Introduction - Preparing a Jewish Sermon (continued)
One who examines with a critical eye the scene of modern Jewish life -- what goes on in summer and winter resorts, what goes on in suburbia -- one is appalled. The frivolity, the downright vulgarity to which many Jewish activities are subjected is deplorable. Books by the fine Hebrew writer, Reuven Walenrod and others, describe the pettiness, the stagnation, that have set into the lives of many of our people. The pulpit is the place to air these failings and to stir our people to greater loyalty and adherence to the teachings of our tradition, and to a loftier level of behavior.
What I am really trying to say is that the message of the rabbi should concern itself with people and their problems. Sermons that deal with the fears, anxieties, feelings of guilt, loneliness, doubts, failures, frustrations and griefs are sure to gain the interest and attention of the audience. When the rabbi addresses himself to the things that bother those to whom he is preaching, he renders them a great service. He helps them recharge their spiritual batteries, and mend their emotional lives.
As far as I can see, the major fault of a sermon is irrelevancy. When a sermon does not deal with the problems that bother, or ought to bother people, the audience will not be interested in, or concerned with, the words of the speaker. The fact that not all problems can be solved, nor all questions answered, ought not deter the preacher from coming to grips with them. People appreciate the fact that their spiritual leader is attempting to deal with something that, at one time or another in their experience, has baffled or bewildered them; that he is trying to put himself in their place and help them work the problem out for themselves; and that he is sufficiently humble to admit that some areas of life are a mystery and beyond his comprehension.
Irrelevant also are the so-called "high-brow" sermons which deal with intricate passages and difficult rabbinic allusions. It is a sad fact, but the truth is that our congregants are not great Hebraic scholars, and are not familiar with, and care less about explanations of nebulous allusions and complicated texts.
A colleague who returned last summer from a tour of Israel, addressed the "Mr. & Mrs. Club" of his congregation, and related how thrilled he was to stand on top of Mt. Carmel where Elijah defeated the false prophets of Baal. Their response to the biblical reference was in effect, "Who did what to whom!" They didn't have the slightest idea about the entire episode. I am sure that at one time or another each of us has had a similar experience with our people.
I was, therefore, amused when a colleague who has the dubious distinction of preaching on lofty philosophical themes and complicated texts, said to me, "I do not address myself to the level of their minds as they are, but as they should be." The fact is that after preaching to his people for more than a quarter of a century, they still don't know what he is talking about and what he wants them to do. That he has done a great deal for himself by improving his literary talents and amassing a great deal of information, is all to the good. It is very regrettable, however, that in the process of self improvement he has left his congregation out of the picture.
It is not true, as some have been saying, that people are tired of preaching. What they are tired of is the irrelevant kind of preaching they have been getting from many pulpits throughout the land. Despite the spiritual stagnation to which I have alluded earlier, many Jews who come to the synagogue are hungry for an understanding of existence, and the meaning of human destiny. They are bewildered by the state of the world, the Jewish people, and the family, and are confused about their own ideals and beliefs. The rabbi who can lead them in the path of constructive faith, by which is meant a faith backed by deeds, is rendering them the greatest service that is within the power of man to give.
At this point I would like to consider with you the problem of the rabbi who has been in the same pulpit for a number of years. Please forgive me for citing myself as an example. It is only because I know my own case best. I have been preaching in the same congregation for 39 years. My voice and my gestures have not changed much; my appearance and mannerisms have improved but little, if at all. Early in my career I asked myself, "what can I do to maintain my people's interest in my sermons!" After some experimentation and thought I reached the conclusion that in addition to using a variety of topics and themes, I could stimulate the interest of my congregants by changing from time to time the style, approach and structure of my messages.
Regular worshippers have told me that they are never sure of the type or the approach of the sermon that I will deliver. Because of this element of mild "suspense" they can't take my preaching for granted. I simply won't let them do it.
Much has been written and said about the project and expository methods of preaching. In the project method (a) a problem is presented, (b) a solution is suggested, (c) textual support is offered, and (d) illustrations are used. In the expository sermon (a) a text is quoted, (b) a paradox or difiiculty is pointed out, (c) an explanation is offered, (d) an application is made to life, and (e) illustrations are used.
In addition to these two major methods, there are variations or mixtures of both. There is, for example, the story sermon, where the text is a story, legend, fable, or the career of a person. Another one is the camparison or contrasting sermon where two or more historic figures are compared or contrasted. Many have preached on Abraham and Noah, Abraham and Lot, Moses and Adam, Moses and Solomon. I once preached on a comparison of two birds -- the raven and the dove, and on the distinguishing feature between two forms of offerings -- bikkurim and masser.
My experience has been that it matters little whether one begins with a problem in modern life and then quotes biblical, Talmudic, or Midrashic texts, or the other way around. Both methods have their place, and will be advantageous if wisely used. This is a technical problem in communication. But if the message is not relevant to life and does not teach a Jewish ideal, it fails in its essential purpose of bringing about an encounter between the divine elements of our tradition and the person in the pew.
The question of plagiarism has troubled the conscience of some preachers. Is it ethically right to preach a sermon that appears in print? This problem is not within the scope of this paper, and I do not intend to answer it here. But generally speaking, one should look upon published sermons as models and guides -- both in a positive and negative manner. A bad sermon is useful even if it only teaches what not to preach.It is regrettable that some of our colleagues look upon sermon books as upon homiletical first-aid stations. The drawback is not only for ethical reasons but for practical considerations as well. The sad fact is that a good number of published sermons are not fit for preaching, and the good ones cannot be easily delivered by everyone.
It takes years for a rabbi to realize that the sermon he preaches is important. At first he has a cynical attitude towards drush. Many of us can recall the time when we felt that the sermon is a form of religious entertainment; that the congregant sat back in his comfortable pew with an unspoken challenge, as if to say to his rabbi, "entertain me if you can!" Unfortunately there are such people in every synagogue. So what! But the longer one stays in the rabbinate the more one gets to feel that it is a great, perhaps the most glorious, calling in the world. The words of faith, solace and yes, mussar, mean a great deal to many, if not most, of our people--much more than we suspected at first. Time after time, people will come forward and say, "Rabbi, I don't know whether you realize what that sermon you delivered meant to me at that particular time."
We should, therefore, be grateful to the Almighty for the privilege of giving our people an understanding of the timeless faith of Israel, and of bringing to them an interpretation of life that is grounded and rooted in the soil of Sinai. We should be happy that we were called by a living Providence to apply the wisdom of the past to the problems of the present, and thus help assure the future destiny of our people. We should be thankful for the opportunity to touch the lives, shape the ideas, encourage the hearts, and comfort the souls of those who come within the hearing of our voice.