13 December 2017

Exploring the 613 Mitzvot: A New Approach to Shabbat Morning Torah Study

Written by Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Simlai taught: There were 613 mitzvot (commandments) given to Moses in the Torah,consisting of 365 prohibitions, which correspond to the number of days in the solar year,and 248 positive commandments, which correspond to the number of a person’s limbs.-Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b

Rabbi Berezin and I are excited to announce that, beginning on Saturday, January 6, 2018, we will introduce an exciting new approach to our Shabbat morning Torah study class!  Now, instead of examining the weekly portion as we have done for many years, we will be studying the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments) of the Torah – the guidelines and principles that are the essence of the Torah and form the framework for Jewish life. Together, week to week, we will learn what each of the 613 Mitzvot are, and explore how they can enrich our lives as 21st-century Reform Jews. According to Reform Judaism’s most recent Statement of Principles, there are three reasons why Reform Jews should engage in a meaningful way with the 613 Mitzvot:

(1) Mitzvot are “the means by which we make our lives holy.
”God tells us in the Torah, “You shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2), and the 613 mitzvot give us the roadmap for how to fulfill that mission in our daily lives. Honor your parents, give tzedakah to the needy, respect the elderly, bury the dead with dignity, return lost property, rest on Shabbat, be honest in business – these are all mitzvot that, when we do them, elevate our existence, draw us closer to God, and set us on the path to creating a better world. To paraphrase the modern legal scholar Robert Cover, the mitzvot of the Torah are the bridge between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-ought-to-be. But in order to live a life of mitzvot, we first have to learn about them, as the Sages say: “the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.”   

(2) Performing mitzvot is how “we respond to God daily.”
When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai, we entered into a special relationship with God – a Covenant – that is like a marriage. In a marriage, one spouse might say to the other, “It would really mean a lot to me if you would bring me flowers on my birthday,” and, in response to this heartfelt request, the spouse might lovingly bring the flowers knowing that doing so will make his/her spouse happy. If, on the other hand, he/she does not respond to his/her spouse’s desires, the relationship will eventually grow distant. Our relationship with God is no different. The mitzvot are expressions of what God desires and needs from us. If we respond to God’s heartfelt requests positively by fulfilling mitzvot our relationship will deepen; but if we make no effort to fulfill God’s desires, how can we expect our relationship with God to flourish?

(3) “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.”
Reform Judaism is based on the principles of individual autonomy and informed choice – meaning each individual Reform Jew has both the right to make his/her own religious decisions and the responsibility to make those decisions from a position of knowledge rather than convenience or whim. Reform Judaism does not demand that we do every one of the mitzvot, but it does demand that we study them so that we can make serious, thoughtful, informed decisions about our Jewish lives. That means we have to be in conversation with the tradition, struggle with the mitzvot, and determine if and how they are relevant to our own lives.  When it comes to religious practice, any choice that is rooted in knowledge is a good Reform choice.


About the Author

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Stoller - Senior Rabbi

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller joined Temple Israel as Senior Rabbi in 2017. He is a friendly, patient, and welcoming presence known for greeting people warmly, remembering our names, and just being himself. He is also an energetic, knowledgable, and passionate teacher who challenges us intellectually and guides us in mining Judaism’s sacred texts for insights that will help us navigate the unique circumstances of our own lives. As a prayer leader, he strives to pray not on behalf ofhis congregants, but with us, so that together we can rise toward the heavens. Most importantly, he is a caring and devoted relationship-builder who genuinely enjoys people and wants to be our friend. As Rabbi Stoller has said, “I just go out there and try to be myself because I believe that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same thing: to feel loved, to find meaning and purpose in life, and to be embraced by people who genuinely care. In my view, a synagogue’s mission is to create this kind of community for its members. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.”

Following the dictum that “the teacher of Torah must be a student of Torah throughout his life,” Rabbi Stoller is currently pursuing a doctorate in halakhah (Jewish law) and has published a number of essays on Jewish law, practice, and theology. He is an active member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), serving on the Responsa Committee, the annual convention planning team, and the editorial board of the CCAR Journal. Rabbi Stoller received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus in 2008, and served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL from 2008-2017. He grew up in Houston, TX (Congregation Emanu El), and earned a degree in Honors Business and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Before entering rabbinic school, Rabbi Stoller spent seven years in professional politics, working on campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and Illinois, and serving as Press Secretary to then-U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (IL) in Washington, DC from 1999-2003. After seeing the Pentagon burn from his office window on September 11, 2001 and learning of a childhood friend’s death from brain cancer a year later, Brian knew the time had come to follow his deeply-held desire to become a rabbi. “It was then that I finally understood: life is fragile; we do not know how long we are going to be here,” he has said. “For several years, I had been too fearful, too anxious about change to pursue what I knew in my heart I wanted to do with my life, but now I was ready to go for it. Aside from marrying Karen and starting a family, it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Rabbi Stoller is proud to be part of Temple Israel, which he describes as “a warm, friendly, welcoming, close-knit congregation, with the vision and the courage to change our community and our world for the better.” He lives in Omaha with his wife Karen and his two children, Lindsay and Zachary. In his free time, Rabbi Stoller enjoys reading classical Jewish texts (yes, really!), cycling, and re-watching episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

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