Recently on Facebook, someone posted an e-card that said “Rabbi, your sermon was too short! Said nobody.”
Believe it or not, we get it. For many Jews who are not well accustomed to the Hebrew language or the flow of the service, a rabbi's High Holy Day sermon may be the single most important way that a congregant may draw meaning from the holiday. We try not to disappoint.
However, I find that whether a sermon seems to be too long rarely has to do with length, but about the ability of the congregation to connect to what a rabbi is saying. An excellent twenty-minute sermon could fly by, while a terrible ten-minute sermon might seem to drag on for hours. Having delivered both such sermons, I can tell you that we usually like it even less than you do.
But perhaps the most important way for a rabbi to ensure that a sermon doesn't drag on forever is by connecting it to a current event. Unlike a regular Shabbat, where an adventurous rabbi may address a minute point in the Talmud, smart rabbis use these days to address a current event from the lens of Jewish values. This provides our communities with windows to understanding how Judaism remains relevant to our lives in the modern world.
Fortunately, this summer we were given quite a lot of material - not only from vast repositories of Torah and Jewish literature, but also from the news cycle. And so here you have my own list of the top ten world events that may be in your rabbi's sermon this year, and their connection to some themes of the holidays. Don't tell them that I told you:
#1 The Status of American Kids: How is our society to react when 125 kids are caught cheating at Harvard, or when, sadly, an 18-year valedictorian commits suicide at Columbia University before classes have even started? Both of these stories give us pause as a society to think about the way that morality, emotion, and Judaism must play in the education of our kids.
#2 Iran and Israel: Whether your rabbi is a J-Streeter or an AIPAC member, the relationship between these two countries remains one of the most critical issues affecting the State of Israel and the Jewish community. Unfortunately, the volatility of this situation means that rabbis choosing to write this sermon will probably be editing it up to the minute before Rosh Hashanah.
#3 The American Election: A synagogue's rabbi should never directly advocate for a particular political candidate from the pulpit. However, you should expect your rabbi to extrapolate the lessons that we, as a society, can learn from the behavior, attitudes, and positions from political candidates for office, and relate them to Jewish values like rechilut, tale-bearing, and the like.
#4 The Child Abuse Scandals at Penn State University: Months later, this abominable story still raises unresolved theological questions about the nature of teshuva, repentance. Are there sins that are too great for us to do teshuva? Is it right to punish a student body and an entire community for the sins of several individuals? Note that in the Vidui confessional we say on Yom Kippur all of the sins are in the plural form.
#5 The Weather: The Talmud teaches us that the prayer Aveinu Malkeinu was written by Rabbi Akiva in response to a drought. The Midwestern United States and its farmers are currently suffering one of the greatest droughts on record. I think we need to pray for rain a little earlier this year.
#6 The Arab Spring: More than a year later, the results of the uprisings in the Middle East remain unclear. If and when Assad eventually goes, will this be good or bad for the Jewish state? While the Jewish people support the value of cherut, freedom, we also want to live in peace.
#7 Responding to Violence in Our Society: An Israeli bus bombing in Bulgaria, a movie theater shooting in Aurora, and a shooting in a Siekh Temple in Detroit all point to the increasingly problematic role that violence is playing in contemporary society. In Pirkei Avot, we are told to be followers of Aaron who loves and pursues peace. How can we better promote that message in our society?
#8 The Olympics: This year we watched fifteen minutes of sod unfurl on television, but the world was unwilling to take even one moment of silence for murdered Jewish athletes. This is a staunch reminder that anti-Semitism remains alive and well in some sectors of our world.
#9 The State of the Jewish Community: Many Jews arrive at synagogue on the holy days without thinking about whether these institutions will be around for their children. Affiliation and attendance is down in Jewish institutions, and the costs of living Jewishly outside of Israel are less affordable than ever.
#10 Gilad Shalit: This coming Sukkot will mark the one-year anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s release from captivity. After years of struggle, his story still inspires us to never stop believing in hatikvah, hope, and the mutual responsibility that Jews have for each other.
Even if they do not appear, I hope that this list will be useful, on a personal level, for helping all of us do some cheshbon hanefesh, accounting of our souls, during the ten days of repentance, with one story to think about each day.
Unfortunately, I can make no promises as to the length of your rabbi's sermon.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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