I have a confession to make. I enjoy listening to the rabbi’s sermon on Shabbat morning.
Even when I was a youngster, I was interested in what the rabbi had to say in his speech. While my friends would ask their parents to go outside for the sermon, I’d happily remain in the sanctuary, curious to learn what message the rabbi planned to share with his congregants that week.
I’ll admit that I’m in the minority when it comes to the rabbi’s sermon. These days many of my contemporaries look for a minyan where there is no sermon—or at least a shortened version of a speech. In fact, part of the popularity of the early minyanim held at many synagogues today is the fact that there is no sermon—and the services are shorter. Me? I still prefer a Shabbat service where the rabbi will deliver a strong and timely message in his speech.
Back when I got married (and later when I became a parent), my free time during the week was extremely limited—and I had virtually no time for Torah study. So the rabbi’s sermon represented the one time during the week when I could hear some Torah thoughts, a valuable benefit during that particular stage of my life.
Today I thankfully have more free time for Torah study during the week. However, there is still something special about hearing a good sermon on the parsha on Shabbat morning—and I continue to look forward to listening to what the rabbi has to say in his weekly talk.
During my life I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to several pulpit rabbis who delivered magnificent sermons. Rabbi Harold Kanotopsky was the rabbi at the Young Israel of West Hempstead while I was a youngster. He would begin his sermons by modestly exclaiming, “No chiddushim (original thoughts) today” … and then proceed to come up with a brand new twist or angle on the text that nobody had ever heard. The next rabbi at the shul was Rabbi Shalom Gold, a fiery speaker with a wicked sense of humor, who apparently has utilized his oratory skills for more political purposes since making aliyah. Later, when our family moved to Teaneck, we had the pleasure of hearing yet another master of the Shabbat morning sermon, Rabbi Macy Gordon, preach regularly.
Since moving to Stamford with my wife more than 30 years ago, I’ve been privileged to hear a few more excellent sermon-givers. (However, since we’ve had many rabbis at the two shuls to which we belong, and because I’m still close to all of them, I’m not going to name the ones whose sermons I liked or didn’t like!)
Rabbi Norman Lamm was the best I’ve ever heard at delivering a sermon. I’ve only been present at his talks a few times. However, through the magic of the internet, there is a website that has archived all of his sermons going back to the 1950s, in their original typewritten form, complete with Rabbi Lamm’s handwritten notes and corrections in the margins. Amazingly, his sermons are as fresh and exciting today as I’m sure they were when he originally presented them.
There are several other masters at the Shabbat morning sermon—Rabbi J.J. Schacter … Rabbi Shlomo Riskin … Rabbi Saul Berman … among others. Crafting a great sermon is very different from presenting a great Torah class—and requires a very different skill set. There are some who are very good at one but not the other, and a select few who excel at both.
Should a rabbi inject current events or politics into his Shabbat morning sermons? You’ll get various opinions on this question. Certainly if a rabbi wants to remain politically correct, it’s probably best to avoid such subjects and stick to a good Torah message. However, I’ve found that the sermons I usually enjoy the most are the ones where the rabbi is able to elaborate on a current events topic, and then tie it to a passage or theme in the Torah portion. Unfortunately, I’ve found that fewer and fewer rabbis are willing to take that plunge in their sermons.
How long should a sermon be? To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, long enough to keep congregants interested and engaged and to make a point without repeating oneself. I’ve listened to 10-minute sermons that have put me to sleep after five minutes, and I’ve heard 45-minute sermons where I have been completely mesmerized. As far as I’m concerned, there is no perfect length for a sermon (although the rabbi might want to keep in mind the quality of the kiddush that is planned for after the services!).
So if you are a rabbi and are wondering whether there is anyone who is listening to your Shabbat morning sermons, cheer up. There is at least one person out there who appreciates what you do each week. Hopefully, there are a few others, too.
By Michael Feldstein