Unlike much of religious services, made up of rituals intended to be repeated again and again, a sermon allows for variation and the potential for surprise, as its contents are decided by the rabbi delivering it and often reflect the ever-changing needs of the congregation. And on these High Holidays, with the pandemic still on the loose, Baltimore area rabbis will use their words to bring comfort and reassurance to their congregants.
At Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, Rabbi Rory Katz will be delivering four separate sermons over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She normally begins planning High Holiday sermons two months in advance, giving her thoughts time to coalesce and giving herself time to have the conversations that will help her craft a meaningful set of sermons.
“I believe that anybody who gives a sermon has a responsibility to start by looking inward and seeing what’s touching them, and what are the issues that they honestly care about,” Katz said. “You can tell very quickly whether somebody is giving a sermon that makes them feel alive, that is talking about a live issue for them, or talking about something just for the sake of talking.”
On the issues that feel alive to her, Katz plans to deliver sermons on the importance of cultivating patience, the need to thoughtfully translate established ways of meeting new challenges, the benefits of acknowledging vulnerabilities and failings and the necessity of changing directions as circumstances require.
“I believe that this current moment requires a greater level of flexibility and ability to change directions than we’ve ever been asked for before,” Katz said, recounting the biblical story of Abraham’s aborted attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac. “At the last moment, he is asked to change directions, and he does it, and his son survives, and he survives, and it is so crucial that Abraham was able to listen in that moment of extreme anguish and extreme crisis.”
Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation plans to deliver between five and seven sermons that she began brainstorming for as far back as Passover. They will focus on themes such as finding gratitude during a time of trauma, the interrelatedness between people and the rest of God’s creations, and a comparison between Isaiah and Jonah, she said.
“When we say as Reconstructionist Jews that the past has a vote but not a veto,” Starr said, “we have to give the past a vote by learning it. And then when we do that we’re surprised by how relevant it is to our contemporary lives.
“Our contemporary lives have to be part of our spiritual lives in order to be relevant to what’s going on in our psyche today,” Starr continued. “It’s only when a fusion of the two happen that we have a possibility of a sacred future.”
Over at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg plans to give three sermons, one on how the coronavirus highlights the importance of the individual and the community, another on how a person can live in a world where anything could change overnight and one on defending God against accusations of being responsible for the virus.
“You have a well-known evangelical minister and others who have said that it’s because of the sins of the Jews that God brought the coronavirus,” Wohlberg explained. “You have Muslim imams who have blamed it on the Jews and the Christians not following the ways of Muhammad. And you have rabbis who have blamed it for the sins of the Jews ranging from gossiping to wearing fancy sheitels [wigs].
“Do they really want to believe in a God that would cause millions to die for these reasons?” Wohlberg asked.
Lastly, for at least a few of her sermons, Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation plans to speak on how hope functions in difficult times.
Sachs-Kohen explained that she has two criteria for deciding what her High Holiday sermons should cover: what has inspired her over the last year, and what’s taking place in the world that’s on her congregation’s mind. “Newspaper articles and influential writers and traditional sources — I start in that direction, what’s been inspirational. But I’m also looking at what’s happening in the world,” she said.
“When I think about what’s on my congregation’s mind, if they didn’t hear anything about that, it would be a hole, it would be a gap,” Sachs-Kohen said.
Sachs-Kohen explained how “some sermons are intended to have the impact of bolstering the spirit, of helping people feel better in some way. Other sermons are intended to awaken the congregation to a need, to something they should be doing or some way they should be in the world.”