SEPTEMBER 6, 2018 – Every year at a Rosh Hashanah meal, with an apple slice in one hand and a glass of Manischewitz in the other, someone will invariably ask the same question that’s asked across dining room tables every New Year: “What did you think of the rabbi’s sermon?”
For many Jews, the High Holidays are the only time of the year that they will set foot in their synagogues. The rabbi’s sermons, which usually last around 20 minutes, may be the longest stretch of English in the hours-long service. So, with an unusually large captive audience, rabbis know they need to make their sermon count.
“It’s a time when we have one of our biggest crowds,” said Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. “It’s really a chance to kind of talk about what kind of themes bring us together and touch us and inspire us, as we’re reflecting on the year past and moving forward together.”
With so many people listening for so many different things, striking just the right note can be difficult. For many rabbis, what distinguishes the main Rosh Hashanah sermon is that the speech is “temporal,” as Rabbi Robert Goldstein of Temple Emanuel in Andover put it. “You want to capture the including essence of that moment,” said Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
For some rabbis, that can mean including a state of the union style address. “I’m going to speak about the state of the congregation, I’m gonna speak about congregational shifts,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. For Rabbi Adler, the sermon is a chance to “reflect on the year within our community.”
This year, the national mood is sour and pessimistic, and that has spilled over into a Jewish community that rabbis say is as politically divided as they’ve ever seen.
“What I’m going to talk about is the loss of our ability to talk to each other in a way that is civil and respectful,” said Rabbi Goldstein. “The whole concept of Rosh Hashanah is about hearing, and the idea of listening – listening to the call of the shofar. The mitzvah of the shofar is to hear the sound of the shofar, and I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for listening, perhaps, with more sensitivity and respect – being able to see that divine spark that exists in everybody.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody plans to address a similar theme this year, and noted that during a conference he recently attended, many other rabbis said they planned to address it as well.
“We seemed to be talking about a similar thing, and this is getting along. How does one deal with the politics today?” he asked. “We need to listen to each other, and hear each other, and not just focus in on the person who’s doing a better job of advertising.”
While the prevailing mood of the time needs to be addressed in some way or another, most rabbis shy away from being overtly political, feeling that it is not their appropriate role. “I think that there are smarter political scientists in the congregation and in the newspapers than me,” said Rabbi Ragozin. “I’m concerned with the welfare of my community.”
However, rabbis can address the social climate without pretending to be political scientists. It has been said that “the personal is political,” meaning that political questions and personal experiences are inexorably intertwined. Therefore, rabbis can address political themes through discussions of universal Jewish values.
“When you look back on each [sermon], aren’t they all about becoming better people? I generally try to preach kindness and getting along, coming from a different perspective,” mused Rabbi Perlman.
“I would say that there are two basic things that I choose every year,” said Rabbi Ragozin. “One is, ‘How can I live a better life?’ And I would say number two is, ‘How could I be inspired by my synagogue and the possibilities that exist for thriving as a human being within this synagogue community?’”
No matter how thought-provoking, inspiring, funny, relevant, or any of the other things a Rosh Hashanah sermon is supposed to be, it is inevitable that one person sitting at the aforementioned dining room table will answer that this year, they thought the rabbi’s sermon was off the mark. Emails often follow. “Obviously, everyone is not [going to deliver] the Gettysburg Address,” said Rabbi Goldstein, who noted that his congregants sometimes interpret his sermons completely differently than he expected.
“Every rabbi has the experience of giving a sermon, and you think it’s a great sermon,” he said. “And then somebody comes up to you afterward and tells you that was one of the greatest sermons they’d ever heard and begins to tell you what it was, and you realize, that’s not what I said at all. It’s a humbling experience … I find it incredibly difficult to do. It’s both satisfying and difficult.”
Rabbi Cohen-Henriquez had some colorful language for it. “It’s like alchemy,” he said. “It’s torturous. [Slovenian philosopher] Slavoj Žižek … says whoever says they love writing is lying. It’s excruciating.”
The rabbis have different ways of preparing. Rabbi Perlman and Rabbi Goldstein both like to go to the Berkshires for a while to get their thoughts together. Although many rabbis noted that they don’t like to start so far in advance that the sermon is no longer timely, they did note that they’re always listening for good topics at any time of the year.
“I start a file the day after Yom Kippur for the following year’s sermons,” said Rabbi Goldstein. Rabbi Adler noted that she always has a file on her smartphone that she updates any time an idea comes to her. “Ideas percolate in my head,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody. “Once the idea is in my head, I bang it out as fast as I can, before I lose the inspiration.”
Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead has been preparing his sermon for a long time. “Sometimes people ask me how long does it take to write a sermon,” he said. “I answer in jest, although it’s true, about 35 years. Because each of the sermons is now a result of my learning, my growth, my spiritual journey – that of the congregation, of the Jewish people.”