Loneliness. Prayer. Brokenness. Breathing.
These are some of the themes local rabbis will be addressing in this year’s High Holiday sermons.
Traditionally their biggest moment of the year — at least in the liberal denominations, when it’s the only time some rabbis see most of their congregation — the “rabbi’s sermon” engenders great preparation, and often, great angst.
With Rosh Hashanah arriving on Sept. 18, as of late August some rabbis were still considering what they will say. And this year, that’s on purpose.
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein of Reform Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa was serving a congregation in New York City in 2001 when 9/11 happened a week before Rosh Hashanah. “I had to tear up everything I’d written,” he told J. in mid-August. “Who knows what’s going to happen in the next five weeks.”
“We have miles to go before the sermons,” said Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon of Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. “Given the incredibly rapid and unfolding backdrop against which the High Holidays are playing out this year, the world can turn on a dime. I’m still writing down ideas as they come.”
Other rabbis have not only written their sermons, but already have recorded them for virtual services.
Rabbi Chai Levy was just wrapping up her Yom Kippur sermon when she spoke to J. in late August, and was preparing to commit it to video later in the week.
“I’ll talk about how the brokenness in our world is an opportunity for new beginnings and change,” she said. “That’s what teshuvah [repentance] is about. I suggest it’s not returning to the old ways, but an opportunity for new beginnings. I’m trying to find hopefulness in this broken, upside-down world.”
Some rabbis, particularly those in large congregations with multiple clergy, have to give only one sermon during both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
That’s true for Rabbi Beth Singer, who co-leads Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Singer. She’ll take the Yom Kippur morning service — the others will be divvied up among her synagogue’s other clergy.
On the other hand, Rabbi Mark Bloom of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland has five sermons to prepare.
“It’s a solo pulpit. What are you going to do?” he said with a laugh.
One thing every rabbi said was that High Holiday services — and sermons — will be much shorter.
At Emanu-El, where Rosh Hashanah morning services usually last two hours, this year they will run just over an hour, Beth Singer said. And instead of 20 to 25 minutes, sermons will be limited to eight to 10 minutes.
“We don’t have a captive audience,” she said, referring to the Zoom platform she and many other synagogues will be using. “We have to grab them right away, or they’ll leave.”
Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz of Chabad of Contra Costa will utilize his 1,200-square-foot outdoor space for services, including, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, abridged family shofar services. He said his plan is to invite 10 to 12 households at a time, every hour on the hour, so there’s room for social distancing. “They can come, we’ll blow the shofar, sing songs, tell stories. Maybe even a little honey cake.”
Rabbi Joel Landau at Orthodox Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco will offer three different services for Rosh Hashanah, all of them abridged.
He has yet to figure out Yom Kippur.
“I already have people asking, rabbi, what are we going to do for Simchas Torah? I tell them, let’s get through Rosh Hashanah first.”
New beginnings from devastation
Pandemics, fires, protests against racial injustice, lives gone virtual — rabbis feel called upon this season to offer comfort in a world turned upside down.
“I want to provide hope and uplift without being unrealistic and papering over what is happening,” Rabbi Leon said.
This year, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer will take on particular urgency, she said. “You wake up and half the state is on fire, and you think, ‘Who by water and who by fire.’ People have discovered themselves laid bare these past few months.”
Rabbi Berkowitz plans to address the challenge of finding clarity in uncertain times. “So much we take for granted,” he said. “One plus one equals two. You get the college degree and get the job. Suddenly it’s all up in the air. That gets us thinking, what really matters in our life?”
Both Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Levy plan to examine the story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, who smuggled himself out of Jerusalem in a coffin as the Second Temple was burning, which led to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.
“So today, with creativity and courage, we can allow this time of devastation to lead to something new,” said Levy.
At least one local rabbi sees signs of imminent, monumental change.
“The scope of what’s going on in the world is so great, my intuition is that it has something messianic about it,” Rabbi Landau said. “I might say [in my sermon] that we are actually seeing a pre-messianic event.”
Several rabbis plan to speak about breath and breathing in their sermons.
“What does it mean not to be able to breathe?” said Rabbi Corey Helfand of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. “What’s it like to try and find your breath in moments of fire? As a parent teaching my kids in a virtual classroom, what does it mean to pivot and breathe?”
Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Paula Marcus of Reform Congregation Beth El in Aptos, independently of each other, both were inspired by the recently published “See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love” by Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist, filmmaker and civil rights lawyer. Speaking about the darkness in America today, Kaur suggests, Levy paraphrased, “What if it’s not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if we have to push and breathe, push and breathe, and create something new?”
“What is it we are gestating?” Marcus asked. “The idea of pushing and breathing, laboring, whether it’s the compromised lungs of Covid, or the knee on George Floyd’s neck, or smoke from the fires.”
Social and racial injustice
Rabbi Beth Singer, who took part in several protests after George Floyd’s killing, noted that the Hebrew root of blessing, bracha, is related to the word for knee and kneeling. “Do we use our knees to kneel in prayer? To kneel in protest? To take the life of another human being?” she asked, alluding to the Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck until he lost consciousness and died.
Rabbi Marcus said she plans to take up the same theme of racial justice. Noting that in January she started a discussion group around Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” she said she will discuss “how to start educating around reparations.”
“People are desperate for community,” said Rabbi Goldstein, who plans to address this in his short — half the usual length, he said — Rosh Hashanah sermon. “We need to find it in our imperfect world.”
Rabbi Helfand also plans to discuss loneliness, “and what it looks like to navigate in a world where we are in some ways more connected and yet not connected … Quarantine, isolation, political divisiveness — how can we create relationships in these moments?”
Rabbi Landau noted that the central part of any prayer service is the Amidah, and the High Holidays are no exception. He plans to take a break after the Amidah and ask worshippers to reflect on what they’ve just said.
“‘Let’s talk about it,’ I’ll ask them. ‘What did you like? What did you not like?’
“Prayer is about talking to God. It’s hard to talk to God. One of the main goals of my rabbinate is to help people have really meaningful prayer experiences. I want people to walk away saying, hey, I’d like to do that more often.”
While the pain and confusion caused by the coronavirus pandemic is on the minds of all these rabbis as they prepare their sermons, Rabbi Bloom is taking Covid as the theme for all five of his.
“I don’t see how you talk about anything else this year,” he said.
Bloom said he plans to wrap up on Yom Kippur with a talk called “Joy Comes in the Morning,” based on Psalm 30, which includes the words, “One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn there are shouts of joy.”
“People need some comfort in a very dark world,” he said. “The psalm’s message is even more important today. The night will be very long, longer than we anticipated, but morning will come.”