The Art of Sermons
It is stated of Moses that after the sin of the golden calf, he prayed for forty days and forty nights. The midrash (quoted in Berachot 34b) relates:
Once there was one who went down before the lectern in the presence of R. Eliezer, and he was extremely drawn-out (in his prayer). The disciples said to R. Eliezer: What a long-winded one is he! He said to them: Is he more drawn-out than Moshe, about whom it is written, “forty days and forty nights”?
Another time one of the disciples went down before the lectern in the presence of R. Eliezer and he was excessively terse. The disciples said to him: What a shorted-winded one is he! He said to them: Is he more terse than Moshe, who said, “Merciful God, please cure her”? [referring to Moses’ prayer for his sister Miriam]. (Yalkut Shimoni 742).
First of all, I would love to have R. Eliezer as an active member of my congregation (assuming he would consider a Conservative Synagogue). But what I have learned throughout the years, (and it did not come easily), is that R. Eliezer’s disciples are in every congregation in the universe. You must focus more on R. Eliezer and not on his disciples (and hopefully you have merited the respect of R. Eliezer).
The second most important thing I have learned is striving for perfection but knowing I will never reach it. The paradox of life is just that. There are times I may appear long-winded (which I hope is far and few between) and there are times I may appear excessively terse (which in my congregation is commendable). I remember one of the famous sayings of the late Sophie Tucker. She would quip: “Always leave ’em wanting more!”
The bottom line is that whether I am long-winded or excessively terse, as long as I remember before Whom I stand, I will probably be on the right track.
It is difficult being a rabbi, it really is. You put your heart and soul into a promising youngster and he or she does well on the day of the Bar or Bat Mitsvah, and then drops out. How do you then muster up the spirit with which to begin over again with another child? How do you do that over and over again without becoming discouraged?
How can you feel when you work hard on a sermon or a class and only a handful of people show up? How can you feel when you look out and see that only the faithful few have come? I have no easy answer to this question, but I do have a word of Torah and a story to share with you that speak to this question.
The word of Torah you know already. When Cain kills Abel and hides the body, God calls to him and says: where is Abel, your brother? And Cain answers: Am I my brother’s keeper? And God says: kol dimey achicha tsoakim alay min ha adamah—the BLOODS of your brother are shreiking out to Me from the earth. The Sages of the Midrash notice this word: bloods, and they explain it this way: whenever you kill a human being, you also kill an entire life. You kill all the potential people to whom this person might have given birth.
That is the midrash. Now listen to this story , which is based on that midrash:
Back in the l930s and 40s, there was a teacher named Rabbi Shlomo Hyman who taught at Yeshiva Torah V’daas. Rabbi Hyman was known for the enthusiasm with which he gave every shir. He would throw himself into each lesson and would be drenched with perspiration when the class was over. Once there was a blizzard and very few students showed up for class. And yet, Rabbi Hyman gave the shiur with the same energy, with the same total involvement, that he did when there were a hundred students there. The three or four students who were there were kind of embarrassed, and so they said to him, as tactully as they could: Perhaps the Rebbe would like to shorten the class today, since there are so few students. If you do, we won’t mind.
Rabbi Hyman shook them off and insisted on giving the entire shiur and on doing it with the same passion that he did when there were many students present. And this is how he explained why he did it:
He said to them: Do you remember the midrash that says that when you kill someone, you don’t just kill that person. You also kill all of the potential people to whom that person might have given birth. In the same way, I believe that when I teach you, I don’t just teach you. I teach all those people whom you may someday teach. I don’t consider this a class of just a few students. There is no way of knowing how many people my words will someday reach–through you.
I share this word of Torah with you and with myself because it gives us some perspective on the work that we do. We rabbis have no way of knowing when or where our words may take root. We have no way of knowing when the words that we teach to a small class or even to one student may someday make a difference in their lives or even in the lives of those whom they someday reach. Our words have more power than we know.
[Editor’s Note: It is hard to believe this was written almost forty years ago. This is, of course, presented to non-subscribers of The American Rabbi.]
The clergy have at all times complained of the listlessness, indifference and impatience which their parishioners indicate by failure to attend services regularly. Rabbis are no less aware of this condition. A recent survey indicated that little more than one-fourth of the Jews of America attend temple or synagogue with any degree of frequency.
Many social, economic, and in Judaism, cultural demands and habits produce this indifference, though by no means is it necessarily connected with infidelity. I am afraid it must, in some degree, be attributed to the dullness of preaching, the repetition of content and the low state of pulpit technique.
Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a trend among some rabbis to consider eloquence and fervor unsophisticated, preferring to emulate the voice of the commentator, the style of the journalist and the approach of a discussion leader. Emotion and color diluted beyond a certain point is the parent of platitude. By attempting to be casual (which for some preachers has become a synonym for intellectualism) we have thinned our house of worship and driven away those fluctuating, lukewarm worshippers who will always outnumber the zealous and devout, and whom it should be our first object to animate, allure and retain.
Because preaching has become a by-word for dull conversation, whoever implies in spoken expression the absence of everything agreeable and inviting, calls it a sermon. One reason for this is the sameness of choice of subjects. Another is the choice of bad titles for good subjects. There ought to be as much effort and imagination put into the announcement as in the pronouncement.
The average rabbi is allowed approximately 30 hours every year, not including holidays and Sabbath a a morning discourses, for the pulpit message to his congregation. I cannot help thinking this short time might better be employed on practical subjects that explain and enforce the conduct and action which the spirit of Judaism requires and which worldly happiness recommends. These should be interspersed with elevating themes couched in language that deliberately establishes nothing more than a mood and atmosphere to stir the heart and comfort the spirit.
Critical explanations of difficult passages of Scriptures, academic studies, historical surveys do well for adult study groups and classes, in recent years a necessary and vital part of our congregational programs, but are ungenial to the taste of a general audience of worshippers. Study and learning have, indeed, always been of the highest importance in Judaism; but, God forbid, it should be necessary to be a scholar in order to pray to the Lord.
If Judaism is “a way of life,” if it concerns itself with our present needs as well as our post-mortem future, how can any problem of life be considered foreign to our sacred religion? Has our Torah forbidden justice, proscribed mercy, isolated politics, refrained from social action, avoided domestic happiness, discouraged personal adjustment? The sublime motives for their cultivation we derive, of course, from Divine Revelation, but our temporal needs give solidity to our spiritual elevation. Why then, in our preaching, should we not fix piety upon interest?
Too frequently, the language of sermons is trite, evinced by constant repetition of the same Scriptural phrases and undebatable cliches.
To the list of reasons for the unpopularity of sermons might be added the ungraceful manner in which they are often delivered. Some very good things can be done in a very bad way.
To cling to the sides of the pulpit with either hand (for some preachers, these sides represent the horns of a dilemma); to keep the eyes riveted to a manuscript while the lips mumble about the ecstacy of faith or the triumph of righteousness (and the voice and face indicate neither); to deep-freeze the soul in a frozen attitude of body and limb, are concessions that need not be made against the fear of being called theatrical and affected.
Calculated restraint, I believe, is much more of an affectation than articulating with warmth of expression and freedom of body talking from head to foot with a thousand voices. Paralysis was never an aid to piety. True, we must balance the style against the subject, but sublime truths were never transmitted in the driest manner nor remembered in the dullest language. Not since Eve was taken from Adam while he was in a deep slumber has morpheus been an aid to conscious conception.
A House of Worship should not be, as Swift says, a public dormitory, where sleep is looked upon as the most convenient vehicle of good sense. Holy lumps of ice only numb into quiescence. Dry-ice is worse. If it is theatrical to use action, then Judaism is theatrical. Judaism is the most dramatic story in history, and preachers who persevere in following the new school of dignified tameness will freeze the drama amidst whole acres of empty pews.
The Prophets of Israel produced powerful effects with an eloquence and fervor that drags us captive after 2,500 years behind the wheel of their enthusiasm. Why are we, who are in the cradle of their ancient genius, who hold in one hand the Book of God’s wisdom, and in the other the tears, the laughter, the shouts, the hopes, the fears, the victories, the indignation, the warmth and even the blood that has haunted the stage of history for more than 30 centuries—why are we reluctant to rouse, to appeal, to inform, to inflame, to break through every barrier until we reach the inmost recesses of the heart and the very chambers of the soul?
Apathy in the pulpit is no sign of decency or piety. It is a mark of boyish embarrassment, easy indolence or casual conviction.
Since a rabbi is, first and foremost, a preacher and teacher of Judaism through the direct and personal spoken word, we should not clip our own oratorical wings. It is true that in this space age as we try to soar into the blue empyrean, our pulpit efforts may appear to be feeble flutterings; but never were more occassions offered for the exercise of the art of preaching. The importance of the Kennedy-Nixon television debates, the repercussions of every utterance made at the United Nations, the long-lasting quotations from President Kennedy’s inaugural address, only prove that figures of speech have not yet wholly given place to statistics.
There is, I grant, something discouraging in the sight of crowds feasting on the ungrammatical fevor and illiterate animation of many present-day popular evangelists. But I am convinced that energy in the pulpit is not considered by the truly discriminating as a mark of superficial understanding. I am convinced that we will do no great injury to the cause of intelligent religion if we remember the old combination of “air and fire” and keep our temples and synagogues a little warmer with the breath of preaching.
It we were to read excerpts of the “Kinsey Report” from the pulpit—I do not suggest it—the eager eyes of our audience would fairly dazzle us. Not even an earthquake would disturb their interest. But the cry of a child, the entrance of a latecomer, the dropping of a book are antagonists which even the most profound scholar in America would be unable to overcome. With so little predisposition to attention in our favor, it is only with the utmost effort that we are able to evoke it and preserve it.
It is our business through a variety of techniques, subjects, style and delivery to show our listeners the importance of religion for their own self-interest and social welfare. If we despise the expenditure of energy required by the discipline of good preaching, then our own lethargy and languor become great examples of sleep confirming the drowsiness of our hearers.
Certainly, there are many greater factors and diversions that undermine religion and religious interest than the technical failure of the pulpit; but dull repetition, remote themes, abstract content, lack of originality and lifeless presentation run a close second.
I have merely tried to express what appears to me to be valid suggestions. I expect others will challenge these remarks out of disagreement and not offense. Some allowance should be made for the severity of my criticism when I, myself, furnish the raw material for my censure and commit every fault which I blame.