Before You Listen to a High Holiday Sermon –
By A Professional Jew
Many of my close friends are rabbis. Some, over the last 20 years have asked me to read, critique and/or edit their High Holiday sermons. These folks are all bright, learned and stay current with Jewish learning and with the topics of the day. Yet, every rabbi I know feels tremendous angst, fear, trepidation and immense pressure related to their High Holiday sermons. Why would rabbis, who speak in front of people several times a week be so concerned about these few sermons? Let’s look closely at the reasons.
It all starts with the topic: most rabbis search all year for the “perfect” sermon topic for their congregation. Then there’s the question of timing: when should they deliver that sermon? The first day of Rosh Hashanah is a contender because most Jews go to Temple that day. Maybe during Kol Nidre because most Jews are there and feeling open to the last chance to ask forgiveness, look at changing their ways and returning to the best version of themselves that they can be. Maybe their best work should shine before Yizkor memorial prayers since most of us there are feeling open and vulnerable anyway. Then there’s a consideration of the themes they should touch on: should they stick to the themes of the holidays? Can they be contemporary? Political? Should they pull stories from traditional texts or current events or both and if both, what is the right balance? Who might they offend if they speak about Israel and lean one way or the other in their defense of our homeland? Suppose one of their sermons touches a raw nerve in a board member, a donor, a new congregant? And even if the content is perfect, was the delivery strong and passionate enough?
It’s enough to give anyone a panic attack.
“That’s their job” is often a refrain I hear when I’ve raised this topic. And while it’s true that giving sermons is one part of what a rabbi does, it is only a small portion of the job they perform throughout the year.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the 3 holiest days of the year, bring most Jews to synagogues. People who don’t regularly participate in Jewish ritual or have familiarity with the liturgy come to one of the most intense services of the year, a service in which the rituals and liturgy appear only during these High Holiday prayer services. These services have a lot of symbolism and metaphor, mostly in Hebrew. The liturgical poems are what scholars have poured over for years and volumes have been written trying to decipher their meaning. How are we, not scholars, supposed to understand all of this? In the midst of this sea of confusion, we cling to the rabbi’s sermon like a life raft, depending upon it to infuse our High Holiday experience with meaning and spirituality and guidance.
Thus, for Jews who come to synagogue only on the High Holidays – and therefore who don’t see the rabbi perform the myriad of other important duties he/she performs throughout the year – the High Holiday sermon becomes the litmus test for whether this is a “good” rabbi or a “bad” rabbi. The sermon becomes THE barometer of a rabbi’s work, hence the angst, fear, and trepidation.
Rabbis hope and pray that something they say will bring people closer to God and The Jewish People even if it is just for 3 days a year. Rabbis also hope that something they say, or how they say it, might help us with our t’shuva (process of return and renewal) or help with our Jewish identity. With that in mind, I ask us all to offer our rabbis what we seek for ourselves: forgiveness. Perhaps this High Holy Day season we can remind ourselves that the rabbi’s sermon is a tiny slice of what we, their congregants, see of the multi-faceted, highly relational work they do. Rabbis, as fellow humans and fellow Jews, need our support, respect and acknowledgement. Can we try this year to park our judgment of others at the door and instead, focus on our relationship with God, and how we can become Godlier in our thoughts and actions?
Wishing everyone a sweet, happy, healthy and compassion-filled, non-judgmental New Year.