HIGH HOLIDAYS FEATURE
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Is your idea of the perfect Yom Kippur sermon short, really short, like a Twitter max of 140 characters short?
OK, here goes: Yom Kippur is about R+P+TZ.
To decode, have a listen:
On Yom Kippur, as you settle back into your pew or seat, the rabbi walks up to the reader’s table. The couple in front of you is chatting, someone’s cell phone rings. Yes, it’s that time of year again — time for the sermon.
For many, this is our one pilgrimage to the synagogue and our rabbi knows it. Difficult as it may seem, in the 30 or so minutes he or she speaks, it will be the one shot at reaching you.
All pass before the rabbi’s voice today, one by one, like a flock of sheep. But most of us don’t see ourselves as a flock of anything and could do without the sheep reference, thank you.
When we go to the game, before the first pitch we prepare, perusing the scorecard. Yet for Yom Kippur services there is no preparation; we go in cold. The rabbi winds up — and we aren’t ready for the first pitch.
Listening is a skill, and some of us clearly are out of practice. Others are overtaken by worldly events, and still others are newbies to the whole experience.
So how do we turn, make teshuvah, toward becoming a good audience, good listeners, fully present partakers of rabbinic thought?
Can we look to our “we have paid, so we shall listen” relationship at the concert or lecture hall as a model? Or does being a good listener in the synagogue call for a longer, more complex take on our souls and attention spans?
The Shema begins “Hear O’ Israel” — so what about it? That man or woman up there looking out over their largest congregation of the year is simply asking us before the last shofar blast “to hear.”
How do the rabbis ask? Some do it by teaching, others by coaxing. Some take off the gloves and start punching. All are trying to take us to another level of understanding.
Some sermons are easy listening, anecdotal, drawing on personal experience to draw you in. Others are in your face. A rabbi friend of mine once gave a sermon telling his congregants they should turn off the TV — for good.
For many listeners, the sermon is the only part of the service that we actually understand. That being, the red eye of the critic, is immediately turned on. A voice begins to ask, “Didn’t I hear something like this a few years ago?” Or, “Why does the rabbi always have to talk about politics?”
The beginning of Jewish homiletics, of preaching to an assembly, goes back to the Torah itself, to the speeches Moses makes to Israel in Deuteronomy.
A longtime Torah-centered exegetical form, the modern sermon now covers a broad range of expository styles, sources and topics, from the Jewish response to Darfur and oppression to our response of who atones for the sins of Bernard Madoff.
A sermon on Shabbat or even Rosh Hashanah is a modern invention. Rabbis traditionally only gave a sermon twice a year — on Shabbat HaGadol, before Passover, and on Shabbat Shuvah, before Yom Kippur.
Due to where I daven, I have experienced the Yom Kippur sermon both as a giver and as a receiver. At the minyan I attend, members are chosen to give a 15-minute High Holy Days drash. Another 15 minutes is left for discussion.
After giving a few, and listening to many more, talking is easier. Though the liturgy and nusach of the day beg us to listen, it’s a difficult task.
The Talmud tells us “the day is short and the task is great.” Perhaps on the day when long lists of wrongs are acknowledged, it’s time to stop sending short and start receiving long.
It’s already a difficult day with fasting and Yizkor, and struggles with intention. So as an aid to help awaken your listening skills and sermon focus, try these:
* On Kol Nidre, turn off all your stuff: pagers, cell phones. Stop texting, Twittering. Go long.
During the sermon, follow the discourse. Many rabbis will tie their thoughts to a particular point in the Torah reading or prayers. It’s a wonderful tradition requiring leaps from one thought to the next. Open your book and leap with them.
* Are you like the infamous student who asks Hillel to explain the Torah while he stands on one foot? Relax. Breathe deeply. Today, stand on two feet. Remember, this is as important to the rabbi as it is to you. This is not a college lecture or political speech. It’s about you.
* Be present; no racing minds allowed. On a day when the cantor chants “Hineni,” “Here I am,” You be “here,” too.
* Lastly, listen to the sermon as if you were going to tell someone about it at the break fast. Soak up the detail and the tam, the flavor.
As to the code: Yom Kippur is about Repentance, Prayer and TZedakah.
Thanks for listening.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.)