Divre Harav, Words from the Rabbi – Bulletin article, March, 2010
I am grateful to the leadership of Congregation Ahavas Israel for giving me a three month Sabbatical. The time away from active rabbinic work was renewing and refreshing, but it is very good to be back at the synagogue.
While away, I visited with a number of pastors to learn about the creation of a sermon from a fresh angle. Within Protestant churches, the sermon is the focus of the service much the same way that the Torah reading is the focal point of a traditional Jewish Shabbat morning service. We devote about 1/3 of the service time to the Torah reading, and about 1/2 of our time on Shabbat morning is devoted to the Torah service, adding in the Haftarah and the sermon. In the churches I visited, the pastors devoted an equivalent amount of time within their service to the sermon. Because their sermon functions as the main vehicle for hearing sacred Scripture, they tend to be longer and more carefully structured than most synagogue sermons. They also tend to use Biblical verses to appeal to the emotional and moral sense of the congregation, often teaching a specific belief or theological approach to God, while most synagogue sermons tend to appeal to the intellect and teach a specific Jewish practice or behavior.
I don’t believe that one style is inherently better than the other. What I learned from the project is that it is easy to get into a rut, preaching and teaching in the same style and appealing to the same part of the brain week after week, just because it is familiar and comfortable. The work I did as a graduate coach in a Dale Carnegie program reinforced the same message — that most of us are stuck in a rut, doing the same things over and over again, repeating the same habits and the same mistakes, because we are afraid of trying something new.
This is a good lesson to be reminded of in conjunction with the celebration of Pesah. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, a word that connotes narrow places (probably taking its name from the fact that the fertile part of Egypt is a narrow strip of land on either side of the Nile). In a metaphorical sense, when we are stuck in Mitzrayim, we are living our lives in a constricted place. We are stuck inside a narrow box. Pesah is the time to look at the narrow box in which we are living, look at those behaviors which keep us stuck in a rut, and free ourselves.