Do Reform Jews have to do all the mitzvot (usually translated as “commandments”)? The answer, says Reform theologian Eugene Borowitz, depends on who you believe wrote the Torah. If you believe, as our ancient Sages did, that the Torah came directly from God’s own mouth, then you know with absolute certainty what God wants you to do – and you’d be kind of crazy not to do it. But we Reform Jews tend to accept what modern scholarship has shown – that the Torah was written not by God, but by human beings seeking to know, and experience, and explain God. Personally, I believe the voice of God can be heard in our sacred texts – in the collective wisdom of our ancestors, who, in each generation, have uncovered a little bit more of the mystery.
As modern, autonomous human beings, we have the right and the responsibility to consider the traditional teachings and determine for ourselves what God wants us to do, here and now. So how do we do that? Jakob Petuchowski, another Reform theologian, says you have to study the Torah with an open mind and an open heart, and be willing to let it speak to you, and change you. Petuchowski calls it “listening for the commandment.” The idea is that God speaks to each of us differently, and wants something different from each of us based on our unique, individual covenant with God.
When you’re listening for the commandment, you’re really listening for what God is asking you to do. You won’t necessarily hear God’s voice calling to you in every mitzvah you study, but when you do hear it, you’ll know. You’ll know in your soul that this mitzvah is meant for you. And the moment you hear the commandment, that mitzvah becomes an obligation for you. Listen for the commandment, and be prepared to be changed by it. That’s our responsibility as Reform Jews.
This Shabbat will mark the beginning of our deep dive into the 613 Mitzvot. These mitzvot are meant to serve as a framework for how we live our lives each and every day. At Sinai, the Israelites stood before God and said na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do them and we will [seek to] understand them. Now this may seem oddly phrased to some– shouldn’t we understand something before we do it? In some cases, the answer is yes. We understand the mitzvot; they make sense to us, and so we do them. But there are other instances where the meaning and connection may not be clear to us from the beginning. But I believe that there is still meaning to be found in these commandments. Sometimes we must do something in order to give ourselves the opportunity to find meaning in it. Sometimes the connection may not be logical but rather it is emotional or spiritual.
Together, at Torah study, we will study the meaning of the mitzvot, and learn about them, one by one, week by week. Some weeks we will study commandments that we are more familiar with, for others, we will all begin together. We know that this will enhance and enrich our study of Torah. We hope you will join us on this journey!
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.
The community has seen the completion of many important milestones since the Tri-Faith Initiative incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2006. In 2011, a piece of land was purchased in the Sterling Ridge development near 132nd and Pacific Streets. In 2013, Temple Israel completed construction of a new synagogue. Just this past spring, American Muslim Institute completed construction of a mosque and educational center and Countryside Community Church broke ground for a new church. And in the first quarter of 2018, the Tri-Faith board of directors expects to have a new executive director in place to lead the organization into the future.
The search is being conducted by Koya Leadership Partners, a national executive search firm dedicated to placing exceptionally talented leadership at mission-driven organizations and institutions of higher education. With respect to its core values of impact, diversity, respect and innovation, the company is widely known for providing customized, strategic and innovative support and services for acquiring and retaining exceptional talent.
“The new executive director, who will report to and partner with the Tri-Faith board of directors and the clergy leading the three congregations while setting a clear vision and providing thoughtful, strategic direction for our organization. This will include oversight of the planning and building of the future Tri-Faith Center,” said Dr. Maryanne Stevens, RSM, the chair for Tri-Faith board of directors. “He or she will also be responsible for setting direction to fulfill the organization’s mission and commitments to the Omaha community while establishing a global presence as a pioneer and leader in interfaith relationships.”
“We are seeking an executive director with a sincere passion for interfaith relationships and exchange, who will understand the significance of this unique opportunity. We expect this person to embody a high level of leadership and superior ability to convey the organization’s vision into relationships for its constituents,” said Bob Freeman, who serves on the Tri-Faith board of directors. Freeman is also a member of the Temple Israel congregation and a past Tri-Faith board chairman.
The executive director will also be expected to catalyze research, reflection, discussion and action that further elevates Tri-Faith as the leading model of peaceful and flourishing co-existence and interfaith interdependence. The executive director will provide leadership and vision to multiple sets of stakeholders including the three faith groups on the Tri-Faith campus, the Omaha community (i.e., donors, the religion departments at the University of Nebraska Omaha and Creighton University, various faith communities, and social justice entities), and national and international interfaith communities.
A select group of qualified candidates has been identified through Koya’s nationwide search and the first interviews are now underway. The Tri-Faith board of directors expects to complete the hiring process by early spring of next year.
Vic Gutman & Associates will continue to provide project management and communication services to the Tri-Faith Initiative for the foreseeable future and will assist in the onboarding process for the new executive director in 2018. The new executive director will initially work out of office space at the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center on the University of Nebraska Omaha campus until the eventual completion of the Tri-Faith Center.
As the weather gets colder (and then warmer and then colder again) and the nights get darker, we begin to think about our Festival of Lights. In the Jewish calendar, during the darkest month of the year, we celebrate the holiday of light. We tell the stories of the Maccabees and how they fought to preserve our faith and our culture when outside forces sought to destroy it, and we stand together and light our menorahs each night to commemorate the oil that was used to rededicate the temple after they prevailed. We eagerly await the time when we play dreidel, eat jelly doughnuts, and make latkes together. And of course, we give and receive gifts in celebration. But our holiday is about more than that – its about commemorating and celebrating our history, yes, but I think its also about how we spread the light around. We place our menorahs in our window sills for our friends and neighbors to see. The lights of the candles shine brighter and brighter as the nights go by. In the days before Chanukah, I’d like to encourage each of us to think about how we can spread the light, spread the joy, spread the kindness and generosity, not only to our families and friends, but to our wider community. In this season of giving, its important to remember that though many of us sit snug in our homes with the smells of latkes wafting through the air, some of our friends and neighbors aren’t as fortunate. One way that we can share the joy of our holiday is by sharing what we have. With that in mind, the Social Justice Committee invites each of you to bring non-perishable food items to our Chanukah service and dinner on Friday, December 15, so that we can share our joy with our community. In the coming days before Chanukah, I invite each of you to consider how you can help spread the light around and make our holiday even brighter.
At this time of year, at Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of one of my favorite pieces hanging in my office. Simple words etched on a decorative plaque. Grow From A Place Of Gratitude. Simple words with great meaning.
Gratitude can be defined as the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Gratitude is being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen in our life.
Growing from a place of appreciation and readiness to give kindness is a powerful opportunity for individual, personal development as well as an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s experience. How very fortunate we are for these opportunities. As we grow through this season of abundance, my wish for you is that you grow from a place of gratitude and enjoy every moment!
This Sunday is the interfaith Thanksgiving service at First Central Christian Church, 5 pm. As we have done for many years, choirs from all partner organizations will sing together to celebrate peace and unity. Desserts follow, which makes it all even sweeter, if you get my drift.
On Wednesday, December 13, during religious school, musicians from the Omaha Chamber Society will present holiday music from around the world. Lighting up the winter darkness is a universal endeavor, with music as its emissary. And then! The Shabbat during Chanukah is Friday, December 15, and Kol Rina will sing Chanukah songs. Please come, bring your family menorah, and sing along.
On Saturday, January 13, the Omaha Symphony is making a second visit to our beautiful sanctuary and will feature the San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir. This Saturday evening event is free to the community, and will conclude with selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Kol Rina will join in with the Choir for these songs. Did I mention this event is free?
Finally, Kol Rina and the St. Paul United Methodist Church choir will sing with each other the final weekend in January, which is parsha B’shalach Shira, the “Sabbath of Song.” We will host St. Paul and their minister at Friday services, and they will host us and Rabbi Stoller on Sunday morning.
Like I said. Music, music everywhere.
Karen, Lindsay, Zachary, and I want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the amazing Rabbinic Installation celebration last weekend! Our hearts are filled with love, joy, and gratitude for the warm way in which you officially welcomed us into the Temple Israel family! The Shabbat dinner Friday evening was elegant and delicious, the installation service created by Cantor Shermet and Rabbi Berezin was powerful for our community and so touching to me personally, the Shabbat morning service and lunch were uplifting and welcoming, and the study sessions were inspiring and exhilarating! It was such an incredible honor for me to share the bima with my revered teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, and our beloved Rabbi Emeritus Aryeh Azriel, both of who are role models for me of warmth, intellect, vision, and principled leadership.
Thank you to all the volunteers, our lay leadership, and our outstanding clergy and professional team who put this wonderful weekend together for our community, and thank you to the Hermene Zweiback Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning for sponsoring Rabbi Ellenson’s visit to Omaha! Temple Israel is such a kind, loving community of people who are generous of heart and spirit, and I am so excited to officially begin our journey together!
As we began the installation service on Friday night, the Torah scroll was passed through the hands of our current board and past presidents, to Rabbi Azriel, and then to me. I received it from them, and from you, as a sacred trust, with an open heart and a willing soul. As we go forward together, we will honor the legacy of those who led us to where we are today and, standing on their shoulders, we will look toward the horizon to imagine the future and bring it to life in innovative and exciting ways!
Thank you again for giving me this tremendous honor and incredible opportunity to serve as your rabbi!
With much love and affection,
Watch each rabbis remarks from the Installation Service.
Rabbi Azriel is first to speak, Rabbi Ellenson starts at 10:30, and Rabbi Stoller speaks of his vision for the synagogue life at the 40:05.
As you walk into the sanctuary, there’s an inscription above the doors: “Da lifnei mi atah omed – Know before whom you stand.”
It’s message of humility. It means: we need to be conscious, always, that wherever we are, we stand in the presence of God.
And we stand in the presence of God – now and every day, and every moment – for a purpose: to make a positive impact on the world and on others. To be holy.
Da lifnei mi atah omed. Tonight especially, I am very mindful of who it is before I stand.
And I am endlessly grateful for the opportunity God has given me to be your rabbi.
* * *
I also know that I stand before others without who I would not be here, and we would not be here.
I stand before my parents, Joe and Jeanie Stoller, who gave me life and taught me to be the human being I am today.
I stand before my family – my brother and sister-in-law, my mother-in-law Joanne, my aunts and uncles and cousins – who have nourished me and supported me throughout my life.
I stand before my wife Karen and my children, Lindsay and Zachary, who walk the path of life with me and love me unconditionally; who have given me the opportunity to be a husband and a father, and to realize my purpose in life.
I hope that I make them as proud as they make me.
I stand before dear friends from my former congregation in Deerfield, IL, who studied with me, and prayed with me, and did tikkun olam with me, and taught me what it means to be a rabbi.
I stand before my clergy partners, Rabbi Berezin and Cantor Shermet, with who I am so excited to work to lead this holy community from strength to strength.
And I stand before my clergy partners in the Tri-Faith Initiative, who are courageous and visionary, and who, I am convinced, will change the world.
* * *
I stand here also before my teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, whom I admire for so many reasons.
Rabbi Ellenson is a world-renowned scholar, a brilliant teacher, a leader of the Jewish people, and one of our most brightly shining lights.
It’s rare that any HUC student, let alone a full-time congregational rabbi, has the opportunity to study one-on-one with David Ellenson – something I have been privileged to do over the last several years as his doctoral student.
And it is a highlight of my career and of my life.
Another teacher of mine once said to me: “When David Ellenson opens his mouth, words of Torah just fall out.”
Torah is not only something that lives in David’s mind; it lives in his heart and his soul. It is the essence of his humanity.
The rabbinical s’micah (diploma) on every rabbi’s wall says in Hebrew: “Yoreh yoreh” – meaning: “let him teach, let him teach.”
One rabbi has said that this repetition of the phrase might be interpreted to mean: “Yoreh – let him teach with his lips, and Yoreh – let him teach with his life.”
When you are in the presence of David Ellenson, you cannot help but be moved, and inspired, and changed by the Torah that he speaks and the Torah that he lives.
He is a mensch of the highest order. To me, he is the embodiment of Torah.
And Rabbi, I am beyond honored to stand here, on this bima, before you tonight.
* * *
I also stand here – tonight, tomorrow, and God willing for many years to come – before our beloved Rabbi Emeritus Aryeh Azriel.
Rabbi Azriel is a legend and a role model for so many in Reform Judaism today.
His characteristic warmth and friendliness, his passion for making the world a better place; his courage in standing tall and strong for what he believes in; his ability to bring people together through the power of his personality and the force of his ideas; and his capacity to see beyond the way things are and envision the way things ought to be, are inspirational to so many, including me.
Rabbi, these qualities are indelibly imprinted in the DNA of this congregation.
This community is your legacy, and I feel a sacred responsibility to carry it forward in ways that will do honor to all that you achieved and all that you envision.
I am grateful for the friendship we are building, and for your mentorship, and your wise counsel.
It is said that we, in any given generation, are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s only because of those who came before us that we can see where we have been and where we want to go.
Rabbi Azriel, you are truly a giant, and I am but a dwarf standing on your shoulders.
I am grateful that I can rely on you to hold me up, and to give me perspective, and to help me see the way ahead.
* * *
Finally, I stand tonight before all of you, the congregation of Temple Israel.
I am honored and humbled that you chose me to be your rabbi, and I am so excited for all we are going to do together and how we are going to grow together in the years ahead!
Over the last several months, I have begun to get to know many of you, and I am grateful for the relationships we are building;
I’m grateful for the warm way you have welcomed my family into the community, and for your energy and enthusiasm for starting this next stage of the journey together.
I know before whom I stand.
But I want to know more.
I want to know what inspires you, what you’re passionate about, and what makes you think;
I want to know what troubles you, and what brings you joy, and who you are in the core of your being, and what sparks your Jewish soul.
See, I believe every person has that spark inside them – that spark of God –waiting to be ignited by some meaningful engagement with the brilliance of Jewish tradition and holy Jewish community.
I believe each one of us has our own portal – or entry point – into Jewish life.
It’s going to be different for everyone, and it may take some time to discover what your personal portal is.
But I promise you: once you find it, you’ll know – because when you walk through your portal, it will set your soul aflame, and inspire you like you’ve never been inspired before, and you will come alive with the spirit of God.
* * *
It took me a long time to find my portal. In fact, until I was in my mid-twenties, I didn’t even realize I was looking for it.
It was only because of my friendship with an evangelical Christian colleague named Susan – who I worked with in the Senate – that my feet were set upon the path toward discovering my portal, and my purpose in Judaism.
As your rabbi, my purpose is to help you discover your portal: to be your shepherd, to guide you, and connect you with others who share your interests, and your values; others who are also seeking – so that you, too, can find meaning and purpose in Jewish life.
This is what the synagogue community can be for us. It’s what the synagogue community needs to be for us.
* * *
So I want to know you.
I want to hear your stories. I want to know what brings you here, and what you hope to gain from your involvement in this holy community.
In the coming months, we’re going to begin a congregational conversation about these things.
We’ll meet in small groups in people’s homes, and have coffee together, and share our stories, and talk about why we’re here, and what we hope being part of Temple will add to our lives.
Tonight, I invite you to participate in this conversation, and I hope will. Maybe you’ll host a coffee in your home. Maybe you’ll come because a friend asks you to.
However you participate, I want you to invest yourself in your Jewish life, and take ownership of it.
I want to take this journey together, and discover our portals together, and elevate our lives together.
I want to know you.
I want you to know each other – not superficially, but in a real, meaningful way.
And I want all of us to know God, and the power of Judaism to transform our lives.
Da lifnei mi atah omed – know before whom you stand.
This is my vision of synagogue life in the 21st century.
I hope you will join me in making it a reality.
This year Halloween fell on a cold and snow-flurry filled evening. But despite the cold, many of us celebrated in our own ways. Some went out Trick-or-Treating while others of us opened the door to greet children dressed as fairies, witches, transformers, superheroes, and more. As I opened the door to hand out candy, I found myself thinking about what it means to be Jewish and still go trick-or-treating. Many people have asked if its “ok” for Jews to celebrate Halloween. As with everything else, I explain that this is a matter of personal choice. For many American Jews, Halloween is a secular holiday – a fun filled evening spent with friends and fun costumes. But it once again reminded me about this delicate balance we always seek to strike between our secular lives and our religious lives. Each and every day, we navigate that road – how do we live our lives as Jews, and how do we live our lives as part of the wider American culture? Many times these two pieces of our identities overlap and intersect, but other times, we find places where they diverge. Sometimes Jewish holidays fall on work days, sometimes our children’s sporting events fall on Shabbat. How do we choose? The truth is, there is no one “right” answer. Each of us has to find those answers within ourselves as we consider what is best for our families. But at the end of the day, I think it is important to remind one another that there are many, many “right” ways to be Jewish.