“They’re cutting down the birch tree in the front yard,” my husband announced early one morning. “Our birch tree? Go find out why and make them stop!” I loved that birch tree. It stood in the tiny front yard of our condo and greeted me as I left the house each day. Its trunk was thick and its beautiful white bark stood out against the deep greens of the garden.
The tree-surgeons agreed that the birch was lovely, but it was also diseased. They pointed to the dead branches up at the top of the tree. I had never looked up that high, had only focused on the part of the tree at eye-level.
And I immediately thought: “This could be a sermon! About how we only see part of the truth. About how we need to focus on the larger picture. Or maybe about how decay- moral and physical – can spread…About how a tree is like a human being, about the fleeting nature of beauty, of life itself…” My mind was whirling.
Then it hit me. Clearly, the month of Elul was at hand. Elul, the sixth month of the Hebrew lunar calendar, the month which immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah and the start of the new year. It’s a time of introspection and preparation. And if you’re a rabbi like me, a time to write sermons. Not just any sermons. Not just the usual week-after-week hasty attempts to weave together insights of Torah with the news of the day. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the Days of Awe – demand sermons of a higher order: profound, insightful, inspiring and memorable.
The congregation expects no less. And the congregation can swell fifty-fold or more on these holy days. So there are Jews in the pews who come every week, but much of the congregation has not been present since the beginning of the previous year. For rabbis, that further ups the ante. The so-called “High Holidays” provide us with a unique chance to make an impact, to find exactly the words which will change everything for the diverse group seated before us.
“What are you speaking about this year?” we greet other rabbis, hoping for an idea, a spark. The news that a colleague has completed his or her sermons early, during the course of the summer, is met with both envy and derision. Sermons should be of the moment, we assure ourselves; getting them done ahead of time, “out-of-season,” misses the point. It’s risky as well. The only year I managed to complete my all of my fall holiday sermons during the summer was 2001. Then 9/11 happened and everything had to be changed. A few colleagues who didn’t re-write their sermons that year actually lost their jobs. Their congregations were incensed that their spiritual leaders could be so insensitive to the cataclysmic events which had just taken place. They were right.
Of course, like most rabbis, I squirrel away ideas for High Holiday sermons all year long. Snippets of news articles, photos, texts and quotes all make their way into a file on my computer. And sometimes those bits and pieces actually inspire a sermon or teaching. Sometimes, a sermon grows out of a book I’ve read or a lecture I’ve heard. But most often, sermon ideas find their way to me. Because something strange and wonderful happens just about now, at the start of Elul. Suddenly, the whole world seems pregnant with possibility.
Walking through the woods, running into someone at the grocery store, listening to the news, feeding the dogs, teaching a Bat Mitzvah student, hearing a song, doing the dishes, it doesn’t matter what I am doing. I will stop and realize: “This is a sermon!” I’ve come to see this as a kind of heightened seasonal sensitivity, an opening up of awareness, a gift.
And so I don’t panic the way I used to. I know there are no magic words I can or need speak. I hope that my words, added to the prayers and readings, the chants and melodies, will move the people with whom I share the holidays. But I know that I have to feel moved and inspired first. And I’m confident something will strike me. Because right now, the whole world reverberates with sermons.