“’Twas the week before Rosh Hashanah…”
At this time of year, I am often greeted by friends and congregants with some version of “this is your busy season, isn’t it?” Accountants like to say that this is “The rabbi’s April.” The teller at my bank this morning, an Indian woman, said benignly, “you have some holidays coming up, don’t you?’
“Yeah, big ones,” I said. I wanted to say “high ones,” but she wouldn’t have understood.
Truth to tell, yes, this is a very difficult and busy time of year for rabbis who serve congregations. If only because of High Holiday sermons, it would be difficult. Most of us are going to see members of our congregations whom we don’t see regularly throughout the year, and we have this special opportunity to say something that might actually reach them and change their lives. That alone generates enormous pressure. You so want to write that perfect sermon that hits a home run, pleases everyone, offends no one, and manages nonetheless to say something meaningful.
The truly responsible (compulsive?) among us start and finish this process of writing sermons over the summer. It’s sort of like the people who are ready for Passover three weeks before the holiday begins, and when you ask them how they are, they tell you that they’re already cooking. Gee, thanks for sharing. Not helpful…
Actually, I used to spend a lot of time writing High Holiday sermons over the summer, back in my younger days. And then two monumental events rid me of that habit forever.
The first- ironically, so relevant to what is going on now in the General Assembly of the UN- was in September of 1993, when, to the absolute shock of virtually the entire Jewish community, Yasser Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin, z”l, signed a document of mutual recognition on the South Lawn of the White House, with a beaming Bill Clinton looking on. If you listened closely then, you could hear the sound of a whole lot of rabbis tearing up their neatly typed sermons and depositing them in trashcans around the world. So much for writing early! I fully intend to address Israel and her situation on Rosh Hashanah, but writing it now, in advance of all that is playing out before our eyes, would be a ridiculous and wasteful exercise.
And then, of course, came an even more egregious example of the dangers of writing early: September 11, 2001. The first day of Rosh Hashanah in 2001was September 18, and I can tell you from personal experience that none of us really knew what to say then. We were all processing our own grief, especially here in New York, and all of a sudden nothing that we had written or thought of was relevant any more. It was a nightmare of the worst kind- personal, communal and professional.
Yes- writing High Holiday sermons is a pressure-laden and difficult seasonal chore. But here’s the nasty little secret that new rabbis discover when they take jobs in the pulpit: Shabbat comes around every seven days!
Remember that classic episode of "I Love Lucy," where she and Ethel are working in the candy factory packing the candies as they come off the conveyor belt? All of a sudden, the speed of the belt picks up, and they can’t keep up! So they start dropping the candies, they stuff them in their mouths… It’s all well and good to wait until September to write High Holiday sermons, but every seven days the members of your congregation expect you to have something substantive and meaningful to say. You can’t
“drop sermons,” or stuff them into your mouth. You just have to be incredibly productive at this time of year.
And, of course, in addition to the sermons of both Shabbat and holidays, there are meetings that you must be at, and funerals that must be handled, and congregants who just have to see you now. And, of course, rabbis, being people (thank you, Marlo Thomas!), also have families, and often working spouses, and have to shop for the holiday and cook too! Amazing, isn’t it? People always seem so surprised to see me in a supermarket, as if to say, “what are you doing here?” It’s like Willy Sutton, who once answered a question about why he robbed banks by saying “that’s where the money is.” I’m here, I say, because this is where they sell food, and my family and I actually eat food!
And just to keep it real this year, we Skolniks added yet another layer of pre-holiday excitement into the mix. My older son, himself a congregational rabbi in Orlando, Florida, was gifted with a baby boy by his lovely wife- herself a rabbi, too- just this past Monday! So, my wife and I are flying to Orlando on Sunday for a Monday brit.
Sermons? Oh, they’ll get done. I have a new grandson!
To all, a shanah tovah um’vorechet… a good, sweet, and blessed year. Against all odds, may it bring sweetness and joy to us all!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.