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Experience the High Holidays ALL year round

Photo Credit: Samson Seliason-www.flickr.com

 My friend and colleague, the late Rabbi Julius Goldberg, loved to tell this true story. Following Rosh Hashanah services one year, he was hospitalized with severe back pain. His doctors told him that he would have to miss Yom Kippur services in his synagogue. That was not going to happen, he decided. All drugged up, he made it to the synagogue and managed to deliver a Yom Kippur sermon. "Rabbi, that was the greatest sermon I have ever heard," one congregant told him. Another said that he had never been so moved by a sermon in all his life. "And you know what," Rabbi Goldberg would continue, "I have no idea what I said."

Most rabbis, however, do. In the Diaspora, the High Holidays are the one time of the year when Jews in their numbers come to shul. It is the rabbi's best chance to reach the marginally involved. Consequently, rabbis work very hard on their High Holiday sermons. I miss hearing that style of sermon. In our local shul, in Givat Shmuel, there are no sermons at all. And so, I had the idea to turn to YouTube and there I found a treasure trove, enough High Holiday sermons to last me all year long. I'd like to tell you about three of them. (As an aside, Reform rabbis record their sermons in real time; Orthodox and Conservative rabbis either prerecord them or offer a taste of what their sermons will be.)

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, a Reform rabbi from Temple Israel, Minneapolis, Minnesota, spoke to her congregation about her father who had recently died. He was a remarkable man, she said, but even a more remarkable father. The topic of her sermon was what he taught her. The point of her sermon was that he taught her more about making a life than making a living.

Rabbi Mark Bloom, a Conservative rabbi from Temple Beth Abraham, Oakland, California, in a preview of his High Holiday sermon, said that he would speak on the concept Hineini"Here I am." In the Bible, Hineini is usually a response to hearing God's call. Christian clergy, the rabbi continued, often say that they hear this call literally, and once a Christian colleague asked him when he had heard it for the first time. The rabbi fell silent. At first, he couldn't answer, and he had to think long and hard to respond. I would have liked to hear the rabbi's response, but Rabbi Bloom only recorded this small taste of his sermon, not the whole sermon itself. But I do know of a rabbi who told me that he first heard the call while at graduate school studying psychology and wasn't enjoying the competitive academic atmosphere. One day, he saw the local Conservative rabbi walking along the street engaged in a warm conversation with an elderly congregant. I would like to live my life like that, he thought; that would make my life worth living. It was God's call that he heard, and that was his Hineini. He applied and was admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America rabbinical school.

Rabbi Steven Saks, a modern Orthodox rabbi from congregation Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth, Wilmington, Delaware, previewed his High Holiday sermon on the Al chet confessional prayers. He began, "For the sin which we have committed before You b'oness "under duress." Moses, he explained, sinned under duress; because of the Israelites' constant complaints, he struck the rock in anger, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. The punishment was that Moses would not enter the Holy Land. Most commentators explain the severity of the punishment as God's way of imposing the highest standards of religious behavior on all Jews, beginning with their leaders. Rabbi Saks offers an alternative explanation. It was because Moses never looked within, never internalized his sin, never asked for God's forgiveness, never did tshuva, that he was so severely punished. That explanation resonates within me and is consistent with the Torah text.

Rabbi Saks then considered, "For the sin which we have committed before You b'dibbur peh "in speech." "Let me give you an example," he continued. And then my computer fell silent. I thought it had frozen or there was something wrong with my earphones. But after a few seconds, the rabbi's voice returned. "That was an example of sinning in speech," the rabbi explained, "or more accurately, the absence of speech. Giving someone the silent treatment is a form of sinning in speech." What a marvelous insight. There are so many people who have stopped speaking to relatives and former friends; that, too, requires repentance.

Finally, the rabbi considered, "For the sin which we have committed before You b'tsumet yad "in reaching out with our hands." This is usually understood as grabbing what is not ours, but the rabbi offered an alternative explanation. He told his own personal story; how his wife had suffered a miscarriage and they decided to keep it from the congregation. They did not want the congregation's sympathy. And how wrong they had been, for once the congregation learned of it, they "reached out with their hands" but this time in compassion. The sin of the outstretched hand, the rabbi continued, can be the sin of not accepting the outstretched hands of others wanting to be of comfort. That interpretation moved me too.

There are many sermon texts available on the Internet, but a sermon is composed to be heard. YouTube (Rabbi's sermons) allows you to experience the sermon as delivered by its author. The sermons, although written specifically for the High Holidays, bear messages that are valid all year round. Via YouTube, we can experience those uplifting messages whenever we want.

 

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Sunday, 16 June 2024

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