Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President-Elect, Addresses URJ Biennial on December 15, 2013 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President-Elect, Addresses URJ Biennial on December 15, 2013

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Friday, December 20, 2013

I would like to thank Rabbi Rick Jacobs, for his kind words of introduction.  Rick, you and Susie have been among our dearest friends, partners with Lisa and me in building effective and visionary Jewish communities, and our teacher in so many ways. I know that the coming years will see us working together, in order to form a more perfect Union and College-Institute that continues to support the needs of our congregants and congregations with integrity, attentiveness, and meaningful service to all our members.  I look forward to being a partner with you in this sacred task.

There are a number of wonderful aspects to being one of the speakers at the very last plenary at a URJ Biennial. First of all, and best of all, it is not too shabby when you are the “warm up act” for the Prime Minister of Israel.

Second, is the fact that everyone else at the Biennial has spoken about the book of Genesis, and its final weekly parashah, parashat Vayechi. In contrast, I have the privilege to teach from an entirely new book of the Torah, since we are now past Shabbat and onto parashat Shemot.

But most importantly, I am pleased to be with you, Shearit Yisrael – the faithful remnant of the people Israel, because it is only the truly faithful who make plane reservations at the very end of a West Coast Biennial, during an East Coast snow storm and do not head home early! That is putting faith into action.

In our new parashah, parashat Shemot, in chapter 3 of the book of Exodus, we find one of the most stunning scenes in the entire Bible – God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush.

Artists of all sorts, commentators and authors, painters and composers, throughout the centuries, have applied their considerable religious imagination to the extraordinary vision, of our humble leader Moses encountering his God in a barren desert.

Imagine yourself in Moses’ shoes – a tiny, solitary figure on a vast and lonely arid desert landscape. You have recently fled from Egypt, you are afraid, and hunted by Pharoah and his men. Wandering, you are a vulnerable nomad grazing your flock against the stark backdrop of the rocky, inhospitable Sinai desert.

You come upon a sight that stops you in your tracks, a spectacle that actually disrupts your wandering for a moment, and causes you to turn from your path, stop, take it all in and then see the world anew. There before you is a bush on fire that does not burn up, but continues and is never consumed. And from that burning shrub, out of that most unlikely of places, emanates God’s voice. Somehow that ragged, prickly, humble plant actually contains the presence of God.

This is the first time you have heard from God, and you are, of course, impressed and amazed.

And, from this point forward, your life will simply never be the same.

Our Rabbis teach a number of lessons based on this memorable scene, far too many to cover comprehensively this morning, but allow me to focus on one limited aspect of the narrative, our tradition’s treatment of the bush itself.

In Hebrew, the bush is called “hasneh” – from the root samekh, nun, heh. This is a very rare root, used only one other time in the Torah, and that other occurrence simply refers to this unique incident. So this singular moment is shrouded in some mystery; we may not know exactly what was burning that day in that desert.  But taking the reasonable assumption, that our tradition’s interpretation of hasneh as a “bush” is correct, why, then, does God choose to appear to Moshe in a bush?

Among the dozens of reasons offered in Rabbinic literature for this literary choice, here are a few to consider:

A midrash cited in the name of Rabbi Yose notes that it is characteristic of a thorn bush, that when one sticks one’s hand into this shrub it goes in easily, and your hand is not injured, for the thorns are pointed downward. But when you try to remove it, the thorns will fasten onto it. This, Rabbi Yose says, is like the Israelites in the land of Egypt – it was easy, during the time of Joseph and his brothers, to enter in the midst of the famine of the Book of Genesis, but, then, hundreds of years later, after the Egyptians “fasten on to them,” it becomes extremely difficult for the Israelites to leave. The bush, then, represents the trap of slavery, and the more generalized problem being trapped and unable to move forward.

Another midrash, taught anonymously, tells us the bush teaches the concept of Divine empathy.

This author suggests that the sneh represents God’s distress. While the people Israel are in distress, are living under the hand of an evil Pharoah, they are never alone, for God, too, is right there beside them, in distress with them. As long as they dwell in Egypt, then God, too, can only dwell in a place of distress and pain – a thorn bush, which causes injury and travail to all who engage with it.

A third explanation:

Rabbi Eliezer explains that the sneh is more modest than any other plant in the world. It is low to the ground, never standing out head and shoulders above the other plants and trees. This, he explains, is a reflection of the modesty of the people Israel, a reminder of how they are, or, at least, of how they should be – never lording themselves over others in haughtiness, but lowering themselves in humility.

A fourth explanation:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karchah teaches a simple, beautiful lesson: If God may be found in this bush, which is little more than thorns and branches, then that teaches us that God may be found anywhere. That implies, of course, that God may be found not just anywhere, but everywhere. If even a lowly, denigrated thorn bush can contain God, then each and every place in our vast universe has the potential to hold the presence of God.

These are just a few of the many, many explanations and extensions of one tiny element of the biblical text. Such a glorious interpretive trajectory begins in the years immediately following the completion of the biblical canon, and continues ad hayom, even until today. Generations have unravelled this symbol, hafach bah v’hafach bah d’kulah bah, and have turned it and turned it again, to find all that is within it.

Here is the irony: in our tradition’s interpretation, of even the most lowly, most disliked, most insignificant feature of a desert landscape, we find all the magnificent grandeur that interpretation can offer. When we take our rightful inheritance by studying even the most minute elements of texts, when we concentrate on the details and the letters and the questions they inspire, when we open our souls to the extraordinary gift bequeathed to us by our forebears, when we actively accept and embrace the precious gift of Torah – we open ourselves to limitless possibilities for growth, for learning, and for improvement of ourselves and the communities around us.

Best of all, when we hear the voice of our unique and extraordinary Torah, as refracted through the manifold lenses of those who read it before us, and we bring our own deep knowledge and open creativity to formulate our own readings, that is when we link ourselves most authentically, in the shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition, that stretches back a hundred generations to Moshe Rabeinu, and extends forward, through our work, we pray, for hundreds more.

For me, personally, and as the incoming president of North America’s premier institution of higher Jewish learning – the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion – this is what our Reform Movement needs to be and must always strive to become. Torah study can become the blessed antidote to the incessant cries of despair in our community. I need no Pew study, no handwringing about the future and funding, no worries about dues and demographics.  What I need,and what I believe we need, are the simple and authentic acts of teaching and learning, the transformative moments in which our tradition comes alive, and moves seamlessly, beautifully, mi dor la-dor, from generation to generation.

It has always been the teachers in our Reform Jewish community who have been able to inspire us, to motivate us, to make us better, to ask us to improve our world.  And they continue to keep us connected and alive in our faith by teaching Torah.

When does our tradition come alive? It is with the Bar or Bat Mitzvah educator, or religious school teacher or camp counselor, who sits lovingly with students, and reads Hebrew from the siddur; and in so doing, creates fluency and ease with Hebrew, comfort in praying, and a lifelong connection; so that the words of a prayerbook or a Tanakh, read anywhere, in any shul or kitah around the world, will resound in their hearts, and fill them with meaningful connection to the beloved home that is their Jewish world. Those words, those connections, make our tradition come alive.

When does our tradition come alive? It is with our elders who share their stories, of birth and homeland, of disruption and leave-taking, of challenge and triumph, of persecution and ultimate redemption; when they see that personal story against the profound backdrop of our shared Jewish journey, constructing themselves as fellow travelers with Avraham or Sarah; with the ancient Jews forced into exile in Babylonia, but who continued to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land; with the medieval Jews who expelled from Spain to new lands, who created Jewish community afresh in vastly altered surroundings. It is with our parents and grandparents who immigrated from Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side, to Galveston, to England or Australia or Eretz Yisrael, who revived their lives and built the communities we inhabit today. When our Reform Jews see that story as their own, then our tradition comes alive.

When does our tradition come alive? It is with our students who reach higher, challenging  themselves to grapple with the complexity of Hebrew texts and ancient traditions, seeking their relevance and application in our post-Modern world, preparing for the fulfilling and extraordinary life of Jewish professionals. They find and bring to others enduring inspiration, meaning and purpose, not in materialistic pursuits, but in the more enduring blessings of the words and ways of our faith.

They know, in their souls, that there is simply nothing more precious and consequential in our world than being authentic teachers who choose to spend their lives in the building of sacredness and goodness, through acts of teaching, pastoral care, service to others, and building communities of conscience. Through service to the Jewish community, through holy acts that do what the latter part of the aleinu suggests we always should: l’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai, to repair the world under the rule of God, by dedicating themselves to the betterment of the world around them.

I joined this Reform Movement, my beloved Jewish home, as a child at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. I grew up in this Movement and have been a beneficiary of everything it has to offer. I celebrated my becoming a bar mitzvah standing next to Rabbi Ed Klein and Rabbi Sally Priesand, HUC-JIR’s first female ordained rabbi. I was blessed to be one of the very first generation, to live a Jewish life in which having a woman rabbi was natural and right. 

I have worked in our Movement’s institutions for nearly thirty years – among my first paid jobs, I served as a weekend dining room assistant at the URJ Kutz camp, and as the audio-visual tech at Camp Eisner. I have been a NFTY kid and NFTY Regional Advisor and Rabbinical Advisor, a student and a teacher, a congregational rabbi and a professor, a visitor to the sick, and a sick person who was visited. I have worked for HUC-JIR and the URJ, and have worked with and taught under the auspices of more Reform Jewish organizations than we have time for me to list this morning.

I have been shaped by caring Rabbis, talented Cantors, and inspired Educators, by my dear friends from our time as students at HUC-JIR, by my professors, now my colleagues and by my students; by multi-denominational and interfaith experiences; by time with Jewish communities at home and abroad, in North America, in Israel, Australia and elsewhere around the world.

Amidst all this, what I can tell you is that the greatness of our Movement lies not in any organizational structure, or any particular program or place. Our Movement is greatest, when it fosters loving and authentic Torah learning, by talented teachers, to students hungry for Torah, who forge their own meaningful, authentic connection to our tradition.

As I take on my new responsibilities January 1st, I must say that I feel for that thorn bush, and its humble nature compared to other plants, for I am awed by what I see around me.

When I look at the faculty of the College-Institute, their knowledge, their erudition, their ability to interpret and transmit Torah, I am awed by what they have done and what they continue to do.

When I consider our staff – their commitment, their hard work, their ability to create and innovate, I am awed by what they have done and what they continue to do.

And when I think of that most cherished group, our students, your – our – future rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish non-profit visionaries and scholars, who serve 400+ congregations, camps, universities, schools and organizations, each year around our Movement and the greater Jewish world, and touch and teach thousands of individuals, as interns, bi-weekly rabbis, student cantors, educators and teachers, I am awed by what they have done and what they continue to do.

And when I contemplate the history, and the extraordinary predecessors whose paths I now hope to extend, it is simply overwhelming. Among them, Rabbis Isaac Mayer Wise, Stephen Wise, Kaufmann Kohler, Julian Morgenstern, Nelson Glueck, Alfred Gottschalk, Shelly Zimmerman, Norman Cohen, and most recently, our beloved David Ellenson.

Yesterday was, certainly, a high point in my life.  To feel the sacredness, the love, the emotion, when David blessed me, was a peak moment unsurpassed by many in my life. I would offer my boundless gratitude to David, this morning, for his extraordinary leadership of the College-Institute, for his enormous energy and commitment to learning, for his magnificent scholarship and teaching ability, for his emotional sensitivity, and, most recently, for the many, many kindnesses he has shown to Lisa and me.

I would ask you to join me in saluting, once again, this g’dol ha-dor, this rabbinical giant of our generation, this phenomenal Torah scholar and leader, who has graced our academy with his inspired vision, for the past twelve years. David, we pray that the coming years bring you, Jackie, and the entire Koch-Ellenson family, good health, many opportunities to teach and inspire, and fulfillment and joy.

David will continue to serve the College-Institute, as our esteemed Chancellor, as a faculty member, and as a cherished advisor and friend to me, even as he explores new areas of scholarship and teaching, always adding to the remarkable gifts he has given our community.

Before I conclude this morning, a few words about where I hope our College-Institute, and with it, our Movement, will go in the years ahead. I have spent the last three months on our campuses, considering carefully what we have built in the past years at HUC-JIR, and looking for areas where my skills and vision, along with many, many other ideas garnered from extensive interviews around our community, can add to the world of HUC-JIR. The College-Institute is a world class institution when it comes to educating students within our walls. And yet, there is room to build many more opportunities for education beyond our walls. I believe the College-Institute has to share the secret of what we do more broadly, and become a stronger intellectual center of the Movement and for the greater Jewish world. In the next 18-24 months, I hope to create new vehicles within HUC-JIR that will allow us to utilize our campuses as nuclei for learning across our Movement and beyond.

Nuclei, as you may recall from High School Physics, are positively charged centers around which other particles orbit. We will become a mekom Torah, a place of study, for the Movement, its congregations, and its leadership. We will build synergy with our Movement’s organizations, partnering to offer what our Movement needs, to keep it fresh and growing.

Adding the URJ Campaign for Youth Engagement onto our New York campus, is just one wonderful first step, in building this collaboration, with our partners in this Movement.

We will make available to you, our partners, what each of our campuses offers in the way of assets and possibilities, from libraries and archives, to professors, museums, local educational and service initiatives, and so much more. Already, we are the beating intellectual heart of the Reform Movement and we will expand along these lines over the coming years.

I dream of a time when HUC-JIR can educate exceptional NFTY kids to raise their level of Jewish education and leadership skills, and forge a creative, exciting Jewish future; when we teach and inspire  gifted college students, to help remedy the unfortunate lack of resources in Reform Jewish life on campus; when we offer learning for lay leaders to help them build future Jewish institutions of promise and vision.  As for our alumni,  we seek to ensure that they remain on the cutting edge of their fields, gaining the newest skills and knowledge they need for each of the new challenges they face, as they continue to grow in their careers.

I dream of a time when HUC-JIR hosts annual conferences, where we invite our Movement and the Jewish world’s best and brightest, to debate the key issues of our day from many perspectives, all informed by voices from across the broad spectrum of Jewish opinion. Let us debate Reform Zionism; Pluralism and Denominationalism; Judaism and the Environment. Let us talk about Medical Ethics and Gun Control, but let’s do it from a highly informed and expansive stance that knows our tradition and our contemporary world.

I dream of an HUC-JIR where our students gain a greater fluency in Hebrew; where we strengthen the relationship with Israel and Progressive Jews around the world; where students graduate steeped in the depth of Jewish tradition, yet aware of and proficient in all the ways of applying that tradition in our contemporary world, whether through pastoral care, institutional leadership, applied ethics, or social media, the internet, and distance learning.

I dream of an HUC-JIR that continues to build and promote Reform Judaism in Israel, welcoming Reform Jews from around the globe to our Jerusalem campus, and adding mightily to the 84 Israeli Reform Rabbis we have ordained thus far, and the many other professionals we have trained bemedinat Yisrael.

I dream of an HUC-JIR that is cognizant of the realities of social change, yet responsive and responsible, to the boundaries and ideals suggested by our tradition.  And I dream of an HUC-JIR that will serve as a resource to the entire Jewish people to help us as we encounter our ancient traditions, and reimagine those traditions, when necessary, for our changing world.

Moses, when he stood by the burning bush, lacked one critical blessing that we all have: the wonderful blessings of family and community. He was, in some sense, as lonely as that thorn bush.

But as the sneh teaches us, he was never really alone – for God was with there with him. He was never trapped – he was able to move forward, in his humility, to acts of world-changing significance. And in his modesty, in his ability to be self-critical, he managed to think beyond where he was, to where he might yet be.

Let us rejoice in knowing that we in this great Movement have each other as partners. I am so blessed to begin to walk this new road, with my partners, my wonderful wife Lisa, my children Eli and Samantha, my parents Beverly and Peter, and our extended family, which embraces a total of four rabbis and three Temple presidents, and a significant chance of more Jewish leadership to come. But I am most blessed to walk this new road with you – the incomparable friends, supporters, and allies, throughout this grand Reform Movement.

If a thorn bush can be the place where the presence of God enters this world, that tells me, that if we can work together, think positively, act proactively, be responsible and conscientious, then just imagine how much of God’s presence, how much Torah we can bring into this world.

So, let’s begin.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu