world might tender.

Published on (

Your Call Is Very Important to Us . . .

D’var Torah By: Aaron D. Panken   10-11-2010

Perhaps the Western world’s most common experience when attempting contact with an entity greater than ourselves is the dreaded phrase: “Your call is very important to us.” In these words, all too often, is a sentiment that simply does not inform the painful experience that follows—a seemingly endless holding period before there is even a semblance of a chance of anything we might recognize as customer service. These days, when we do receive attention immediately, we are often shocked and surprised.

It was not quite this way in the ancient world. Certain great individuals actually received calls initiated by a greater entity, and this week we encounter the first call to a founder of the Jewish people, Abram.

In Genesis 12:1–3, we find the earliest indication of God speaking to Abram. The Torah narrates God’s first command to him thus:

The Eternal One said to Abram:
“Go forth from your land,
your birthplace,
your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and it shall be a blessing I will bless those who bless you,
and I will pronounce doom on those who curse you;
through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Rabbi Menahem Recanati, an Italian Torah commentator (late thirteenth to early fourteenth century) with a decidedly mystical bent, explained this verse this way:

“Abraham our ancestor, peace be upon him, was born on the other side of the river, as it is said (Joshua 24:2): ‘In olden times, your ancestors were settled on the other side of the river . . . ’ God uprooted Abraham from the place he was planted and planted him in an internal place, in Eretz Yisrael, for there blessings could fall upon him” (Commentary of Rabbi Menahem Recanati on Genesis 12:1, s.v. vayomer[Jerusalem: Machon Zichron Aharon, 2000]).

According to Recanati, the call to Abram was, in essence, a call for him to uproot his life—both physical and internal—and move on. Abram, settled comfortably in his place of origin across the river, was static, but God needed to uproot him so he could become dynamic—to change and renew and innovate…

Abram’s call, then, is a call to depart the standard way of life, to uproot his settled life, to innovate, to take risks, and to try something new. God asks him to set out on a journey where he does not know its end and can only hope it will result in concrete blessings. And in his risking everything, Abram is able to move beyond where he might have stayed in his life and establish a people that still lives on thousands of years after his death. Without his willingness to risk everything, we would not be a people today. And ironically, through becoming uprooted, Abram loses one kind of settledness only to find a greater, more long-lasting sort of permanence.

Contrast this with another first call to leadership, God’s call to Moses in Exodus 3. At this point in Moses’s life, he is about as un-“settled” as one can be. He begins his journey as a discarded infant, floating alone on a tiny basket in the Nile; he stays in Pharaoh’s home, but has to flee when he kills an Egyptian overseer torturing an Israelite; it is then that he becomes a full nomad, moving with his flock ceaselessly from place to place. Only when Moses is so far out of civilization in the desert that he is all alone, is ready to hear God’s call to him. It is then that we read (3:2–6)…

Note the astounding difference between Moses’s call and Abram’s. While settled Abram must pick himself up, disconnect himself from what surrounds him, and set out on a new path; Moses, who has not stopped moving in years, has to slow down and connect with what is around him. Though fire normally moves constantly, jumping from bush to bush to light a greater blaze and eventually burning, this fire is different—rooted in the ground and not moving on or dying. And once Moses first indicates his attention by saying Hineini, (Here I am”),

God’s first call to him is to cease his movement (“Do not come closer!”) and remove the very things he most needs to continue his constant motion—his shoes. It is only after Moses has stopped his movement, and noticed the sacred ground beneath him, that God can add the final point that fully roots him back into his tradition: “I am the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Moses’s call, then, is a call to settle down, to cease running, to return to and maintain a tradition handed down to him over the generations. God wants him to stop moving so quickly, to see what the world around him has to offer, and to recognize holiness before it burns itself out without his noticing. Moses, the ultimate nomad, needs to stop and smell the roses, and through this action, he, too, can activate his covenant with God and ultimately save the Jewish people.

All of us have moments when we need to heed the call of Abram: to run farther, to uproot what is too settled, to innovate and embrace what is new, scary, and exciting. And all of us also have moments when we need to heed the call of Moses: to stop running, to recognize what is sacred right there next to us, to kick off our shoes and revel in all the good that has been handed down to us from generations before. Even our synagogues and institutions face this bifurcated call on a regular basis. Our tradition has always balanced such dual poles: valuing creative innovation, and at the same time treasuring inherited tradition. And unlike with customer service, both these calls are, indeed, very important to us.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Rabbi Panken on Leadership

A Letter to the Administration: No One’s Ancestry Is Greater Than Anyone Else’s

By Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D. , 3/21/2017


American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters edited by Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss and Lisa M. Weinberger, published in December of 2018 and dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Panken

(A compilation of 100 articles written by scholars from a range of religious traditions in America on the occasion of the inauguration of President Trump in the first 100 days of his administration)    (Note: Rabbi Perlin is quoted on page 24 of the book)

Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,

The advent of each new administration calls for the broad re-creation of our country every four to eight years. Such moments of re-creation offer an opportunity to learn from the biblical creation story itself.

Genesis 1 narrates the well-known creation myth that culminates on the sixth day with the fashioning of the first human being. An early Jewish interpretation highlights two essential aspects of this tale: “A single human being was created to teach you that anyone who destroys a single life, it is as if they have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who sustains a single life, it is as if they have sustained an entire world. [Also, only a single human was created to teach] that no one may claim ancestry that is greater than anyone else’s” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

This gets to the core of what it means to govern a nation in which all citizens are created equal. In the decisions you make, you must take into account each and every human being affected by your words and actions. This ancient text reminds us of the manifold ways that people in power and the policies they create can destroy the lives of others: by denying them health care, tearing apart their families through wanton deportation and travel bans, polluting their environment, negating their humanity, or downgrading their education. Each of these acts is tantamount to the destruction of the whole world.

But also inherent in your leadership is the sacred possibility of sustaining the entire world: by rising above prejudice, polarization, and hatred, by working for unity and coherence, and by constructively imagining how each constituent’s life might be improved through collaborative, respectful, intentional endeavors.

The mishnah concludes by reminding us that no one’s ancestry — and thus no one’s humanity — is greater than anyone else’s. No American deserves to suffer the disgrace of discrimination, whether due to gender, race, religion, sexuality, economic status, or any other facet of their individuality.

Our government has always been a global beacon of pluralism and respect for others. I pray that will continue in your administration. We are counting on you.


Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
President,  Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion