Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779: Who is Wise?

At the Eisner Camp, here in the Berkshires, near the main office, there is a blue picnic table. This is the camp where I grew up, that introduced me to the Berkshires 20 years ago, where I most recently served as the rabbi and one of the directors. There are many special places at this camp that hold memories for me and so many others. That blue picnic table is the center of the universe. It set me on my path to stand here with you today.

Every summer, beginning when I was a college freshman serving on staff, I met Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory, at that blue picnic table. Each year, Rabbi Panken would visit Eisner Camp to meet with prospective rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students, serving in his capacity at that time as dean of the New York campus of my seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affectionately called HUC. Each year, the conversation went something like this,

“So, LPG” - my initials before I was married - “When will we see you at HUC?”

“Well, Rabbi Panken,” I would respond, “I think I have a few years to go.” (early on, it was still 6, 7 years before I would even be eligible to apply!)

“We’ll be waiting for you!” he’d always reply, with his giant, heart-warming grin.

Rabbi Panken served as a professor, dean, and then president of HUC-JIR until his tragic death this past May. He was only 53 years old. His impact on the Jewish world was great, his loss is profound. In honor of my teacher and mentor, I will teach a text from Pirke Avot throughout my High Holy Day sermons. 

Pirke Avot is one of the best known collections of Jewish text. Literally ‘the sayings of our ancestors,’ “it is one of the [sections] of the Mishnah, the code of Jewish law compiled in the early third century of the common era,” (Pirke Avot, Kravitz & Olitzky xi).

As Rabbi Panken taught so many texts to me, particularly from this era in Jewish history, it is in honor of his memory that I teach this text to you.

Ben Zoma said:

Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.
V’eizehu chacham? Ha-lomedi m’kol adam.

Who is strong? The one who controls one’s passions.
V’eizehu gibor? Ha-kovesh et yitzro.

Who is rich? The one who is happy with one’s portion.
V’eizehu ashir? Ha-sameach b’cheklo.

Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creations.
V’eizehu m’chubad? Ha-m’chabeid et ha-bree-ot.

These questions will be our guide for the High Holy Days. A guide on who we can aspire to be.  A guide for self-reflection on the year that passed and the year that is beginning.

Let’s begin with the first question: Who is wise? - the one who learns from everyone. This summer, I have been blessed to be both a student and a teacher, learning from all of you about the Temple Anshe Amunim family traditions, hopes, and dreams. This is a community with an incredible history, legacy, and commitment to the future, to teaching the next generation to inherit the mantle of leadership and responsibility to Jewish life.

There is something special about the relationship between generations, between students and teachers. As Rabbis Leonard Kravitz and Kerry Olitzky teach,

“This is a relationship that colors the life of both scholar and student. The student speaks proudly of ‘my teacher’ and, when repeating what has been learned, speaks in that teacher’s name - humbly acknowledging the source of the student’s own knowledge. While there is a level of mutual respect between student and teacher, the student expresses a reverence for the teacher, uniquely reserved for [this] relationship,” (71).

Our Pirke Avot text continues with a quotation, a biblical proof text, that emphasizes this perspective: “From all of my teachers, I have gained understanding” (Ps 119:99). As we are still getting to know each other, I wanted to introduce myself to you through what I have learned from a few of my teachers, those who have shaped who I am today.

Let me tell you about the first teacher who shaped my life. This summer, some of you learned a fun fact about me. Prior to playing the guitar, I was a student of the harp. The guitar is a little easier to transport.

I loved playing the harp. My teacher, Elizabeth Morse, had a lot to do with that. Elizabeth taught me that mistakes are natural, and do not end a performance. Whenever I missed a note or two, she encouraged me to pick up where I left off, and continue smoothly and without fanfare. While giving a harp recital differs from leading a Shabbat or High Holy Day service, you’ll still see me take this same approach. Here’s why. When I lead services, I am not a performer. You are not the audience. You are the tzibor - the community. Rachel and I are shlichot tzibor - leaders of the community, facilitators of the musical and spiritual experience we share here together. So if we stumble on a note or a word, we continue with grace and humility, because we are human, and we are in this together.

In teaching in his honor, I’ll share how Rabbi Aaron Panken taught me through his actions. Rabbi Panken’s loss is significant for the Jewish world - as President of HUC, Rabbi Panken was one of the top liberal religious leaders in the world. But the true tragedy is that Lisa, his beloved wife, has lost her husband, and that Eli and Samantha, his amazing kids, will start a new Jewish year without their dad this year. 

As president and parent, teacher and mentor, whenever you spoke with Rabbi Panken, you always had his full, undivided attention. Last winter, Rabbi Panken and I had been trying to find some time to connect - I wanted his advice on the next steps in my career, that ultimately led me here to you. We both were attending the Reform Movement’s Biennial Convention in December. With 6,000 Reform Jews gathered in Boston from around the world, Rabbi Panken’s schedule was packed. We ran into each other in the crowded central hall. “Walk with me,” he said. In the five minutes that we talked, we were back at the blue picnic table. I had his undivided attention and received his wise guidance. This is just who Rabbi Panken was, for all of his students. He was never too busy and always found a way to be available. He was empathic and open. Above all, he cared.  

A text that I learned from another teacher and president of HUC, Rabbi David Ellenson, emphasizes this quality. 

“With children such as these, there is…the possibility that great leaders of Israel will arise from among them…” Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, a leading authority in 19th century Europe, wrote these words in a responsa, a legal ruling, addressing the religious status of an infant born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Kalischer’s response differed from many of the stricter scholars of his day, who said no to these children - they were not Jewish without a Jewish mother. They viewed the cases of these children as hypothetical, as a Jewish legal problem to be solved. Kalischer responded to the actual people sitting before him. Kalischer saw the potential of these children to become great leaders and important members of the Jewish community. 

Like Rabbi Kalischer, and my teachers Rabbi Ellenson and Rabbi Panken, whenever I meet someone new, at any stage in life, I strive to see the potential that they hold as a unique individual, as a valuable member of our community, or as someone who could become one. Each person is an individual with different interests and needs, walking his or her own Jewish path. There is no one-size-fits all approach. My role, ultimately, is to be present, to listen, and to teach Torah.

Sometimes, the smallest voices can teach us the most about listening and learning. In the Talmud, “Rabbi Ḥanina says: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned most of all,” (Taanit 7a). Often, we don’t know the immediate impact on our students, and this can have a surprising impact on us. When I served a synagogue in the Boston area with a nursery school program, I had the joy of leading Shabbat singing and prayers every Friday afternoon. Before my first meeting with these young learners, the director of the nursery school, Ellen Dietrick, offered this insight: “Based on where most of the kids are developmentally, it’s unlikely that they will sing along with you. Don’t be discouraged. They are sponges. They are soaking up every note and every word.” True to her prediction, as I enthusiastically taught Bim Bam, complete with hand motions and dance moves, twenty pairs of eyes followed me, raptly. Twenty mouths stayed shut.  A little disappointed, but prepared by the director, I thought about what I might do differently the next time we met.

The next week, a parent stopped to say hello as she dropped off her daughter. “Did you teach Sophie Bim Bam on Friday?” she asked. “Yes…” I replied. “She hasn’t stopped singing it all weekend! In the car, in the bath, at bedtime - bim bam, bim bim bim bam!” We are lucky when we know the impact we have on our students, and they can teach us more than we teach them.

Rabbi David Kimchi, a medieval scholar, commented the following on Psalm 119, our proof text.

“Of all my teachers. I learned from them all and I took a moral and from them I observed the good way and they taught me to be your witness. Now, they speak through me.”

My teachers speak through me. I hope to live up to what they taught me through my actions and my words. We all have these mentors and teachers, some who are with us, some no longer with us. I wish I could tell Rabbi Panken the impact that he had on me as a teacher. Instead, I can only hope to honor his memory through what I teach and how I treat others. May our actions and our words do honor to the legacy of our teachers, may we teach, may we learn from each other, and may we learn from everyone we meet.