Several years ago, I gave a talk in which I commented on the dilemma of rabbis and their sermons. I know the problem first hand, having served a large and wonderful congregation for many years.
A rabbi wants the sermon to reach everyone…even when the congregation is composed of people with different ranges of religious knowledge, different spiritual levels, different interest in listening to sermons. So rabbis generally work very hard to come up with sermons that will somehow reach everyone…even the one who is delivering the sermon!
I could generally tell if my sermons were reaching people or if I was not connecting at all. After services, some kind souls would offer what they thought was a compliment: “I enjoyed your sermon, Rabbi.” Ouch! My goal wasn’t to offer entertainment. I wanted people to say: “Thanks for inspiring me,” or “I learned a lot from your sermon,” or “You gave me something to think about more carefully.” If people simply enjoyed my sermon, I knew my sermon had failed in its essential mission.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein commented that there is one phrase that is even more troubling to a rabbi than “I enjoyed your sermon.” A rabbi winces when a congregant says: “Now THAT was a good sermon!”… implying that all the other sermons were not really too good.
There’s an old quip about the difference between a “rabbi” and a “rebbe”: When the “rabbi” speaks, you think his words apply to everyone else. When the “rebbe” speaks, you feel he is speaking directly to you. In this sense, every good rabbi also needs to be a “rebbe.” The goal of a sermon is not to impress listeners with how smart you are…but to actually reach congregants with a message that touches them directly.
The first obligation of a good rabbi is to really know his congregation. What’s on their minds? What’s bothering them? Why do they come to synagogue? What do they expect from their rabbi? The source of a good sermon rarely begins with a text: it begins with serious consideration of the spiritual needs of the congregation. It then proceeds to a search for sources in our religious tradition—including the Torah/haftarah readings of the day—that can open new channels of insight to congregants. If a rabbi doesn’t learn from his own sermons, the sermons are probably flawed.
In some circles, the rabbi is expected to give a “devar halakha.” Congregants are all yeshiva trained and halakhically oriented. They aren’t searching for inspiration or spirituality…just information on halakhic practice. A rabbi in such a community obviously needs to address the interests of his listeners. But the rabbi should also go beyond the do’s and don’t’s of halakha. People need to be reminded about God, the human spiritual quest, the values that underlay the halakhic practices.
Many/most pulpit rabbis speak to congregations that are composed of a wide variety of members, some religiously observant, others less so, some barely religious at all. A rabbi needs to invest time and effort to know his congregants and their concerns. A rabbi needs to focus on how to address the spiritual needs of his community.
What should a rabbi NOT be? He should not be an entertainer. He should not profane the pulpit with frivolous jokes, odd anecdotes, or historical curiosities. He should not pretend to be a political commentator on current events. He should not try to impress the congregation with the “important” people he knows. The sermon is not about how much the rabbi knows on this or that topic—since many of the congregants are themselves highly educated and know as much or more than the rabbi on many topics. The rabbi is supposed to be a “spiritual leader.” Then let him focus on the spiritual dimensions of life and how the Jewish tradition offers insights to help us become wiser and deeper human beings.
Congregations generally have the rabbi they deserve. Spiritually alive communities have rabbis who are spiritually alive. Spiritually stagnant communities have rabbis who are entertainers or political commentators.
If it’s possible to sit in synagogue all morning and not feel God’s presence, then something is wrong. If the rabbi’s demeanor and sermon don’t evoke God’s presence, then something is desperately wrong.
When I was a rabbinical student, our class was addressed one day by Rabbi Israel Miller, of blessed memory. He told us: “The most important aspect of a sermon isn’t what the rabbi says…but who the rabbi is.” If a rabbi is a loving, concerned and dedicated public servant, the congregation will learn from him and his sermons. If a rabbi is a less than ideal human being, the sermons he delivers will lack authenticity.
The next time you listen to your rabbi’s sermon, consider whether his words are directed to you, touch you, make you think more carefully and more deeply. If you merely “enjoy” the sermon (or sleep through it!), something is very wrong.
And if you “enjoyed” this essay, then I guess I’ve failed again.