A friend of mine asked me if I would do something, and I needed to decide whether I would. This was the genesis of the “Yes Or No” post that I wrote a while back. (August the 10th, if you’re scoring at home.)
My friend had asked me to join a group of professional writers (about a dozen of us) who would address and later work with a gathering of (100 to 150) rabbis, concerning the preparation of their upcoming High Holiday service sermons. (Jewish New Year’s begins the night of September the 16th.) (Jewish holidays always begin at night.) (Sometimes, you learn more in the brackets.)
I said I would do it. My reason: To get out of the house. My friend called it a mitzvah (a good or praiseworthy deed.) Fine, it’s a mitzvah.
A mitzvah where I’m out of the house.
The organizers of the event sent me an e-mail, indicating where and when the “Rabbi’s Workshop” would take place. The participating writers were also instructed to prepare a ten to fifteen minute introductory presentation, before consulting on the sermons (outlines or completed drafts) the rabbis were instructed to bring in.
I write my presentation/slash/speech. It is easily ten minutes long. It seems pretty good. I then pull up the e-mail to double-check the address of the synagogue the event is being held in, and the directions for getting there. (Full Disclosure: Driving to a new place makes me more nervous than delivering a speech.)
On the second reading of the e-mail, I discover that my initial reading had missed an important word in the instructions: The word was “collectively.”
I now realize that the presentation is intended to be “collectively” ten to fifteen minutes long – ten to fifteen minutes for everyone. My misreading of the instructions had led me to write something that would take up all the time of the presentation, which would mean, either nobody else gets to speak but me, or I have to break my presentation into sections, and the other writers would each read a part of it.
Or – the real “or” this time – I would have to drastically shorten my presentation. Like by about eighty per cent.
This turned out to be surprisingly easy to do (suggesting, however, that eighty per cent of my longer version had been filler.)
The topic on which we were directed to speak was:
“If I Were Giving A Sermon This High Holidays…”
Here’s what I finally came up with:
I never liked going to synagogue on the High Holidays when I was a kid. But my mother insisted, even though she was not that religious herself. I asked her once, “Mom, you’re not that religious. Why do you go to synagogue on the High Holidays. My mother looked at me and said,
“That’s where the Jews are.”
If I were giving a sermon this High Holidays, I would personalize my presentation. Like I just did with that story about my mother.
As far as content is concerned, I’d be tempted to deviate from tradition and start with the question I imagine a part of every rabbi is dying to ask when they’re standing in front of a packed High Holidays congregation, the question being, “Where are you the rest of the year?” I could ask that question. Because I’m not coming back.
A more useful suggestion, perhaps, may be turning that question around, and considering not “Where are you the rest of the year?” but “Why are you here today?”
That’s what I’d focus on in my sermon. What are they doing there? What are they hungry to hear? What can I, as the sermon giver, tell them that will help them live their lives? And always from a personal perspective. Maybe even explaining what the sermon giver is doing there.
But that’s my style. You may have a different approach. There are lots of ways to connect.
I was once at a High Holiday service, where a young female rabbi confided to her congregation the “Words of Wisdom” related to her by one of her teachers upon graduating from the rabbinical seminary. The “Words of Wisdom” were these:
“Don’t wear brown.”
I’ve remembered that for fifteen years. Not just because it made me laugh. It was personal. It was human. It was authentic.
As I got older, I started going to High Holiday services at a synagogue near my house. I am still not that solid about what I’m doing there, but I’ve found reason enough to attend.
Why do I go to synagogue on the High Holidays?
Because that’s where the Jews are.
If you have any difficulties with this speech, most importantly, if you spot anything that may impede my chances of having my name inscribed in the all-important “Book of Life”…
It’s too late.
As you read this, I am delivering it to the rabbis.