Sunday, March 30, 2008

In Search Of the Perfect Sermon

The Jewish Week, October 13, 1994

I bumped into Jonah the other day. Jonah and I are old friends, especially when I'm preparing my sermons for the High Holidays. You don't have to be a rabbi to relate to Jonah. Everyone who contemplates a flight from responsibility meets Jonah somewhere along the way.

As I approached the Days of Awe, I was afflicted once again with what some rabbis call "Elulitis," but which for me is an annual, if not daily, re-enactment of Jonah's basic choice -- the path of anonymous, burdensome responsibility or a speedy descent into the abyss.

In 1978, fresh out of college, I chose to become a rabbi. My route was rather elliptical; it was almost a process of elimination that brought me to the seminary. There was no calling, no summons from On High; I was opting into a profession, one like all others, or so I thought.

Yet here I was, on the eve of a new year, about to utter the words that, if done properly, could change hundreds of lives and have a profound effect on my community. Here I was, once again, being drained of every ounce of energy, pouring out my soul in order to save theirs.

As my story unfolds in this column, doubtless there will be ample opportunity to share my more embarrassing moments and mundane frustrations. But for the most part I hope to share the sublime with you, to cut through the trivialities that prevail all too much in relationships and have also come to cheapen my noble profession.

A rabbi can either be irrelevant or of ultimate relevance to people. I choose the latter, even if the burden is so much greater. That means the sermons must stretch toward perfection.

I'm not talking about perfect length. If a sermon is perfect, neither speaker nor listener can recall what day it is, much less the length. The perfect sermon transcends time and it transports the listener far from any place a watch can dare wander (but try to be reasonable and keep this bliss to around a half-hour on the holidays).

When the high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, I wonder how many Levites looked up at him saying, "Too long, let's cut down on the blood sprinkling next year." We've lost the Temple, but why must we also lose the grandeur of the moment?

I'm not speaking about pace, the placement of jokes, all the techniques we learn and hone. None of this matters if the message isn't there, and the passion behind it. And there has to be a real, honest-to-goodness person, not a mask, behind the passion. I receive tons of sermonic material from worthy organizations prior to the holidays. Most of it goes straight into the trash. If it doesn't come straight from my heart, it will never reach theirs.

The perfect sermon has to leave both sides in a state of exhilarated exhaustion. It's possible for the listener to feel like a participant even as she or he sits in supposed passivity. There is a place for today's trend toward Donahue-style dialogues, but on the Days of Awe nothing can duplicate an old-fashioned sermon if it is done properly.

Finally, to deliver a perfect sermon the rabbi has to love people. There's where I've had my greatest problem in the past.

These are the people, after all, who wake my wife on Sunday mornings with silly phone calls, who spread unfair rumors about me snubbing the "old-timers" or avoiding Uncle Joe at the hospital, or who rag at me for daring to take a position on controversial issues. These are the ones who ensnare me in an ever-tightening net of obligation as they draw ever closer and demand more flesh.

I look out at them some years and understand why Jonah didn't want to save Nineveh. They drain me of all my strength. They can be shallow. They can be callous. They can be cruel.

This year I looked into the mirror and said, "Who am I?" which allowed me then to look out at them and say, "They are human." Then, it was as if we looked at each other and said, "You know, we're not so bad. Let's work on this thing together."

This year, I got it right, and I've done enough clinkers in the past to know the difference. All the sleepless nights (sort of an Elul ritual for me) added up to four nearly timeless and virtually sleepless half hours for the majority of those assembled.

But I wanted more.

Athletes call it the Zone, that place where we all want to be, where every jumper swishes and every fastball looks like a watermelon. For a rabbi, the Zone is entered when you can sense exactly how the congregation will respond to every comment and you then respond instinctively to them. It is a feeling of utter control combined with the funny sensation that you are not really the one doing the speaking, that the words are coming from somewhere deep within you, not from the printed text. Just as a good actor becomes the part, a good rabbi becomes the sermon and a good sermon transcends the rabbi. Somewhere between the first taste of apple in honey and the final Neilah blast, I came as close as I've ever been to becoming the message.

The holy and human intersect when we, like Jonah, come to accept our burdensome destiny. This year, for whatever reason, I not only accepted my magnificent affliction, but I embraced it. And as I enfolded it in the spoken word, I was able to inscribe, in indelible ink, the name of one congregation into the Book of Life.

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