Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

Words from the Heart: The Ultimate, Inclusive Balm

It was a jam-packed Yomim Nora’im/Sukkot season this year, with three three-day yom tovs packed into just over three weeks.

For some (particularly those in the kitchen), aliyah began to sound a bit more inviting; Israel had only one three-day marathon. Shul morphed into meals, then back to shul, followed by more eating with, hopefully, a shiur or nap (or both at the same time) squeezed in. Lots of davening, lots and lots of family, and lots and lots and lots of food — 18 Thanksgiving dinners crammed into less than a month.

And then there were the sermons. Having grown up in a community led by two truly outstanding darshanim and having married another outstanding darshan’s daughter, I really enjoy a good sermon. And in my shul, which had many auxiliary services, there were sermons galore to choose from, given by rabbis, assistant rabbis, rabbinic interns, guest rabbis, and even some non-rabbis.

For me, though, two sermons in particular stood out. In one, the rabbi discussed the issue of how communities and families should act toward grown children who no longer follow the traditions in which they were raised. What should never be done, he thundered, is to point fingers assigning blame for the situation to a specific school, shul, teacher, or community. Doing so causes in him the same visceral reaction he has to those claiming that the Holocaust was a punishment for Zionism — or for the lack of Zionism. Rather, he emphasized that both communities and individuals need to react with warmth and care, while continuing to impart as much tradition as possible in a gentle and loving manner.

While I certainly agreed with the sentiment, what was especially memorable to me was the emotion behind his words. This was not a by-the-numbers sermon, or even one based on a detailed analysis of halacha, theology, or parshanut. Rather, it came from the gut; it was a crie de coeur that reverberated throughout the sanctuary. Dvarim hayotzim min halev nichnasim el halev — words that come from the heart penetrate the heart.

In the second, the shul’s senior rabbi explained that the Torah made a point of specifying a separate mitzvah of joy on Shmini Atzeret because by that time in the holiday season it’s easy to be distracted by everything else that’s going on around us. Thus, the Torah’s specific commandment of joy refocuses us on the holiday. And the rabbi, moving from the theoretical to his congregants’ real lives, gave examples of such distractions: the scary world situation, distressing daily headlines, all the work being missed and concern for co-workers required to take up the slack, and the like. What particularly struck me, though, was the example he tacked on at the very end: how the Yankees were doing in the playoffs (their game against Cleveland the night before ended too late for inclusion in the New York Times.)

The congregation chuckled because we all knew that the rabbi was not only the shul’s religious-leader-in-chief but also its Yankees-fan-in-chief. (True story. A few years ago when we had a similar Yankee game situation, before entering the shul on Shabbat morning I asked our crossing guard who won. After he told me and I said “I’m probably not the first person to ask,” he replied, “no, the rabbi asked already.”)

And the rabbi then made explicit what was implicit from his choice of that example; he expressly noted that he was speaking to himself as well as to the congregation. This reminded me of a masterful 1954 sermon by a young R. Norman Lamm I recently read called “A Credo for the Pulpit” in which he stressed that a rabbi “must not preach at his congregation. He must preach with them. In his . . . rebukes he must include himself.”

While it wasn’t the first time I heard a rabbi follow this advice, in my experience it’s especially unusual when it’s so crystal clear that the rabbi is sincerely, and not simply pro forma, including himself, thus making the point, in R. Lamm’s words, that “preaching . . . is a cooperative venture by a community of sinners who want to be saints.” And it was this small aspect of the sermon that made it strikingly memorable to me.

(A parenthetical note: R. Lamm’s sermons are archived and available online, and for the past several years I’ve printed one out to read every Shabbat and yom tov. I highly recommend it.)

Many years ago I delivered a sermon about how powerful words are, and the power they have “to teach, to inspire, to comfort, to heal.” Or as Chief Justice John Roberts eloquently wrote in the Westboro Church case: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and . . .inflict great pain. (Would that he used his eloquence to agree more often with the Notorious RBG.)

But in thinking about this past yom tov season and the sermons that especially touched me, I realized again that the power of words is not only a matter of substance, though that is, of course, of utmost importance. Equally important, with a power all their own, are the way they are presented, the particular words or examples chosen and used, the tone, the delivery, the stories, and the subtexts. While I love reading R. Lamm’s sermons, having heard him preach when I lived on the Upper West Side touched me in different ways. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” reads magnificently. But to hear his voice as he delivered it, with his Baptist preacher cadences and mellifluous tones, is another, and higher, experience entirely.

Dvarim hayotzim min halev nichnasim el halev. And they are cherished and remembered.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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