- Posted by Jen Gubitz
- On May 12, 2018
- 4 Comments
Story adapted from the Chassidic Tale, “the Ocean of Tears,” as printed in Leaves from the Garden of Eden, by Howard Schwartz
It was with great sadness this week that the Jewish community lost a truly beloved Professor to so many. The President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Aaron Panken was our teacher. I sat surrounded by 1500 others at his funeral who felt this same way.
As a student, he was my advisor and you couldn’t beat him in a foosball match. Most importantly, he was a loving dad and devoted husband, son and brother. He was celebrated and respected widely as a true scholar. Above all, he was known as quite the mensch, a human being full of lovingkindness for all creation.
It is customary in Jewish circles to teach Mishnah in memory of someone; Mishnah and 2nd Temple Literature happen to be Rabbi Panken’s expertise. But as his student, he taught me to find my own Torah and for me that often comes in the form of folktales. So I searched for just the right one to both illuminate this loss and find learning and comfort in it all the same. The following story is adapted from “the Ocean of Tears,” as printed in Leaves from the Garden of Eden, by Howard Schwartz.
“Reb Yitzchak and his son, Mendele, were so close. Reb Yitzchak shared his boundless wisdom with his son and taught him the deepest of lovingkindness. But then it happened, as it often does in life, that Reb Yitzchak died. And Mendele’s grief, as it often is in life, was boundless. In his grief, Mendele held out hope that this father might contact him from the world to come. But a month passed, and no message came not even in a dream.
Mendele was named for his father’s closest friend, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. So bereft, Mendele traveled to Kotzk, to find out why he had not heard from his father. The Kotzker Rebbe rarely received visitors, but when he was told that Reb Yitzchak’s son was there, he received him at once.
When they were together, Mendele mourned, “Rebbe, my father never went on a journey without writing to me every day. You know how close we were. I was certain he would find a way to contact me from Gan Eden. But a month has passed and I have not heard from him.
The Kotzker Rebbe said: “Mendele, I share your grief. Your father and I were like brothers. I too expected him to contact me from the world to come. But when he did not come to me, I decided to go to him. You see, the Rebbe said, “all the great sages have their own palaces in the world to come, where they continue to teach the Torah. So I ascended on high until I came to the palace of Rashi. There I saw a myriad of angels and the souls of the righteous who had gathered to hear him. I took a seat in the last row, and listened with great joy to Rashi’s teachings. Then I went to him and said, ‘Beloved teacher Rashi, I have always treasured your teachings. But I have come here to find Reb Yitzchak of Vorki. Have you seen him?
And Rashi said, “Ah, Reb Yitzchak. He brought many mysteries of the Torah to share with us. Yes, he was here, but he left.
So I thanked Rashi and ascended higher to the palace of Maimonides. Again a multitude of angels and righteous souls were gathered there, and I listened as the Rambam illuminated the Torah with his teachings. After Maimonides had spoken, I went to him and embraced him and thanked him for his teachings. And I told him of my mission to find your father.
And he said, “Reb Yitzchak – what a teacher! He taught us wonderful secrets of the Torah. Yes, he was here, but he left.
So I took my leave and ascended to the palace of Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses. In the presence of angels and righteous souls, I heard the Torah taught from the very lips of Moses. I wanted to remain there for all time, but I remembered my mission. So when Moses finished, I went to him, weeping, and I thanked him for the eternal blessings of the Torah. And Moses pointed to an empty place and said to me, “look, rebbe, we have been saving a place for you! Have you come to join us? “No, I answered, “not yet. I am on a mission to find Reb Yitzchak of Vorki. Have you seen him?”
Moses replied as the others did before: “Ah, Reb Yitzchak. You know, I thought I had learned everything there was to know about the Torah at Mount Sinai, but Reb Yitzchak showed me how much more there is to learn. Yes, he was here, but he left…
The story continues… the Kotzker Rebbe continued his pursuit of his beloved Reb Yitzchak, father of Mendele, on to the realms of the brilliant teacher Abraham our forefather. “Reb Yitzchak?” Abraham answered, “of course he was here! He was a wonderful teacher. He taught us how to read the white letters hidden between the black letters of Torah. We will never forget what he taught us. But, I am sorry to say, he left.”
The Kotzker Rebbe burst into tears. “Please Abraham, please tell me where I can find my friend, Reb Yitzchak, father of Mendele…”
It is the most human of stories: a journey in anguish, searching for a lost loved one. The ever so human journey of searching through the realms of our memories, the archives of our email exchanges, the albums of our photos, the lessons of their teachings, wishing to go even, like the Kotzker Rebbe, to other worlds to find them. It is a desperate search such that even the greatest of history’s teachers won’t suffice. This is what happens when we lose someone dear. They were here, now they have left. They are gone and we cannot reunite with them in body. So we seek them out in the chambers of the heart and soul.
And as we share their memory, we are lucky to be constantly struck by what they taught us and what they taught others. Missing someone, longing and yearning for someone who has been lost to us – whether scholar or not – is the spiritual act of searching for your teacher, when all that’s left is their teaching
This week was teacher appreciation week in our schools. And so too in our US calendar, some will celebrate in coming days and weeks Sundays of gratitude for parents or caregivers who have been to us like teachers and guides. And next week in our Jewish calendar, we celebrate Z’man Matan Torateinu, the Festival of Shavuot, that sacred moment at Sinai of receiving the ultimate textbook of our lives, the Torah.
We are ensconced in weeks of graduations from preschool to PhDs. And as we celebrate these weeks of learning, some of our greatest teachers will be lost to us. Such are the cycles of living, composed of texts, teachers and troves that are the cycles of learning. And in these cycles, loss becomes our teacher, too.
I imagined the final conversation between the Kotzker Rebbe and young Mendele to go something like this (because this folktale actually has a different ending):
“Rebbe! one cries out! “Mendel! cries the other. They embraced and wept. “Did you find him? –Noooo.–
“Everywhere I went, Kotzker replied, “a great teacher of Torah said ‘Yitzchak was here, but now he has left. He was here, but now he is gone.’ But each shared a spark of the teaching he left behind. And through that, I knew him and loved him each time more than the moment before.”
That is our task in losing, living and learning: to share a spark of the teachings that those who are lost to us have left behind. In this way, the cycles of living, teaching and learning endure and teachers become students become teachers become students… once more.
May Rabbi Aaron Panken’s memory bring us sparks of learning and blessing.