What Sermons are You Writing this Month?

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.

Why do bad things happen to Holy Temples?

This week’s Haftarah reading: Jeremiah 2: 4-28, 3:4,  4:1-2.

In addition to the portion from the Torah which is read on this Shabbat in synagogues around the world, there is also a Haftarah (additional reading) chosen from the Nevi-im (books of prophets), the second section of the TANACH (Hebrew Bible). Usually there is a connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion, but the Haftarah can also be determined by other events in the Jewish calendar. Such is the case with this week’s Haftarah portion. This portion is the second of three “Haftarot of rebuke” read on the three Shabbatot just prior to Tisha b’Av. Tisha b’Av is the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which tradition tells us that both of the Holy Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

Unlike many of us, the Biblical prophets and early Rabbinic Sages believed that God controlled history and that history was all about us. According to the Prophets of the age, the first Temple was destroyed, not because of the geo-political forces of the day or because the God of Israel lost a heavenly battle with the gods of Babylon. No, the destruction of the Temple was ordained by God as a punishment for having forsaken God and worshiped idols, ascribing infinite power and value to finite objects As Jeremiah rebukes and laments in this Haftarah,

They say to the wood, “You are my father,” and to the stone, “You bore us,” for they turned to Me their back and not their face, and at the time of their misfortune they say, “Arise and save us… ” Now where are your gods that you have made for yourself? Let them get up if they will save you at the time of your misfortune, for as many as your cities were your gods, O Judea.
(Jeremiah 2: 27-28)

In choosing readings such as these to precede our Jewish day of national and spiritual disaster, the Rabbis expressed their fundamental understanding that “mipnay chatataynu galeenu may-artzaynu – because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” The first Temple was destroyed, they believed, as a punishment for the sin of idolatry.

But why was the second Temple destroyed? The Jewish people had long ago forsaken idols and lived more of a life devoted to God and Torah. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the Rabbis believed that the sin which brought down the Temple again was sinat chinam – baseless hatred, Jew against fellow Jew. They told the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza which illustrated how enmity between individuals, miscommunication, unforgiving stances, the public embarrassment of others, grudge-holding and revenge-taking combined to bring down the Temple.

The Rabbis of the time also played a part by not speaking up when they should have and by being unwilling to compromise principle for the sake of the community.  All in all, the Temple fell because our hearts became hardened and our anger for past wrongs was expressed in hurtful ways.

What are we to learn from all this? We learn that what keeps our “Temples” (synagogues, churches, communities, homes) standing strong is our ability to share our differing thoughts and feelings, even on matters about which we feel strongly, with open minds and receptive hearts, to disagree without being disagreeable, to understand the principled positions behind the personal passions of others, and, perhaps most importantly, to allow our higher selves to forgive.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don

Gaza 2014: Complexity Without Confusion

Israel: Complexity without Confusion
Rosh Hashanah 5775
September 24, 2014
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

Friends, I have to tell you, this has been a very emotional summer for Fran and me.  One of the high points – aside from visiting our daughter Ilana in her new home in Minneapolis – was the amazing Temple trip to Israel in June and July, 38 pilgrims strong. We had the greatest time as traveled from Jerusalem to the Galilee and Golan, Tel Aviv, Masada and the Dead Sea. We learned about the impressive innovations coming out of the Technion Institute. Before a panoramic view of Jerusalem, we shared incredibly moving moments as Zoe Jacobs and Jordan Handler became B’nai mitzvah. Continue reading

Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten List of Torah Truths (Part II) Yom Kippur 5775

Last week, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I shared with you a question that I often ask of Bar/Bat Mitzvah parents as I prepare them for that moment when they pass the Torah down to their child. Thinking of the place where they are standing as Mt. Sinai, I ask them, “What is YOUR Torah? What are your truths that you want to pass on to the next generation?” Then, by way of encapsulating in our final year together what I have tried to pass on to you during our 24 plus years, I began to summarize MY Torah, the most important Jewish lessons and ways of looking at life that I have shared from this pulpit. I came up with Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten List of Torah Truths, the first five of which I presented last week, the last five of which I will share this morning. Continue reading

Remarks made at the 9/11 Commemoration Program at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown, NJ

[These were the closing remarks at the program on September 11, 2011, at the Community Theater. They followed a performance by Mark Conklin of the song he wrote in 2001 entitled “September 12.”]

September 12, 2011

And so, friends, what is our “take-away?” What is it that we will take away from all this?  What is it that we have learned from this day, and from that day and from the ten years in between? There were so many truths revealed on September 12, 2001. What was it that we learned or relearned then, but have since forgotten? What did we learn then that we have to remember again, starting tomorrow, September 12, 2011?

We learned how very much we owe to those who serve and protect and fight and die on far-off shores so that we can sit under our vines and our fig trees and not be afraid.

We learned then that when fanatics tell you what they are going to do, we need to believe them.

We learned once more that the unthinkable is doable.

We learned that that which is of steel and concrete can be replaced, but which is of flesh and blood and spirit and soul cannot.

We learned then the horrifying depth of evil to which some can sink when they think God loves me but hates you – for only I have the truth.

And we learned the incredible degree of goodness and self-sacrifice to which some can rise when they put the other before the self, and when they practice faith without fanaticism.

We learned then and have seen more and more each day since then that what happens to them, there, will shortly happen to us, here; for the distance between there and here, between them and us, between you and me, has shrunk beyond measure.

We learned then that what unites us is more powerful than what divides us – and that what unites us and defines us as Americans is not an historic connection to a particular piece of land on this planet, not a single ethnicity nor or a single religion, but a singular commitment to an ideal: those truths we hold to be inalienable.

And we have learned once again that love bridges the gap between this world and the next, between now and eternity, for as ancient teachings tell us, love is stronger than death.

We learned that because some did and gave so much, we can do more and give more than we ever thought we could. And that is what defines a hero: someone whose example raises our sights and that which we expect of ourselves.

We learned that saying the word “they” brings us down, and saying the word “we” elevates us to the highest; for when we see our face in the face of the other – regardless of how different that face may be – when we see our face in the face of the other, the face we see is the face of the Divine!