Mourning. Memories. Blessings.
Aaron Panken was the rabbi at my home synagogue when I graduated from Tufts University. He jumped me through the hoops necessary to get into rabbinical school.
Suddenly, in a plane crash.
I am shaken, thrown off.
When I first heard the news, I observed myself. Numb. In shock. Disbelief.
I posted and read posts on Facebook. Each acknowledgment of my pain, and reading what other mourners had written, brought me closer to accepting my loss.
I sat outside under a blooming dogwood and chanted Hebrew and Aramaic funeral tropes in his memory. Memories of his voice, mannerisms, and smile played in my mind’s eye.
Sunday, I called upon a local neighbor who also knew Aaron to take a walk around the park. I asked her questions that mourners ask. My biggest stumbling block was this: “What am I supposed to do with the memories that we shared?”
Allison didn’t answer. It wasn’t the type of question that needed an answer, just the space to ask it. And she gave me that space.
Aaron and I, in the early 1990s, had regular meetings in his office on the sixth floor of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 West 83rd Street. The entire floor has since been totally renovated. What was his office is now part of a foyer to a banquet hall or maybe part of the kitchen. Where he and I sat, working together editing a prayer book in Microsoft Word 5.1a, is no longer a place. The laughs we shared realizing that we had both randomly seen a television show the night before about vertical archery now felt unsettled in my mind. Aaron and I referenced vertical archery for years. Shooting arrows straight up towards a target and having to avoid the projectile’s descent.
What does one do with these private memories that others do not share? What happens with all those memories?
An unsolvable riddle taunting me. No answer. No peace.
The rest of the weekend was a blur. My Facebook compulsion grew ever stronger, and the comments were a salve for my heart.
Monday morning, on the bike ride back from volunteering to help with spelling in Annie’s third-grade class, I realized I wasn’t really in my body.
I’ve lived a professional life around mourning long enough to recognize this as normal behavior.
Later in the day, I told the minister with whom I was collaborating that I was a bit somber, and I told him why. “Bro-Bri,” he said, “You might not remember, but you introduced me to Aaron years ago…he vetted a project I was doing for the Princeton Faith and Work initiative.”
This was another beautiful reminder that Aaron’s weave into my life’s fabric was undeniably deep.
I texted and scheduled a time to phone Jesse in New York. Jesse was in youth group with me – under Aaron’s guidance — and later a rabble-rouser with me at Tufts Hillel.
“Brian,” Jesse asked, “Can I ask you something…does it make any sense to you that Aaron died doing what he loved – flying airplanes?”
Unconsciously, I entered rabbi mode and recounted to Jesse a story from the Talmud.
Rava asked Nachman, after Nachman had died, to return to him to answer some questions about death.
Nachman did so and Rava took the opportunity to ask, “Did you have pain in death?”
Rava, like all of us, wanted to know if death was painful.
Nachman replied, “It was like removing a hair from a cup of milk.”
In other words, not painful.
Rava asked, “If you could, would you return to the land of the living?”
Nachman said, “No, not because death was so painful, but because the fear of death is too frightening.”
I suggested to Jesse that perhaps he could ask Aaron for an answer.
He liked that. Moreover, I knew, somehow, that Aaron would have delighted in my paraphrase of Moed Katan 28a.
Jesse and I exchanged pleasantries before hanging up.
Two hours later, I called Jesse back.
“Jesse, I’d like a redo.”
“I felt kinda off, like I slipped into rabbi mode. And I didn’t tell you how I’m feeling broken.”
“What’s up? Tell me.”
I told him the conundrum I had shared with Allison – what am I to do with the goofy little memories that Aaron and I shared?
“Brian, it’s a blessing. The memories. That’s what we mean when we say, ‘May his memory be a blessing.’”
“Oh, shit; you are right! Yes. Yes. Of course. I’ve said that phrase so many times that I lost its meaning. I thank you! Brilliant.”
Jewish tradition when speaking about the dead is to say, “May her/his memory be a blessing.” In Hebrew, we write the letters zayin”lamed after the name of anyone who has died – zichrona l’vracha for a woman and zichrono l’vracha for a man. She/he is of blessed memory. In English, we write z”l.
The knot had untangled. The memories were blessings, not baggage!
That night, right before bed, I got a message from 20-year old Shia, a former camper of mine.
Shia, who grew up strict orthodox, nonetheless sees me – the most liberal of rabbis – as his rabbi. And he, like many students, made me, his teacher, proud. He asked me the perfect question – “Can you tell me something that he taught that was important to you?”
Aaron was a joyous man. His warmth and joy were infectious. Aaron lived as though he was in on a secret – a divine secret – like he himself had seen with his very own eyes God wink from behind the curtain.
When I officiate at funerals, I ask mourners to think about the characteristics of the deceased that they will miss most. After they have thought of those traits, I implore them to live those qualities into the world as a tribute.
Rabbi Aaron David Panken, of blessed memory, I thank you for teaching me about life. I thank you for teaching me that life is a bit like vertical archery. (Although I don’t know exactly how.) I thank you for your kindnesses and your joy. I thank you for teaching me secrets of the divine. Your memory is a blessing.