Friends, these are scary days, truly days of fear. I’m not talking about all the scary things that are happening out there in the world. I’m talking a very limited yet very real fear -the fear that strikes most rabbis around now, a month before the High Holidays. Yes see, the Hebrew month of Elul began this past week, and as it began, there was a worldwide rise in rabbinic blood pressure as we faced the fact that looming ahead at the end of the month are the highest of holidays.
Yamim Noraim, that what these days are called in Hebrew. Yamim Noraim. It translates as Days of Awe, or more literally, Awesome Days. But awe or awesome are not the only meanings of the adjective noraim. Norah, plural noraim, is related to the word yirah which means awe, reverence, andrespect. But it also means fear. That is why the Days of Awe will begin on Rosh Hashanah for congregants, while the Yamim Noraim, days of fear, began last week for pulpit rabbis, many of whom are truly anxious about having to write and deliver all those High Holy Day Sermons.
Rarely do we rabbis go by a summer without a particular cloud of anxiety hanging over our heads, the cloud being called “sermons.” Whether in the study or at a ball game or playing with the kids, we can’t escape thinking about what needs to be said, what needs to be heard, and how do we say what we need to say in a way that it will be heard? Our Christian colleagues also have to prepare sermons for the two holidays when there are the highest expectations and highest numbers of minds to reach and hearts to move, but they have it easier. They can’t imagine having to preach Christmas sermons one day and Eater sermons 10 days later.
Rabbinic fear comes from different sources. A great fear for many rabbis, especially in the first years of being in a new congregation, is the fear of losing their jobs because of inadequate performance. This is fear which seasoned rabbis usually don’t have to worry about and which interim rabbis never have to worry about. Many rabbis are afraid of offending people; many are not. But all pulpit rabbis tremble before what I think is – or at least should be – the greatest fear of all. The greatest fear is coming to the pulpit and saying nothing of significance. The fear of insignificance, that is huge and that is deep.
Writing a sermon of significance, worthy of these awful days, is not easy. Like the creation of other forms of art – and I do think that sermon writing is an art – writing sermons takes both inspiration and perspiration, time and study and work and deep reflection. What do I need to say? What do they need to hear? What do I need to hear? For though it may not seem like it, a surprising number of the sermons we give are ultimately autobiographical. You would be surprised at how many sermons are written to gain clarity, insight and inspiration about life’s issues with which we ourselves are struggling. In some of my darkest hours, my sermons were about resiliency and hope, enabling me to preach messages that I needed to hear.
A sermon well written can have a life of its own beyond the life of the rabbi who gives it. The messages we give can be preserved in books or on websites. But if they are indeed worthy, they can have enduring significance through the lives of those whose minds have been challenged, whose hearts have been influenced and whose actions have been changed. That’s why I think writing sermons is awesome!
But my message tonight is not about me or about rabbinic fear during this month. It’s about you. You see, Elul is the month that bids us all to be ready for the process of teshuvah, of turning, that we talk about on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And friends, personal transformation does not happen in a span of ten days. We have gotten used to getting what we want quickly. We have instant messaging and instant coffee and instant rice – you can even get instant cholent! But there is no such thing as instant repentance. Just like the writing of a sermon for the holidays, turning and personal growth take time, study, deep thought, critical thinking, and self-evaluation; and these things are rarely accomplished during days when our minds are concerned with being on time to get a good seat, about parking lots and tickets, about whether or not we like the music or the messages, or if we have enough bagels for break fast.
That’s why the time before the holidays, the month of Elul, is not just prep times for rabbis, it is prep time for us all. We need time to examine our lives, to do the work it takes to hold the moral mirror up to our deeds. None of us do wrong intentionally or maliciously. OK, so some of us do, but most of us do wrong inadvertently and without even knowing what we have done or the negative consequence of our actions. The hurtful word spoken in anger, impatience, or in jest. The kind word that remains unspoken The person slighted or ignored. Corners cut. Responsibilities sloughed off. The constant prioritizing of self over others and its mirror, constantly prioritizing others over self. This month is the time to bring from the background to the foreground the things we did that we should not have and the things we did not do that we should have, reflect on them, and take responsibility for them.
So in a sense, Elul is a time when we all should be writing sermons. We all should be composing sermons born of self-reflection, of looking back with regret and of looking forward with hope and trust in our ability to grow as persons. These are the sermons that we need to write because we ourselves need to hear them.
In a sense, you are already writing sermons, not just during the awesome days but during the ordinary days as well. For in the final analysis, we write a sermon each day of our lives; for each day communicates to ourselves, to others, and to God about who we are, what are values are, what is important to us. Our lives, are sermons which, for good or bad, will continue to live after us through the immortality of our influence. Whether our lives preach mundane sermons of perspiration without inspiration, or are truly works of art, deserving of admiration and worthy of emulation, that is the challenge before us every month but especially this month.
So I invite you to be fearful too – fearful of complacency, fearful of routine, fearful of never being more than you have been, fearful of not making a difference. And let the fear of insignificance inspire lives of awe.