At Least Remember The Rabbi's Joke

The Rabbi's Rosh HaShanah 5768

A childhood memory: I am walking home from Shul on Rosh HaShanah with my father. En route, fellow congregants are discussing two aspects of the recently-finished services: whether the rabbi’s joke was funny and how long his tekiah gedolah (final shofar-blast) had been. Years later, and now the likely subject of such pre-prandial chit-chat, I hope that I will feel inspired to preach on a topic that will disturb my congregants’ conversations well into lunch, perhaps even beyond their Yom Tov afternoon nap. Should I fail, I trust that they will at least remember my joke and that they will have cause to glance at their watches before my breath gives out!

Preceding Rosh HaShanah, the month of Elul, is traditionally dedicated to introspection, extra prayer and reviewing the past year’s achievements ahead of the season of Divine judgement. It is difficult for anyone with a busy schedule to manage this, but paradoxically, this period can find a pulpit rabbi torn between personal and communal responsibilities.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. During this period a rabbi (supported by his lay-team) must ensure that all of the practical details, such as timetabling and arranging officiants, are in place. He will need to rehearse relevant parts of the services, prepare news-sheets containing community information and inspirational ideas, assemble numerous special lectures and, of course, write those all-important sermons. As Yom Kippur and Sukkot approach, the number of halakhic questions that congregants ask increases, and before Yom Tov, senior rabbis will often find their counsel sought by a bevy of junior colleagues. This will have to be fitted around a rabbi’s regular teaching, as well as any pastoral, consultancy and writing commitments.

My ideal Elul would be a more private and personal one. It would consist of days scrutinising the texts of the Yamim Norayim (High-holy days) prayers, repairing relationships with those I have upset during the year, internalising the guides to self-improvement of Maimonides, Luzzato and Rav Kook, exercising more than usual, and getting some early nights. However, since it is simply impossible to completely accommodate both sets of demands, some aspects of personal development must be shelved in favour of communal responsibility.

But beyond the fact that there is insufficient time to achieve everything in the pre-Yom Tov period, there is a clash of paradigms that is seldom mentioned. It is often unclear what expectations occasional congregants have of their Yom Tov Shul visit, but it is likely that they differ considerably from those of their rabbi. Ask an Anglo-Jew, ‘Why participate in the three-times-a-year show?’ and the response will probably be, ‘it’s just something I’ve always done,’ or, ‘I’d feel guilty if I didn’t’. Ask the same question to that person’s rabbi and he will say something like, ‘it’s an unparalleled opportunity to reawaken one’s divine consciousness, repair one’s relationships with other people, and declare God sovereign over all creation.

This explains why a rabbi may conduct himself as though the first day of Rosh HaShanah (in most Anglo-Jewish Shuls, the noisiest of the year) is the ultimate moment of mystical union with God, while some of his congregants are catching up on a year’s news. This mismatch of expectations can inhabit every aspect of the Yamim Norayim experience, including the style and timing of the prayers, what constitutes appropriate conduct during services and, it must be said, the objective of the sermon. Some pulpit rabbis are fortunate to have a community of receptive, intelligent and knowledgeable people, eager to hear an inspirational Jewish message. Yet others may struggle to square the rich aspirations of their own ‘inner’ Yom Tov with the reality of their congregants’ expectations of light entertainment.

These unarticulated tensions can obviously lead to frustration, but also to something worse – a miserable rabbi who assumes that all the preparations have been pointless, even that the Yom Tov season was a failure. To avoid this, I try to focus on two things. First, despite what I have written, I endeavour to plan a sermon that will stir both me and my congregants, by concentrating on some universal aspect of the human condition, such as the challenges of faith or the importance of personal growth. Indeed, I would like to think that my most successful sermons to date were those that almost moved me to tears when I delivered them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I try to remember that it is a sublime privilege to be the religious leader of a community. For whatever reason, God has granted me the opportunity to carry hundreds of people with me on a spiritual journey at this time of the year: this fact alone allows all of us to share the same inspiration and makes the whole enterprise indubitably worthwhile.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.