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Monday, July 27, 2015

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More than preaching to the choir

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In writing High Holiday sermons, the goal is to find words of Torah that inspire congregants to act just a little bit differently

Rabbi Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Adam Scheier
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal

Rabbi Scheier: It’s sermon time. This is the time of year that we rabbis begin to think about the messages we wish to share with our congregations on the High Holidays. What resources do you use to prepare your sermons?

Rabbi Cutler: When it comes to choosing sermon topics, my method involves a small amount of panic and a lot of reflective thought. 

I try to think about the major events of the past year. I try to recall my most important conversations. I try to imagine what my congregants are struggling with. I also think about the themes of the High Holidays. What in the liturgy and rabbinical texts about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be especially meaningful this year? Within a couple months of the holidays, I end up with a list of 10 to 15 topics, which I ultimately narrow down. 

I’m a big researcher and generally prefer reading to writing. I search academic databases for anything even remotely related to my topics. I may take out dozens of books from the public and university libraries. I read and take notes. Ultimately, I try to put aside everything that I’ve learned and write from my gut. 

In the end, I don’t want my sermons to be a summary of what the major thinkers have to say on a particular subject. Rather, I want them to be my genuine rabbinic voice speaking authentically from my vantage point within the tradition.

Rabbi Scheier: When I was a student in rabbinical school, I served as an intern for a small start-up community in Houston. I recall being very nervous about my first Rosh Hashanah sermon, and turned to my late grandfather for advice. 

He told me that my sermon should appeal to every demographic – to the seasoned synagogue veteran who is a sermon-maven; to the new immigrant, for whom religious freedom and synagogue attendance is a novelty; to the rebellious teenager (who really doesn’t want to be in synagogue but is acquiescing to his parents’ wishes); to the five-year-old, sitting with his parents and who might internalize one sentence that could change his life; to young parents looking for insight into how to raise a Jewish family; to mourners looking for comfort at the holiest moment of the year; etc. Talk about pressure!

I return to his words each year, when I begin to write my sermons. I also think about objectives, which are different every year, but always more than simply “engaging,” “inspiring,” or “informing.” Sometimes it involves laying out plans for the coming year; sometimes it touches on specific areas of growth I’d like to promote. 

Rabbi Cutler: For me, inspiration is key. I want my sermons to go beyond information. It is essential that when congregants leave shul they feel different. In an ideal world, shul-goers would walk out of the synagogue uplifted by the prayer experience and inspired by a few words of Torah to act just a little bit differently. My goal is for Jews to leave shul with a thought that will inspire new behaviour. And we cannot speak only to the mind. We have to focus on the heart as well.

Rabbi Scheier: I agree with your focus on inspiration. Yes, those who hear our sermons should feel inspired to do something. In addition, I’ve found the High Holy Day sermon to be a moment of focus and anticipation on a day of communal engagement. With a full sanctuary and a building teeming with life, I often think of the Torah’s description of Hakhel, the great mass assembly that would occur every seven years. As the Sefer HaChinuch says, “The talk of all the nation – men, women and children – would then be: ‘Why have we assembled for this large gathering?’ And the answer would be: ‘To hear the words of the Torah – our essence, glory and pride!’”

I think the question “Why are we here?’ continues to echo in our synagogues. Hopefully, our answer is as resounding and convincing as in past generations – to hear the words of Torah, to be inspired, and to grow as individuals and as a community. 

What a blessing to experience this each and every year!

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