As High Holy Days Approach, Rabbis Reflect On Final Sermons Before Rosh Hashanah

As Holy Days Approach, Rabbis Reflect On Final Sermons

(RNS) A well-known adage in rabbinic Judaism says that one should "repent one day before your last one."

Religion News Service spoke to a variety of rabbis about what their final Jewish New Year message to their flock before leaving the pulpit would be. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins the evening of Sept. 16.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, who gave a benediction at the Democratic National Convention last week, said that part of his message would be "To be kind. And to connect. Build families, communities, tie each other together -- we did not travel alone through the wilderness. And thank you. It has been an honor to be your rabbi."

Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a Lubavitcher rabbi and founder of the Meaningful Life Center in New York would have a three-pronged message for his flock: "Your life is indispensable, we need to love each other unconditionally and you should not allow fear to drive your life."

Rabbi David Kalb of the 92nd Street Y in New York said that his message would be that we "need a complex religion to face a complex world" and that in our modern world of oversimplification where all is a "one word marketing slogan" we still need to "challenge ourselves to think Jewishly."

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, a synagogue in Washington, D.C., would want to let his congregants know that "Judaism is not only feel good-ism or spirituality. There are rules and standards which are not the easiest things."

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., said her last sermon would be on "two different kinds of teshuva (repentance), teshuva based on fear, or on love" and would stress that the "right and just come from a place of love." She would also say that the idea of supporting female spiritual leadership in the Orthodox world, even if not popular, is right and just.

Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., would try to strike a balance between "affirmation and noodging." "I'm always trying to give the message that Judaism is not just for the synagogue but to take it into their lives," Roston said.

The late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of Chicago was well known at the end of his life for being the neighbor of Barack and Michelle Obama and predicting that the young man had a political future. However, in his life as a rabbi, Wolf was a man whose "soul was on fire" and who "channeled Amos and Hosea," according to his colleague Rabbi Richard Jacobs, current president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

In the fall of 1980, when Wolf was giving his last sermon as the Jewish chaplain at Yale University, "he delivered a blistering Yom Kippur sermon in which he charged the university with a "long and dishonorable history of anti-Semitism" and accused its administration of "callousness" toward the needs of Jewish students and faculty members," according to his obituary in The New York Times.

Jacobs gave his last sermon to his congregation of 20 years, the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., this past High Holy Days before assuming his current position as the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Jacobs said that a last sermon is a "moment to try to distill your message, and put it into its essence."

"Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is also trying to put what he has to say into its purest form," Jacobs said. Still, Jacobs wonders about whether his congregation was listening. "Can they hear all the nuances?"

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who has been rabbi of Anshe Shalom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago for the past 18 years and is leaving this June to become the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an independent Orthodox school to train rabbis in New York, is thinking about the last sermon he will deliver in Chicago.

Lopatin's year has been turbulent. His brother died after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer and his daughter is being treated for a serious disease. Two of his sermons will be about his family, but on Yom Kippur he usually gives a sermon "about what I admire about the shul."

This year his sermon will be a "demonstrative no holds barred love affair with the shul." Lopatin said he will "open up a bit more about what the shul has meant to me, my wife, my kids. I hope people know I love them, but I will speak more glowingly this year."

Before You Go

Popular in the Community