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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.