My summers (and even my springs) used to be filled with wondering what I would talk about on the High Holy Days when I was expected to speak to my holy congregation. I will admit to chasing controversy during some of my early years. But alongside my penchant for rabble rousing, another impulse demanded my attention and, eventually, supplanted my tendency to look too far afield for topics.
Now I am a listener to and reader of other rabbis’ sermons. I recognize the process by the end result, and I can almost always tell where in a career a rabbi is by the content of a couple of sermons from Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
When I was serving in a pulpit, the great pleasure of the days between RH and YK was a trip to the mikvah with my friend Danny Zemel, my favorite rabbi. Danny and I did not know each other growing up in Chicago, but we discovered each other in DC and managed to reach across the aisle to form a fast friendship. He is, unfortunately, a White Sox fan. Setting that aside, we would meet at the mikvah and take turns immersing. While one of us was getting wet, the other would immerse himself the sermons delivered (or about to be) at the synagogue we couldn’t attend. Then we would go to lunch and talk about them.
Danny has taught me a lot of things, but the most important one is how he describes himself to his congregation. He says he doesn’t lay claim to expertise in scholarship or politics. But he is an expert in his congregation. The question he asks himself each year – and that I used to ask each year – is “what is the message the congregation needs to hear?” My own gloss on this teaching is that the first place I looked was in my own life and situation. More often than not, I discovered a clue to what everyone else needed to hear.
And that’s what occupied me. What did I need to hear? I had to listen to my life, and I had to listen to the lives of others. It was an obligation of the job of rabbi and one I released with dispatch in that first year of my retirement from synagogue life. It made me like most, if not all, of my former congregants. I arrive to my seat on the day of the New Year and of Atonement and I hope to feel a resonance with what is said from the pulpit.
As I said, now I am a listener and a reader when it comes to sermons. And being on the receiving end, I know that there is a secret some rabbis have discovered, and others have yet to find.
My sermons had to gestate; while some of my colleagues already have drafts of next year’s sermons, mine emerged in necessary and painful rushes, almost fully formed as they traveled down my fingers and onto the screen (or paper back in the dark ages). I knew I was finished only when I collapsed in tears as the last words appeared before me. If some part of my heart did not break when I wrote my sermon, then nobody else’s would break when I spoke it. And if there was anything in my words worth penetrating the listening heart, then it had to break just a little bit in order to create an opening.
I can tell a lazy effort from a diligent one. Rarely does a rabbi bring a borrowed or slapdash effort to his or her High Holy Day crowd, so I do not mean I can tell how much time went into preparation. I can tell when a rabbi took the plunge into the recesses of her or his heart, and then wandered among the hopes and insecurities of the community, and then delivered a message that was personally crucial. That sermon makes me beg to come along on the journey.
And I can tell when a rabbi finds a good idea and works hard to build it into an admirable presentation. The sweat equity is evident, but the result is almost always a disappointment. There must be a sense of drama – in the good sense – or you might as well research it yourself if you even choose to engage.
I was always overcome with doubt at the end of my sermons. I would look for the first chance to find my wife, and she always knew what to tell me. It was really the only opinion that mattered to me. But she gave me the tool to gauge whether I had found the spot in people’s hearts. In the theater, it is applause, and, in the ballpark, it is a collective cheer. But in synagogue, it is a quality of silence, the sound of a heart healing around its break.