Homiletics is the art of composing and preaching
sermons. We name babies and sermons to give them identity and significance.
(Unnamed sermons are harder to file.)
According to Marc Saperstein, "...the sermon is by its nature intended for the
Jewish community as a whole. Sermons therefore reflect not only the beliefs of
the preacher, but the preacher's assessment of his congregation's theological
sophistication, receptivity, and needs."
As we approach 5771, rabbis will be examining the events of the past year and
deciding upon the topics for the High Holidays.
Rabbi Edward Feinstein said  that he wants to make something clear: "It's
not about the anecdotes or the jokes or the witty stories. The art of giving a
sermon is to say something important. It's not about entertaining," says
Feinstein, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA. "I want to say something
that will change the way people think and act and what they value, and bring
people closer to the source of the meaning of life."
Alexander Alan Steinbach said, "He who would master the art of preaching usually
selects an authentic text and treats it as a musician handles notes, as a
painter deals with colors, as a sculptor with marble. In Judaism there is no
paucity of sources for challenging texts..."
This year, everything is a "krizis" (crisis): the economy, BP's "eyl"
(oil) spill, rabbis arrested for selling kidneys on the black market, Bernie
Madoff, and the Helen Thomas scandals. Then there's "der bizoyen" (the
disgrace) when a federal judge in Iowa announced a prison sentence of 27 years
on financial fraud charges for Sholom Rubashkin, the former manager of a kosher
meatpacking "fabrik" (plant) where "hunderts" of illegal immigrant
workers were arrested in a raid that caught national attention.
This "yor," will we be hearing about Rabbi Marc Gellman ("The God
Squad"), or Rabbi Barry Dove Schwartz, who has been the spiritual leader of
B'nai Sholom, in Rockville Centre, NY, for 37 years? He recently retired, and
shared the story of his inaugural High Holidays in August of 1973. He had to
throw out his sermon and spoke extemporaneously because Israel had been attacked
in what became known as the Yom Kippur War.
Many Long Island rabbis will no doubt discuss David Nessenoff, rabbi of Temple
Beth Sholom of Smithtown. He made headlines recently when he inadvertently
exposed veteran American journalist, Helen Thomas' virulently anti-Israel views.
Some members of the clergy will discuss Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig's 1990 sermon
titled, "God Is a Woman and She Is Growing Older," portraying the deity as a
loving if long-suffering mother who wonders why you haven't called.
I particularly enjoyed reading these lines from her sermon:
In a single glance she sees our birth
and our death and all the years in
between. She sees us as we were when
we were young:
when we idolized her and trustingly
followed her anywhere, when our
scrapes and bruises healed quickly,
when we were filled with wonder at all
things new. She sees us when we were
young, when we thought that there
was nothing we could not do.
She sees our middle years too: when
our energy was unlimited. When we
kept house, cooked and cleaned, cared
for children, worked and volunteered--
when everyone needed us and we had no
time for sleep.
And God sees us in our later years: when
we no longer felt so needed; when chaos
disrupted the bodily rhythms we had
learned to rely upon. She sees us sleeping
alone in a room which once slept two.
Will your rabbi discuss Chelsea Clinton's
forthcoming marriage [July 31] to Marc Mezvinsky? Or, will he/she discuss Ari
Fleischer's comment that rather than demand Helen Thomas' dismissal, we ought to
send her a thank-you note. For years her animus toward the Jewish state could be
read quite clearly between the lines of her columns. Now she's admitted it by
using the old Go Back Where You Came From ploy against Israel's Jews.
(Ms. Thomas resigned!)
Perhaps your rabbi will discuss Mike Huckabee, the host of a Fox News show, who
went to the Wailing Wall this year. (This is his 14th trip to Israel.) According
to Ariel Levy, Huckabee has defended the Israeli attack on a Turkish flotilla
headed for Gaza. Wearing a yarmulke, Huckabee joked, "I think I should convert.
This covers my bald spot completely."
Should rabbis remind us that more than 40 countries struck an agreement in
Prague on returning Jewish real estate stolen by the Nazi's before and after
World War II? And should we hear about the beautiful "9/11 Living Memorial" in
the Jerusalem Hills?
Perhaps your rabbi's sermon will discuss Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's meeting with
Pope Benedict XVI. Shmuley encouraged parents to eat dinner with their children
as a way for the Vatican to re-establish its pro-family image, which has been
battered by the priest sex abuse "skandal." Boteach pitched Pope Benedict
on his family dinner initiative called "Turn Friday Night into Family Night."
On a humorous note, will your rabbi discuss Atlanta-journalist, Jeffrey
Goldberg, who was asked by the New York Times editors to replace the word "tuchus"
with a 'more elegant' word? On his blog, Goldberg wrote a list of words of
Jewish origin that he promised NOT to use in the New York Times. They included
putz, mamzer, shlong, shtup, knish and shvantz. "Knish?" What's
wrong with that "vort"?
Many rabbis will discuss the Orthodox Jewish boxer, Yuri Foreman. Foreman is not
just Orthodox, he is pursuing rabbinical studies at a Brooklyn yeshiva, and like
any observant Jew, won't work on Shabbat. He remained in his hotel until
the sun set and the Sabbath departs and only then did he head to Yankee Stadium
for the first-ever boxing match there.
Personally, I'd like to see some rabbis discuss Judy Gruen's article titled,
"Epidermis Epidemic." Ms. Gruen asks why there is a lack of coverage of clothing
on people's bodies out in public. I love when she writes, "Even Adam and Eve
realized post-haste that when going out to the annual shul fundraising
banquet, the invitations did not say 'Fig Leaves Optional.'" She adds that "The
Almighty is clearly a strong supporter of people wearing clothes in public, and
He prefers that we wear enough material to keep what was supposed to be private,
In conclusion, one of my favorite Yizkor sermons was given by Rabbi
Samuel M. Cohon, Temle Emanu-El of Tucson, AZ, in 5769. It was titled, "The
As my wife Wendy will confirm, I often get calls at odd hours. A grandson who
can't reach his Bubbie at 10 PM on a Friday night. A car accident at
midnight. A death at 2 AM. It is part of the experience of being a
congregational rabbi, these desperate calls at strange times, voices filled with
worry or pain or confusion or sadness.
One Saturday morning recently was a little different. I was preparing to go to
shul to lead services and a Tish, just tying my tie to head out
the door, looking forward to normal Shabbat morning and afternoon when
the call came in. "My mother-in-law is in hospice care and she doesn't have long
to live. Would you say a prayer for her? No need to come over, rabbi, we know
how busy you are."
So of course, still hoping to make it to services on time, I rushed right over
to the new TMC Hospice, where I had been only once or twice before. I was in a
hurry now, with just 20 minutes to make the hospice visit and make it to Temple
Emanu-El for services, easily a 15 minute drive from there.
My odds weren't great, but I am at heart an optimist, and I zoomed into the
hospice, rabbi's manual in hand. I called out to the front desk for the room
number, which she graciously gave me and asked if I needed someone to show me
the way. But I was in a hurry, and declined while still in full stride, rushing
off towards the hospice room.
When I entered I found a comatose older woman with no family present. I
approached, chanted a heartfelt Mi Shebeirach, and then the vidui,
the final confessional prayer. I paused for a moment at the bed, and as I
quietly got up to leave a hospice worker came in.
"Rabbi," she said. "That was very beautiful. What nice prayers. But she's not
Jewish--I think the room you want is across the hall."
You know, I have never told that story to anyone publicly before. I guess Yom
Kippur is a time for public confession, no?
In fact, no prayers are really offered in vain, are they? So doing the final
confessional for someone who is not Jewish certainly can't hurt. And confusion
of identities can be considered a kind of gift; you know that old Irish proverb?
"May you be in heaven a half an hour before the devil knows you are dead."
Perhaps I helped someone out with that...
At the hospice, by the way, I eventually found the right room, and tried to
help, through prayer and presence. But I thought about that moment in preparing
for Yizkor on Yom Kippur, for this is the day when we combine confessions
of sin with a focused remembrance of those we love who have died in years past
as well. Perhaps, sometimes, like in that hospice room we are similarly
For when we remember those we love who have died--our parents, our grandparents,
our brothers and sisters, our wives or husbands, our sons or daughters or
grandsons or granddaughters--we typically focus on what we have lost. We are sad
because, mostly, we know we won't see them again. We think about how badly we
feel. We miss them. From Yizkor services we often take only sadness,
albeit cathartic sadness.
Perhaps we, too, are in the wrong room.
For what those we love who have died can teach us is much more important than a
good cry. It is far more powerful than a sense of loss. It is greater than the
hollow feeling of remembering what we used to have and don't anymore.
What our dead can teach us is quite different.
Take a moment, now, and think about someone you have lost, among your family and
friends, whom you loved and still love. And now remember one gift they gave you,
one lovely memory, one story that makes you smile, one generous act that made
your life better. Remember how they made you feel, what they taught you about
making a difference in this world.
Just sit and remember the sweetness they brought you.
The real lesson our dead teach us is that we, too, can influence this world in
good, sweet, and holy ways. We each have the capacity to make a small difference
in the lives of those around us. We can each bring blessings into our world.
We, too, can create the kind of sustaining memories that become sacred--and that
help us to serve God, and our people, and this troubled world. The memories we
need to take from Yizkor are the memories that inspire us to be better
That is the right room.
May this Yizkor service bring to life those holy memories, and inspire
us, in this coming year, to create our own memories of blessing and generosity
for all of those we love.
Thank you, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon.
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of a new book titled, "Yiddish for Dog &
Cat Lovers." To order,
19 Market Dr.
Syosset, NY 11791
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