03 October 2017

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5778 Sermon

Written by Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Stoller 2015To remember, in Judaism, is about much more than simply recalling the past.

It’s about keeping the past alive, actively, and deliberately – now in the present, and for the future.

To remember, in Judaism, is to transcend the boundaries of time.

* * *

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik tells a beautiful story from his childhood about the power of living memory.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father was a renowned Torah scholar, and his home would constantly be filled with students sitting around the table discussing the sacred books.

The young Joseph remembers sitting quietly in his room, listening to his father and the other scholars study.

They were vigorous conversations. 

The scholars would discuss a passage in the Talmud about heroes of ages gone by, like Moses, and Hillel, and Rabbi Akiva.  And then they’d argue about interpretations by Rashi, and Rabbenu Tam, and Rambam.

And not only would the scholars argue about these giants of Jewish thought; they would argue with them.  Passionately.

So passionately, that the young boy, listening intently through the door, felt as though Akiva and Moses and Rashi and Rambam were sitting right there at the table with his father.

And these heroes of times gone by became such a presence in the young Joseph’s home, and such a presence in his life, that he came to think of them as his friends and his constant companions.

One day, someone who had noticed how intimately and affectionately young Joseph spoke about these great men, said to the boy: “You know, Akiva and Rashi and Rambam – they’ve been dead for centuries.”

And the little boy’s response was powerful. 

He said: “Dead?!  They’re not dead!  I just had a conversation with them this morning!”


That’s what it is to remember.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father taught him that to remember is about more than just recalling the past. 

To remember means more than just reading their books, and it means more than just talking about them.

--It means talking with them.  All the time.

--It means inviting them to our table, and making them active participants in the conversation, and looking to them for guidance.

--It means making them our constant companions.

--And believing it so strongly that we can really feel their presence – tangibly, and intimately.

That’s the Jewish way.

Our ancestors are our teachers and our role models. 

We look to them for guidance, and wisdom, and advice – every day.

They’re not dead to us.  They are very much alive!

Because we remember them – not as people who lived a long time ago, but as people who are with us and who are important to us, now and in the future.

To remember, in Judaism, is to transcend the boundaries of time.  Through memory, past, present, and future are one.

* * *

Think about the loved ones you’re remembering today:

Your grandparents and great-grandparents.  Your mother.  Your father.  Your sister or your brother.  Aunts and uncles.  Cousins. 

Your child.

They’re here, now.  Can you feel their presence?

Invite them to sit with you.

Whatever it is you’re thinking about on this Yom Kippur, invite them into the conversation. 

--Maybe you’re struggling with a difficult decision you have to make.  Who’s the one who was so good at helping you think through these things? 

Ask them for advice, now.

--Maybe you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed at work.  Who’s the one who you could just call and dump it all on them, and they would listen patiently and let you talk? 

Talk to them now.

--Maybe things aren’t great at home.  Your child is sick, or having a hard time with friends; or you and your spouse are in a bad place right now. 

Who’s the one you want to call and cry to, and just let yourself melt because you know it’s safe to be vulnerable with them?

Cry to them now.

They know you better than anyone.

They shaped you.  They were there for you. 

And they still are.

Because you remember them.

* * *

This year, let’s do what Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father did.

Let’s teach our children what it means to remember.

Let’s introduce them to our loved ones who have passed: the people who shaped us and knew us; the people we look to, even now, for guidance, and comfort, and wisdom –

So that our children will come to know them, and love them, and look to them, too.  

Let’s teach them that our loved ones are, and always will be, very much alive, as long as we remember them –

Not as people who lived a long time ago, but as people who are with us and important to us now, and in the future.

Because to remember, in Judaism, is to transcend the boundaries of time. 

Through memory, past, present, and future are one.

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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