All rabbis about to officiate at High Holiday services are currently writing and editing their sermons, and they are worrying mightily whether they will be successful in touching the heart of their congregants, stimulating their thought, and elevating their spirits. They are also fearful that they will fail to do so and thereby disappoint their congregations.
I know, because that is what I did, felt, and worried about every summer for the last forty years, except this summer – I retired from the congregational rabbinate at the end of June.
I had two overarching concerns in writing sermons over the years based on two themes extant throughout the Biblical prophetic literature; to challenge societal trends that compromise our people’s prophetic ethics and values (see Amos 5:24) and to offer solace and comfort to my congregants in confusing and difficult times (see Isaiah 40:1).
I also delivered one sermon each year that expressed my love for the people of Israel and for the well-being of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, but I never hesitated to critique Israeli government policies that failed to measure up to the liberal Zionist vision as articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. I spoke always as an American Jew and not as an Israeli citizen, for Israelis are the ones who bear the consequences directly of decisions their leaders make and policies their leaders put into effect. Yet, what Israel does affects me as an American Jew. I taught that we Diaspora Jews have a stake in what Israel does even though we are not citizens. As supporters of the Jewish state, we have the right to speak as members of the larger Jewish family.
In recent years, I also felt compelled to address challenges to American democracy against a standard of liberal Jewish values and American democratic traditions. Not to do so, in my opinion, constitutes a dereliction of the responsibility of rabbinic moral leadership. In a recent Times of Israel blog (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-torah-is-political-rabbis-ought-to-be-too/), I explained the guidelines I followed when writing High Holiday sermons, and I characterized the difference between “politics” (using the classic Greek definition) and partisanship (i.e. the support of one political party and candidate over another). I spoke mostly about the former and not the latter.
We need our rabbis to speak to us as honestly, eloquently, and inspirationally as they can during this season. Doing so, however, is not easy. I hope that all congregants appreciate their rabbi’s efforts whether or not they agree with what their rabbis say.
If your rabbi inspires you to think and reflect deeply – if he/she elevates your spirit and helps you to see the world as if with new eyes – if your rabbi touches you and you feel renewed as a consequence of his/her words – tell them so and offer them your gratitude. They will appreciate that simple gesture more than you can know. They write for you and a good/great sermon is a veritable gift offered from heart to the heart and soul to soul.
To my rabbinic friends and colleagues – Godspeed and ometz lev.
L’shanah tovah u-m’tukah l’kulam.