I was walking my dog late one night this week when I encountered a neighbor from down the block, past whose house my dog and I invariably pass on this evening ritual. As most people will say to me in one form or another at this time of year, my neighbor offered the following greeting: “So, you’re entering into your busy season, yes? Must be a lot of pressure.”
Writing lots of sermons, I answered, is hard work, to be sure, but the truth is that most congregational rabbis either speak or teach at least once every week in synagogue. The products that we are expected to deliver have always felt to me a lot like the candies on the conveyor belt in that classic episode of "I Love Lucy." Whether or not you’re finished boxing the last one, the next one comes out, and they keep on coming, relentlessly. This is a significant and ongoing part of the work that we do.
So, I told my neighbor, the pressure doesn’t come from the volume of work. For me, at least, it comes from within. It’s self-imposed.
Like many rabbis, I realize that I will, over the High Holidays, see many congregants and their guests that I don’t get to see on a regular basis. I always feel challenged to bring them something that might- just might- changes their way of looking at the world, and in so doing, change their lives for the better. I’m sure that sounds horribly grandiose, but I don’t mean it that way. I’m no rabbinic Dr. Phil. But I also understand that, if a person is really open to hearing, as many are during the holidays, and the message delivered is timely and compelling, then the chances are good that it will go home with the person(s) who heard it. And maybe- just maybe- that person will think about it, and act on it. Through the years, I have had people tell me- often months after the fact- that sermons that I thought were much less than stellar had had a profound impact on them. Because of that, I am ever mindful of the great responsibility to make sure that, when I open my mouth, particularly on the High Holidays, what comes out is worthy of being heard, and carefully considered.
And then my neighbor said something to me that really got me thinking. He said, in essence, “wow, that really is a lot of pressure to put on yourself. But it’s great that you feel that way, because it shows that you still care after all these years, and you haven’t burned out.”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess you’re right. That’s exactly what it shows.”
My neighbor was quite right. I do care. And each and every year, I feel both the considerable burden of producing sermons worthy of people’s careful consideration, and privileged to be the one charged with that burden.
Because of the pervasive existential overlay of the High Holidays, there is a sense of spiritual urgency that many congregants bring with them into services. The liturgy drives home the message, again and again, that their very lives hang in the balance as they spend these few hours together in synagogue. Ultimately, if the High Holiday magic is working, the message is internalized. Just hearing the unique melodies and chanting the familiar prayers serves as a kind of Pavlovian trigger. It’s hard to stand through Unetaneh Tokef, or Kol Nidre, and not experience a sense that you are accessing some very, very primal Jewish experience. It is as close to a genuinely sacred moment as many Jews get.
I have to admit that one of the things I miss about just sitting in the congregation, as opposed to leading a service, is the opportunity to work on my own spiritual self during the holidays. All of my concentration is focused on the service itself, and what I can do, along with the marvelous Hazzan with whom I work, to insure that the spiritual experience of the “Jews in the pews” will be worthy of the occasion that brings them there. There is precious little opportunity for me to go to my own private spiritual space- something that used to be an important part of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for me.
But I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I’ve made my peace with what the pulpit rabbinate requires. Each year is its own adventure, and develops into its own story to be reflected on and appreciated as unique. As I enter my thirty-second year of leading services at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, I feel far more spiritually blessed than deprived. The greatest gift of being in one pulpit over such a long stretch of time is that my congregants have, in essence, become my extended family. My parents are gone, my only sibling lives in Israel… I still have the many blessings of my wife’s family, whom I love, but these men, women and children who look to me to provide them with meaning over the holidays are the same people whom I look to for strength and comfort. That is the power of community, and I am never more grateful for it than over the High Holidays… even when the self-imposed pressure is considerable.
To all of my readers, may I take this opportunity to wish you a new year that will be blessed with good health, happiness, prosperity and peace. A gut gebentcht yohr to all! May it be a year of blessing!