As congregational attendance swells during the High Holiday season, a rabbi preparing a sermon might feel there is a lot at stake — maybe even a bit of pressure to make the sermon particularly good.
This is not to suggest that rabbis do not work to create high-quality sermons throughout the rest of the year as well. But what, exactly, makes for a good sermon, and one rightly appropriate for the Days of Awe?
“Many rabbis feel the High Holidays are their one opportunity to say everything they want to say to their congregations all year,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. “But the trick is to know what you want to say and to do it succinctly, sincerely and with passion.”
A good sermon, according to Bisno, is both timely and timeless.
“I avoid trying to put myself in the middle of the sermon,” he said, but he nonetheless strives to convey a message that he also wants to hear.
“That’s the sincerity angle,” he said. “I work hard to avoid using the second person, telling them, ‘What you need to know and what you should do.’ Speaking in the first person plural is better.”
This year, Bisno will be speaking about Israel, a topic he has not yet addressed in a High Holiday sermon, he said.
“Considering the nature of the threat that Israel faces,” Bisno said, “it would be conspicuous for a rabbi not to address it this year.”
Bisno is in good company. Many rabbis in the area interviewed for this article — including Mark Mahler, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, and Rabbi Yaier Lehrer, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom near Fox Chapel — will also be speaking about Israel this holiday season.
In speaking about the Jewish state, Bisno will not editorialize, but will speak from the heart, he said.
“Standing on the pulpit is a privilege,” he noted, and a rabbi delivering a good sermon will “speak from the heart and not use it to pontificate.”
For Rabbi Amy Levin, interim rabbi at Beth Shalom, a good sermon will provide congregants with “accessible, doable steps to increase whatever their spiritual goals are.”
She takes much of that inspiration from the High Holiday liturgy itself.
“There are such powerful messages of creating a better possible life in the liturgy about acknowledging this profound capacity for human beings to change and improve our lives,” she said.
In drafting her sermons, Levin tries to weave together the “aspirations in our traditions with the realities in which we live our lives,” she said. “I will draw thematically from the liturgy from the themes of the High Holidays and also from what I feel is an issue or current dynamic in the congregation that I feel we should be processing together.
“Here, I will be talking about what a community means,” she continued. “That’s what our conversation needs to be now in Beth Shalom’s life.”
Relevance and timeliness are the critical factors in a good High Holiday sermon, said Rabbi Chuck Diamond, spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
“I want to speak about something that will touch people’s hearts and souls,” Diamond said. “And I want to speak about something I am passionate about so I can share that passion with people. And I want to give them something that they will think about when they leave.”
It’s important for Diamond to conclude a High Holiday sermon on a positive note, he added, even if he is touching on some tough topics during the meat of his sermon.
“There’s so much tsuris in the world, even if I address the tsuris, I want to end with a lot of positives,” he said.
One key to preparing a good sermon, according to Lehrer, is knowing one’s audience.
“You have to have an understanding of their concerns,” he said. “And sometimes there are things you have to make a congregation aware of. You need to find a balance between the things you want to make sure people know about but do it in a way that will impact them and resonate with them.”
Topics such as the current situation in Israel and the rise of worldwide anti-Semitism are issues Lehrer will cover during the course of the five sermons he will deliver during the High Holidays, he said. But he will also make it a point to discuss issues of spirituality.
“This may be one of the only times they hear about anything spiritual during the course of the year,” he acknowledged.
Critical to delivering a good sermon is a solid knowledge of the topic on which one is speaking, Lehrer said.
“You have to really know your subject, and you have to talk about the things you know and the things you feel,” he said. “It is ineffective and empty if people talk about things they don’t know about.”
Sermon topics naturally will vary depending upon a particular rabbi’s area of interest or expertise. While some may be more comfortable speaking about issues of social justice, for example, others may be more confident discussing spirituality and the relationship between God and man, Lehrer said.
“Some things come more naturally to some than others,” he noted, adding that he enjoys exploring with his congregants how to take their relationship with God and their beliefs, and transforming those relationships into action.
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck — whose modern Orthodox congregation attracts a full house not only during the Days of Awe, but also for Sukkot and Simchat Torah — is busy preparing about 25 sermons for this upcoming holiday season.
“It’s a heavy season,” he said, noting that he will receive a flurry of questions from his congregants during the upcoming weeks on everything from the rules of fasting to the nuances of lulavs and etrogs.
But through the sermons he will deliver, he said, he hopes to stimulate people intellectually and get them “excited from a learning perspective to have depth in their practice.”
“My primary goal is inspiration,” he said. “I speak before the shofar blowing, hoping that it will be a moment that will maximally touch on as many people’s hearts as possible.”
Each year, Yolkut attempts to discern “what people’s concerns are,” he said, “and I try to take those and redirect them to make the shofar and service in general a powerful and meaningful transformative process for them.”
For Mahler, the question should not be what makes a “good” sermon, but what makes an “important” sermon, he said.
And an important sermon, he added, should “prompt goodness or inspire goodness in the Jewish people.”
This year, he said, an important topic is Israel, particularly in light of the recent Pew Center statistics that revealed that only about four-in-10 Jews say that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewish identity.
The fact that there are so many congregants in the pews on the High Holidays “makes the sermon all the more ‘important,’” Mahler said, “which, as I explained, is my paradigm for a sermon.
“While writing a sermon, I often visualize different people listening to me, and I ask myself, ‘What will he or she think about this?’” he added. “In other words, more than I think about people not being there throughout the rest of the year, I think about who will be there on the High Holy Days.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.