the listener listens
Why-rabbis-dont-get-swelled-heads department: One of my good members told me a few months ago, My wife and I were talking about your sermons. Theyve gotten much better lately.
A chance remark like that gives a rabbi an insight into what
transpires behind the sweet facade of rapt attention.
The comment reminded me of Fannie Pearlman, a good soul who never means any harm, who said to me quite innocently one Shabbat morning, I enjoyed your sermon very much today. It was much better than the one you gave last week.
From Fannie -- simple, naive, fully honest -- one always gets it straight, without frills or decoration. But I must confess to a rather unkind thought: when Fannie, who through no fault of her own is not an intellectual giant, finds a sermon enjoyable, I begin to worry. When she finds the sermon over her head, at least I know I wasnt too elementary.
But such thoughts are not only unkind but untrue. Does God love only the great minds of humanity? Are not unlettered and simple folks an integral part of His creation? Are the souls of the unlearned any less in need of inspiration than those of the brilliant congregants? A rabbis job is
to appreciate the soul of every single Jew.
Which is easier said than done. The wall-to-wall nature of our
synagogue -- from the very learned to the very unlearned, and from the very observant to the very unobservant -- adds a certain spice to the preparation of the weekly sermon: the scholar will comprehend this, but will it hold the attention of the newcomer? Or: the newcomer will be moved by this idea, but will I lose the attention of the veteran? For the selfsame words to touch the souls of the learned and the unlearned simultaneously is not easy. The last time this occurred was when God gave the Torah at Sinai.
I am nevertheless blessed with a congregation whose perception and
intelligence, by and large, is far above average, and who demand and expect sermons that will make them think. In fact, when out-of-town lecturers come to our shul, I always caution them not to talk down to our people. I urge them not to hold back any ideas or concepts, but to give our people all the depth and profundity the speakers can muster. Some of my own best work has been done because I know that the congregation will not accept pap and expects the rabbi to dig far beneath the surface.
No one ever taught me how to respond to
this type of praise: a young woman tells me after davening one Shabbat, I love to hear your sermons, because youre so easy to listen to. Your material is clear and you speak directly to us. And, Rabbi, the most amazing thing: if my mind wanders during your sermon or if I doze off for a while, when I get back to you I find I havent missed a thing.
She was not trying to be clever. She meant it as a compliment. We
were neither flattered nor amused.
Sometimes the most painful reactions to a sermon occur after Shabbat, particularly at Bar Mitzvah receptions. Rabbi, I just adored your sermon this morning. Just marvelous, simply marvelous. Im going to come every week from now on. The lady from whom all this gushed forth was someone whom Id never seen before and would probably never see again --
certainly not in this synagogue. She knew it, I knew it, and she knew that I knew it. I suppose she was merely trying to be nice to me, and that this was the only way she knew to be polite to a rabbi. Unable to think of an appropriate response, I nodded politely and thanked her, thus playing my part in the charade.
One Shabbat morning my sermon dealt with the two famous biblical
cows: the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf. According to the Sages there is a conceptual connection between the two: the Red Heifer is considered to be an atonement for the sin of the Calf.
I tried to explain that the underlying cause of the sin of the
Golden Calf was the inability of the people to accept something which they could not comprehend with their rational faculties; that is, that there could be a God without intermediaries. They reverted back to an idolatrous intermediary, the Calf, as soon as they were convinced that Moses had died.
Because of this, God gave them a law which is the embodiment of
the nonrational and which no mortal mind can comprehend. Even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, could not fathom the laws of the Red Heifer, in which the one who initiates the purifying sprinkling rites, though he was previously undefiled, becomes defiled, while the recipient of the sprinkling, until now defiled, becomes undefiled. It is an assault on all rationality.
The fulfillment of this Red Heifer rite serves as an atonement for the transgression of the Calf. Let the mother (the Heifer) come and clean up the dirt which the Calf made, says the Midrash.
In other words, by making this rite inaccessible to the probing of
our minds, God creates a correction and a mending of the sin of the Calf, which had as its root cause the idea that our mortal minds are the final arbiter of our behavior. My point in the sermon was this: the Red Heifer laws teach us that service of God is not subject to mere rationality; the service of God possesses a rationality of its own.
Later, in the social hall during kiddush, an out-of-town guest, trying to be pleasant, gushed about how he really loved and was uplifted by the sermon. Theres only one thing that puzzles me, he said. What exactly is the ritual of the Red Pepper?
make the sermon dull
Questions for which no training can prepare you: Sarah Winbaum, a highly intelligent and perceptive forty-year-old single woman, asked me just before Yom Kippur: Rabbi, do you think Im sort of attractive?
I have counseled Sarah with many of her problems over the years.
Whether she is or is not attractive had never occurred to me, and her sudden question unnerved me. What was the appropriate answer? I dodged and weaved and hedged, but did not respond.
She laughed at my discomfort. Well, if I am at all attractive, its primarily because I pickle my eyes for days in mascara.
Fine, I said, waiting for the point.
Your Rosh Hashanah sermons absolutely destroyed my mascara. I was totally broken up. I was so moved, I wept throughout.
I am sorry about that, but I am truly gratified.
I am calling to ask that you not do such a good job on Yom Kippur. Kindly make your sermons dull and drab, so I can continue to look attractive. You realize you are ruining my chances of making a good impression on any eligible man.
It was probably the most original sermon reaction I had ever
received, and I enjoyed it immensely -- particularly when she told me that mascara was also running from the eyes of other women around her. Their mascara runneth over.
k k k
No one is ever insulted by a compliment. The day after Yom Kippur an elderly woman said to me in the synagogue office, I dont want to swell your head, but I thought your holiday sermons were magnificent. I
thanked her graciously, because I truly appreciated her words.
Later in the afternoon she called me to apologize. She should not
have been so flippant with the rabbi. She asked my forgiveness for not having been respectful enough to me. I assured her that her comments were very respectful and were very much valued.
All my congregants should be so disrespectful.
Now, Jonathan Sykes is another story. He is intelligent, smart -- they dont always go together -- and well read. And he is totally honest. When he avoids me after a sermon I know that I was well below par. When he tells me that something was good, I know it was good. And unlike almost everyone else, he never uses the word enjoy to describe his
reaction to a sermon.
k k k
No matter how profound or original a sermon of mine might occasionally be, Herman Roth, who knows no Hebrew and little about Judaism, will invariably sidle up to me and say, That was a very nice concept, Rabbi. In fact, we discussed that very idea last night at our Friday-night dinner. Whatever I say, he always finds a way to tell me that the same
thought occurred to him a few weeks earlier.
He has no malicious intent; he is really a very decent human
being. But he does not grasp the nuances of abstract ideas, simplifies them and brings them down to his own level of Jewish understanding. For him it is perfectly normal that he and the rabbi should be thinking along the same scholarly lines. Sometimes I wonder why I have to work so hard to produce an idea that he can concoct over his Friday-night chicken soup.
when thou liest down
Whenever I begin to speak, several men -- always the same ones -- nod off within the first two minutes. (For an inexplicable reason, I rarely see women dozing off.) They have become an integral part of my sermon life. They always -- without exception -- take an involuntary nap (who knows, perhaps it is voluntary) when I speak. They have been doing it for twenty years, and will do it, please God, until one hundred twenty. It doesnt matter whether its a lecture, a talk at shalosh seudos, or a Shabbat sermon; at the sound of my voice, the eyes begin to glaze over, and before I end my introductory remarks they are in deep slumber. Those sitting next to one of these men have confided in me that from time to time they have even heard a snore. (Thats only when I was delivering a particularly deep sermon.)
There was a time when this made me worry about what might be wrong
with my sermons. But I once happened to glance in their direction while I was chanting an Haftarah, and they were sound asleep then, too. So I realized that at least it was not my content which was responsible -- after all, the words of Isaiah are not boring -- but the sound of my voice that had such a soporific effect.
Then I began taking it as a challenge. If I couldnt wake
them up by the end of the sermon, they won and I lost. I varied my pitch; I tried long and pregnant pauses; I raised and lowered my voice. I tried everything I legally could, but rarely did I succeed in
waking them up. Only when I finished and the chazzan intoned the
Mussaf Kaddish would they bestir themselves, rise to their feet, and
But they were always gracious. After services the sleepers would
invariably tell me how much they enjoyed the sermon. I always thanked them and, in a model of self-restraint, never ever suggested to them that perhaps what they really meant was that they enjoyed their nap. One thing can be said for these folks: for them, no sermon could ever be too long.
Snoozers are good for the soul. A rabbi keeps hearing how great he is, that he is Gods gift to the Jewish people, that he is the most
learned and the wisest, and if he is not careful he begins to believe it all. A regular and reliable snoozer is an invaluable antidote. And beyond all the philosophy, over the years I developed a real affection for these folks. I knew they were sleepers, they knew that I knew, and those were the facts of life. I also knew that they made valiant efforts to stay awake. Was it their fault that my voice so tranquilized them?
A few months ago I spoke at a Jewish forum in an outlying area at least one hours drive from the shul. It was open to the public, but I
really expected no one from my synagogue to come, especially since it was a cold, rainy night. After all, my congregants can hear me any time they want to.
To my great surprise and pleasure, my members Sam and Susan Rosen were in the hallway as I came in from the parking lot. How nice of you to come, I said, but this is a long haul. You really didnt have to come out all this distance. You can hear me every week.
Sam smiled sweetly and said, We would drive to the ends of the earth to hear you, you know that.
They are very gentle and thoughtful people and I like them, but I
could not help remembering that Sam, though he attends all my classes and comes to all services, is also a cat-napper who frequently nods off when I lecture or teach. He is not as dependable as the others, but a close second.
Susan and Sam had front-row seats. Four minutes into my remarks -- surely not more -- Sams eyes began to close
slowly, surely, inexorably. Sam, not now, not after shlepping all the way out here on a rainy night, surely youre not going to fall asleep once
again. To sleep you could have stayed at home snug in your bed.
Two minutes later I glanced at him again. He was sound asleep, his
mouth agape, chin on neck, his head bobbing ever so gently up and down. And he slept soundly for the next thirty minutes. He would go to the ends of the earth to enjoy a good, solid nap.
a congregant takes revenge;
so does the rabbi
There are many ways not to listen to a sermon. Some close their
eyes. Some look at a Chumash or Mishnayos. The act that Irving
Seemans puts on during sermons is probably the best I have ever seen.
It all began some years ago when, after a number of provocations, I told him privately that his constant talking during services disturbed me and everyone around him. Who are you to tell me how to behave? was his
Well, I said, this is certainly the responsibility of the rabbi.
Not even a rabbi tells me what to do.
I realized then that I was dealing with someone who was extremely
angry at life, so I dropped the subject. Ever since that pleasant exchange he was implacably hostile, and whenever I delivered a sermon, he made his displeasure known by folding his arms across his chest, throwing his head back, and staring at the ceiling -- making it clear that he was not listening.
In time, he received his recompense. After not having spoken to me for a year, his sons forthcoming Bar Mitzvah forced him to come into my study to discuss certain study requirements. He was clearly ill at ease during the meeting. As he was leaving, he turned to me and said, You probably have been wondering why I stare at the ceiling during your sermons. I wanted you to know why I do that.
You stare at the ceiling? Really? I hadnt noticed.
You dont see me doing that during every sermon?
No. I guess Im too busy thinking about what Im going to say next.
He was completely nonplussed. Well, just forget it, he
mumbled, and left.
Nothing could have disappointed him more than the thought that I hadnt noticed.
Thank God that for every Seemans there is a Jan Gordon. For Jan I can do no wrong. Always smiling, always with an encouraging word -- I could use ten Jans in the congregation. One Shabbat morning after services he said to me, Rabbi, your sermon was terrific today. Terrific.
But Jan, I blurted out, I didnt even speak today.
Jan didnt skip a beat. Dont matter, Rabbi. You were still terrific.
The faces of people during sermons: most make a serious effort to listen, seem to hang on every word, and their faces show that they are absorbing what I am trying to get across. Some are clearly not aware of what I am saying, but make a valiant effort. Others yawn. Others glance furtively at their watches. A few look at their watches only twice: precisely when I begin, and precisely when I end. These are the timekeepers. (Last Rosh Hashanah, after having spent weeks preparing the sermon, I was eager for some reaction from somebody. No one said anything -- always an ominous sign. Finally, Joe Kramer came over to me. Rabbi, that sermon you gave today . . . Yes? I said, eagerly awaiting some vindication. It took exactly twenty-nine minutes. Not bad for a High Holiday sermon, Rabbi.)
As a group, they are an excellent audience: intelligent, responsive, expressive. The sleepers are there, yes, but they are a necessary ingredient in the audience mix. Ironically, they keep me alert.
Audiences: Emil Fackenheim, the noted
Jewish philosopher, is in town lecturing on the Holocaust. In the audience a woman glances into her mirror and daubs her mouth with bright red lipstick.
He speaks of the awesome responsibility that befalls Jews today,
now that one-third of our people have been decimated. She puckers her lips, smacks them together, rolls them in and out.
He says that each Jew must live an even more Jewish life. She puts
away her lipstick.
We must not give Hitler a posthumous victory, he cries out. She
checks her mascara.
better off without a sermon
It is good occasionally to see sermons from the laymans
point of view. Last year the president of a small local congregation -- not Orthodox -- called me just before Rosh Hashanah. Their rabbi had suddenly been taken ill and was unable to speak on the High Holidays, and one of the members had been asked to give the sermon. Could I possibly suggest a theme? I was happy that they felt close enough to me, an Orthodox rabbi, to call for help, but I was nonetheless uncomfortable about the whole matter.
Well, I said, repentance is certainly the overall theme for the High Holidays. By the way, what are this gentlemans qualifications for delivering a sermon on Rosh Hashanah?
He gives seminars on public speaking. He is really very good.
Yes, but what are his qualifications to speak on a religious theme to a Jewish congregation at the holiest time of the year? I was
unable to hide my annoyance.
Well, to tell the truth, he probably doesnt have any special qualifications of that sort.
Then what good would a theme be to him if he has no religious qualifications or background?
Well, he could read up on it.
My annoyance flowed over. I said to him, What would you think of me if I were to prepare a talk on atomic physics, and though I have no backgound at all in it, I read up on it in a few days?
Well, you have a point, but they still want him to do it because they have no choice. Theyre stuck without a speaker.
They would be better off if no one spoke at all. Let them take the time normally devoted to the sermon and sit quietly and pray by themselves, or study the Torah reading together, or meditate a bit about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, or about God, or about our purpose in this world. That would be much more worthwhile than listening to a sermon from someone who really doesnt know his subject.
Not have a sermon at all? How can you have a service without a sermon?
I informed him that it is perfectly acceptable and proper to have a Jewish religious service without a sermon. Please think about this, I said. Rather than have a sermon delivered by someone who is totally unaware of anything Jewish, your congregation is better off without a sermon at all.
There was dead silence on the other end of the phone. Then he said to me: With all due respect to you, sir, are you absolutely sure about that? In my entire life I have never heard of a Jewish service without a sermon.
So Christianized have we become in our thinking that my comments
impressed this gentleman as some kind of radical deviation. I received the same reaction some time ago when I told a fellow Jew that the major service of the Jewish week is not on Friday night but Saturday morning. In his congregation this was unheard of, since they can get no attendance on Shabbat morning and therefore, like most non-Orthodox congregations, emphasize late Friday-night services.
I heard after Rosh Hashanah that this congregation really enjoyed the sermon given to them by one of their laymen. His theme?
The painful lesson of all this is that for many laymen the sermon is a part of the religious performance, and the fact that it takes place is more important than what is said. In their eyes, a rabbi is one who is trained to give the sermon; otherwise, there is no qualitative difference between a rabbi and a layman. In fact, when a layman reads up on subjects like repentance, he, too, can deliver sermons. Overnight,
he is a rabbi.
he means them; he means me
There are two kinds of listeners: those who feel that nothing you
say applies to them personally, and those who feel that everything you say applies to them personally.
An example of the first type surfaced when I spoke on the subject
of sinat hinam, causeless hatred, disliking people for no apparent reason, and the habit of ascribing evil motives and making negative assumptions about the things they do. I tied it in with the conflict between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph assumed that their actions were evil when they were not; the brothers could not see beneath the exterior surface of Joseph and assumed that his motives were evil as well. After the sermon, several people said to me: The people who needed to hear it were not here.
Its humbling to see the kind of impact my sermons make.
Rachel Markowitz was type II; she took to heart every remark I
ever made. If I spoke of spiritual incompetence, she was certain I was referring to her, felt that she deserved to be chastised, knew that everything I was saying about her was absolutely true, and would go into spiritual depression for a week.
If I discussed Jewish ignorance, she knew I was talking about her. Gossip? Intellectual dishonesty? Carelessness about ones Jewishness? The
need to give more tzedakah and to be more concerned with our fellow human beings? Yes, Rabbi, you really opened my eyes to myself today. You are absolutely right. Those are my greatest weaknesses. I hope Im not a
The fact is that I never ever had Rachel in mind. She was not a
gossip, she was the epitome of consideration and kindness, she attended all my classes and was a good student, was serious about growing steadily as a Jewess, and instilled all these things in her family.