September 25, 2008
Week 254, Day 4
25 Elul 5768

EILU D’VARIM: Part 2
Art Grand

At the beginning of the morning service we study an excerpt from the Mishnah called Eilu D’varim, “these are the things” which reminds us what it means to lead a Jewish life.

Eilu D’varim teaches us that Judaism is not just for rabbis and other professionals.  It contains a list of the basic acts of decency that all of us are commanded to do: honoring our parents, visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, and sharing our neighbors’ simchas.  Performing these acts for each other is what makes life bearable.  More than that, our willingness to do these things for the other is what changes a synagogue from a fee-for-service organization into a community.

The remarkable thing about Eilu D’varim is that there is no hierarchy.  The prayer does not say, “These are the five things that a Jew must do, and these are the two hundred additional things that a rabbi must do”.  Eilu D’varim simply tells us “These are your obligations as Jews”.  According to Rabbi Richard Address, Eilu D’varim contains the ultimate democratization of the mitzvah.  Our rabbis may have studied more Torah, and they may have taken classes in visiting the sick and comforting the mourner, but ultimately they are no different from the rest of us.  We have the same responsibilities as they do.

Eilu D’varim is about more than obligations.  According the “creative” translation in Gates of Prayer, “These are the obligations beyond measure whose reward, too is beyond measure”.  The translation in Gates of Prayer may not be literal, but it teaches us one of the greatest secrets of synagogue life: that the rewards for creating a caring community are literally beyond measure.  There is a joy to helping our fellow congregants that is impossible to describe.  Eilu D’varim tells us that the joy of helping others is real and wonderful, and that it is available to all of us, lay and professional alike.

On the page opposite Eilu D’varim in Mishkan T’filah, there are three alternate study texts: a teaching by Herbert Bronstein about the importance of covenantal work and study, a traditional text about tzedakah, and a teaching by Paula Ackerman about the importance of an educated laity.

Rabbi Bronstein’s teaching reminds us that mitzvot are more than obligations and more than opportunities to feel good about ourselves:

The covenant calling and covenant work goes on in each act of teaching and learning of the Torah, through which at the same time, God is still being revealed. 

Through each moment of study, through each act of helping another, God is revealed.  Bronstein reminds us that study and mitzvot are more than ways of finding connection to each other; they are ways of discovering the essence of God.

Paula Ackerman teaches:

We need Jewish men and women to become a Jewishly inspired and informed leadership – not only rabbinic but also lay.  We need Jews more conversant with the thought and teachings of Judaism, to whom Judaism is no cold remote theology….

For two thousand years, there has been no priestly class.  All of us, professional and lay, have the same obligations, the same chance for joy, the same potential to discover the divine.  Ackerman points out that lay leaders have a particularly important responsibility.  Reform Jews often look at the things their rabbis are doing – reading Torah, visiting the sick, leading services – and they say to themselves, “I could never do that.”  In order to realize their potential, Reform Jews need lay role models – models of lay leaders who study Torah and who see the day-to-day work of lay leadership as the sacred work that it really is.  Ackerman teaches that being a lay leader is about more than budgets and financial decisions – it is about providing a model of what it means to be a Jew.

In last year’s Erev Ordination Address at  Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Richard Sarason spoke about the obligation to be a living Torah—an embodiment of the values of our tradition, an embodiment of its learning and of its ideal of godliness.  He wrote, “This is not about being a rabbi; it’s about being a Jew.  A rabbi is just a Jew who, because of his or her opportunity to have had more sustained Jewish learning and training and because of modern culture’s insistence on professional specialization is, perhaps, a bit further down the path—but that path is meant for all of us”.  Eilu D’varim teaches that the path of study and mitzvot is meant for all of us.

Art Grand is President of the Pacific Central West Council of the Union for Reform Judaism and Chair of the Joint Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living.

For more information about Mishkan T'filah, visit urj.org/mishkan.

RJ.org: News and Views of Reform Jews. Join the conversation on the new Reform blog at http://www.rj.org Please save May 11 – 13, 2009 (and budget ahead) for an interdisciplinary conference, “Midrash & Medicine:  Imagining Wholeness”.  This event, to be held at the beautiful Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, is being convened by the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at HUC-JIR together with the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

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