What do Jews want to hear on the High Holy Days?

To my rabbinical colleagues, just when you thought you were done with your sermons.

A man blows a shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Slgckgc/Flickr/Creative Commons

(RNS) — On Thursday, the rabbi asked his congregants what they wanted to hear on the High Holy Days.

This is not a posthumous mystery book by Harry Kemelman, as in the classic Rabbi Small series: “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late,” and others.

This really happened.

A rabbi in a mid-sized Reform congregation was about to plan his High Holy Day sermons. He did not want to do that preparation in a vacuum. He was curious: what kind of messages did his congregants want, and need, to hear?

So, he wrote a letter to his congregants:

Dear friend, 

As you may know, the High Holy Days are just several weeks away. As I embark on the heavy task of crafting my sermons, I would like to involve you in the process (don’t worry, I am not asking you to write my sermons, although I would welcome it if you insisted). I would love to know what message(s) you need to hear this year. What will help uplift and inspire your soul? What do you think our congregation needs to hear? What message(s) can I share with you that will bring more hope and healing to the world? 

This process of inquiry is not as unusual as it might seem. I know of several pastors, and a few rabbis, who have focus groups of active and inactive congregants. Those congregants help them plan their preaching — topics, themes, even stories and illustrations from their own lives.

So, what did my colleague’s congregants want to hear?

Some of their responses:

  • “I want to hear about the value of community and what we can do to help and add value to the world.”
  • “I want to hear about Jewish sources on hope that will help us maneuver through difficult and stressful times. So many of us feel helpless and hopeless. It doesn’t matter whether it is due to the political divide, to COVID, extremism, antisemitism or even to what’s happening in Israel. We need stories or parables that will help us see light at the end of the tunnel. We need to know that our actions can bring about change and that the change will bring about hope.”
  • “How does God speak to us in modern times?
  • “How do we hear the other side, and have conversations with people we disagree with?”
  • “How do we repent for what we did last year, and promise to do better?”
  • “How do we express gratitude and appreciation, and not dwell on things we cannot change, but focus on how we can make the world a better place?”
  • “Do our seemingly simple acts of kindness make a difference?”

What was missing from the list?

There were very few references to social justice — and when there were such references, they were couched not as a laundry list of societal and environmental woes, but rather as: “What can I do to make a difference?” 

Antisemitism? One mention, in passing.


To quote one respondent:

“I would like to hear some words about Israel. Although I have never visited, I have strong feelings about events there. (On a personal level, it disturbs me that the State won’t recognize my adopted son’s conversion.) I worry about what would happen if Israel really gets torn apart and what impact that would have on American Jewry.”

The correspondent is worried about the situation in Israel — but, note, as a personal issue regarding his son’s Jewish status.

To quote the Talmud: “Mai nafka mina” — “What can we learn from this?”

A lot, actually.

Over the course of my rabbinical career, I have often used my High Holy Day sermons as opportunities to focus on the grand themes: Judaism, the Jewish people and the world.

Those were good sermons. But, in retrospect, I probably should have focused more on the personal, introspective, existential themes as well.

I think this is what people want, and need, to hear.

As my colleague, Rabbi Mark Levin of Overland Park, Kansas, recently said (in a podcast interview with Rabbi Richard Address on “Sources of Meaning” on Jewish Sacred Aging): The “real” issues are those that keep you awake at night. Those are issues like retirement, career, aging, our changing bodies, our souls, and the fact that we are all confronting death.

In fact, the awareness of death is precisely what this culture avoids — at all costs.

To quote Ernest Becker: We live in the land of the denial of death.

When I talk to people about death, I notice people don’t like to use the word.

They prefer: “Passed.” “Passed on.” “Pass away.” “Buy the farm” (which means that if you were a farmer and you died, your life insurance money would allow your survivors to pay off your mortgage and, well, buy the farm).

There is ample precedent for the language of death avoidance. Ancient Jewish literature is filled with euphemisms for death.

  • “Gathered to one’s people.”
  • “Lying with one’s ancestors.”
  • “Going the way of all flesh.”
  • Niftar, “to be released from obligation.”
  • Halach l’olomo, “going to one’s world/eternity.”

But, in fact, the Days of Awe lay it out for us in stark tones (white, as a matter of fact). “Who shall live, and who shall die?”

Our sins, our moral failings, are like tiny deaths of the spirit. That is why we beat on our chests when we confess our sins: not only to knock on the door of the soul, but to engage in an act of spiritual CPR. That is why many Jews wear white robes (kittels) on Yom Kippur: as a reminder of the burial shrouds that will someday encase our bodies. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for how we will be dressed for death.

In the depths of our beings, we really know this. That is why people come to synagogue in droves on the High Holy Days — not to see and be seen, as some of us suspect, but because we really believe that on those days, we will be written in the book of life.

Does that mean rabbis should not address the larger issues of the Jewish people and society on the Days of Awe?

No. We can barely avoid those issues, especially when there are texts and specific Jewish wisdom we need to import into those conversations.

But, as for me, I want to know: How does Jewish wisdom speak, specifically, to what is happening in my life? How does that wisdom empower me to engage in three stages of repair: tikkun atzmi, repairing myself; tikkun ha-am, repairing my people; and tikkun olam, repairing the world?

But, increasingly, it’s the small, intimate part of that task that speaks to me loudest.

Years ago, the great writer, Cynthia Ozick — now 95 years old — noticed that if you blow into the wide end of the shofar, you get no sound. It is only through blowing at the narrow end that the music emerges.

You have to start small. You have to start with yourself.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah — a good sweet year to all.

To my colleagues: Say what your people need to hear.

But, also, say what you need to say.

If those two should intersect, how blessed you, and they, will be.

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