Month: June 2018

Korach | Numbers 16:1−18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, two divergent models of leadership are presented. The leadership of Korach, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is the prioritization of particularistic concerns from a heterogenous group of malcontents born of shattered hope and unrest. The second is that of Moses and Aaron, described eighteen times in Torah as “servants of God,” who sought only to teach, guide, advocate, and defend the early Israelites. Sacks’ takeaway is that “a true leader is a servant, not a master. He does not seek to set himself above others or lord it over them. Leadership as power, dominance, mastery, or rule has no place in Judaism.”
Too often our society overlooks those in servant leadership roles. Perhaps because they don’t command as much oxygen in a room, or because they prefer to empower others and stay out of the spotlight we miss them entirely. Yet it is often they who are truly effective, a lesson Moses and Aaron learned the hard way. When they lost their way, when they failed the challenge of remaining firm in their convictions as servants of God when presented with Korach’s model, they lost their place in the promised land. Join us on Saturday morning at 9:30am as we study these prooftexts from our tradition!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Sh'lach L'cha | Numbers 13:1−15:41

There's nothing like the unknown to amplify fear; and there's nothing like the wilderness to amplify the unknown. Our parsha this week, Sh'lach L'cha, features the famous story of the Israelite spies who ventured into the Promised Land to scout it out in advance of the rest of the wandering Israelites. It is a famous parsha for a few reasons: 1) it reinforces the image of the land being one "flowing with milk and honey," with produce so large that it requires multiple people to carry one bunch of grapes, 2) it is also a land full of "giants" to whom the Israelites "seem like grasshoppers," thus adding to the terror of it and 3) because two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua speak up in favor of entering the land - and they wind up being the only two of their generation who will survive to see the people enter in to it.
In these wilderness chapters, we become "a stiff-necked people," challenging Moses & Aaron, and therefore God, at every turn; bemoaning the unknown road ahead. Countless times, our leaders ask God for strength to continue to lead, and countless times God threatens to wipe us out, only to have our leaders come about in our defense. It is a wild ride through the wilderness as we ping-pong back and forth between being secure in who we are and where we are headed, and downright terrified and indignant in our ignorance of the path ahead... How like life? The journey to a new place is always harder traversing than the known path. The road-less-travelled is the one full of fears and doubts and terrors, and yet in the immortal words of Robert Frost - taking that Road Less Travelled By makes all the difference; in becoming who we are, in facing our fears, and moving through the uknown into the wilds of deep discovery.
- Rabbi Callie Schulman

Thoughtful Thursday - June 6, 2018

As we reach the end of the shloshim thirty-day mourning period, I am finally able to gather my thoughts to share about Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, former President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and my close friend.

Most of us live divided lives, split between the need for a public persona and a private striving for a more intimate authenticity. Rabbis bear the additional, amplified demand of the clergy archetype, a spiritual Rorschach upon which many project their ideals and concerns.

And so, it is a special province for rabbis to spend time amongst ourselves, permitted to let our entrenched guard down, relating to one another as the human beings we were before committing to this vocation-- the people we still are in our most essential, protected moments.

This inevitable distance between private persona and public image increases even more when the rabbi is a global leader, one who serves so many as a nurturing mentor, institutional visionary, and symbolic purveyor of tradition. And when one is taken from this life at the pinnacle of powers and prowess, the list of achievements attained, and those unrequited, forges memory of nearly mythic proportions, weighted with the promise of the could-have-been.

I was blessed to call Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l a colleague, and fortunate to look to him as a rising leader of our Reform Movement. But I am luckiest to have cherished him as friend for more than three decades, and I grieve a loss that traces the deep contours of that bond. For friends of this nature, duration and faithfulness come rarely in a lifetime, and even in his absence, his imprint impresses.

I met Aaron in that strange and liminal moment of our first summer in Israel upon entering our rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the seminary at which he would later become President. It was a challenging time of transition, barely adjusted to completing undergraduate studies, uprooted physically, emotionally and spiritually to a life in Israel, embarking upon a journey of sacrifice and service that we could scarcely envision. Our youth and inexperience was obvious and manifest, as we struggled to embrace our launch into both adulthood and this most idiosyncratic of paths. We shared a singular flash in time, still unmoored by the freedom of the inchoate, but increasingly bound by the expectations of what lay ahead. We forged a friendship rooted in what we had been, encompassing what we were becoming.

There were unbridled moments pursuing the excesses of youth, hold overs from our undergraduate exploits, celebrating our temporary lack of encumbrances and exploring the possibilities for new and different kinds of experiences. We embraced the rigors of novel study, traveled to new, exotic locales with an emerging community of classmates, all while laying the foundations for our evolving identities.

While all of us possessed unique qualities and traits, elements that became abundantly familiar in the course of such intense interaction, Aaron exuded an infectious energy and inimitable presence that drew us in and drew us close, inviting us to become co-conspirators in his great assault on a fuller kind of living. He was intellectually omnivorous, passionate for adventure, and compulsive to fulfill the longings of his heart and mind. While most of us were content to satisfy the demands of the curriculum, balanced with the travails of this year of transience, Aaron consumed as many new ideas as he could plumb, immersing deeply into everyday Israeli culture in ways that seemed to defy the physical limits of time and vigor.

There is no looking back upon that first, formative year without reflecting on Aaron’s significant role in it. And as I’ve shaped and been shaped by my distinct rabbinic path, the fidelity of my connection to Aaron, and his conscientiousness in its sustenance, endured, despite the exponential growth of his responsibilities and the pull of myriad demands. It is a testament to his capacity as a person and acumen as a leader that so many feel his loss in personal, impactful ways. But I will always remember the “husky” red head with the stubbled baby-face, driven by an East Coast angst for that which remained undone, assailing me with a sarcastic but-not-too scarring retort which disarmed with a wry smile, charting a course that he alone would tread, beckoning me to follow in a path as singular as his own.

-Rabbi Daniel Weiner