Motti Wilhelm

3 Questions a Rabbi should consider

A Rabbi Blows Shofar in Elul. (Photo: Meir Pliskin; used with permission)
A Rabbi Blows Shofar in Elul. (Photo: Meir Pliskin; used with permission)

As summer begins to wind down, and the month of Elul (the final month of the Jewish year) starts this week, Rabbis around the world are selecting themes for their sermons and High Holiday messages.

My teachers guided me to consider three key questions when considering what to say.

1. Is it Jewish?
My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Shochet (reverently called “The Rosh”), advises us to ask, “Does one need to be Jewish to write this?” Calls for social action, climate awareness, and civic engagement are not uniquely Jewish; they are shared by decent human beings. If Thomas Friedman or Tony Robbins could have written my sermon, I would be articulating something deeply thoughtful and motivational, but I’m not performing my role as a Torah teacher and Jewish leader.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbi is called upon to share a uniquely Jewish message for the new year; to share a perspective which comes from immersive Torah study and a call for action which grows from deep Jewish commitment.
2. Is it inspirational?
If there is one message we want people to take away from our sermons, it is “It’s geshmak to be a Yid” (there is deep pleasure and meaning in Judaism). As they say in show business, “Always leave them wanting more.”

The Rebbe famously guided George Rohr in running one of the first beginners’ services in NYC: “Explain to participants that they have a real background of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel, and Leah.” It’s just one line, but it is incredibly powerful.

3. Is there a call to action?

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul of Bal Harbour shares, “Think of a sermon as you do a fundraising pitch—it’s ultimately not about what you say but how people respond.” The purpose of speaking on the High Holidays is to encourage ourselves and those participating with us to take home some of their inspiration and put it into action throughout the year.

Whether it’s lighting Shabbat candles, putting up Mezuzot on the interior doors of their home, or taking the next step in Kosher observance, it is their next step that matters most.

Click here for a letter by the Rebbe guiding Rabbis in constructing their High Holiday message.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback. Reach me via email or WhatsApp 1-503-381-7119.

About the Author
Rabbi Motti Wilhelm received his diploma of Talmudic Studies from the Rabbinical College of Australia & New Zealand in 2003 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Rabbinical College of America and Israel’s former chief Rabbi Mordecha Eliyahu in 2004. He was the editor of Kovetz Ohelei Torah, a respected Journal of Talmudic essays. He lectures on Talmudic Law, Medical Ethics and a wide array of Jewish subjects and has led services in the United States, Canada, Africa and Australia. His video blog Rabbi Motti's Minute is highly popular as are his weekly emails. Rabbi Wilhelm and his wife Mimi lead Chabad SW Portland as Shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
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