To the learned men and women who lead the Jewish faith I would like to offer a simple message:
For decades I have sat in your congregation. Perhaps you noticed me. I was the one who was actually looking forward to your sermon.
There is no accounting for taste.
What always makes me hope for the best in a sermon is its promise, its infinite possibility.
This is the moment for a great storyteller to captivate the congregation.
Prayers are comforting. Music is uplifting. The Torah portion is required reading.
But the sermon is a chance to tie it all together, to make sense of it. Much of the Talmud is the analysis of past sermons and stories to be used in future sermons.
So you would think giving a good sermon or telling a good story would be a basic requirement for becoming a rabbi.
Apparently, it isn't.
A frequent consumer of rabbinical sermons, I can say, with all due respect, that most of the time, the sermon bombs.
And it is usually because of the same bad storytelling habits.
5. Don't Make It About the Bike
To the rabbi who made Lance Armstrong the hero of his High Holiday sermon, I say: Don't choose bad material.
The story of how the cyclist overcame cancer to win the Tour de France, contained in Armstrong's book It's Not About the Bike, might have worked better, maybe, in other contexts -- a little league banquet or a sports talk show.
To be fair, the sermon was delivered years before Armstrong was revealed to be a bullying liar and fraud.
But that is the danger of choosing story material that has yet to be vetted by the greatest of editors -- time.
In the whole 5,000 year's worth of Jewish history and story, you couldn't find an example of overcoming adversity?
4. Don't Make It All About You
To the rabbi who used her sermon to talk about her wife, who was sitting in the front row, I say: Don't make yourself the sermon.
Storytelling, to some degree, is a narcissistic act -- which is all the more reason to stop talking about how you two crazy kids met at an anti-Proposition 8 rally.
We're on your side, by the way, and we couldn't be happier for you.
But if a straight rabbi went on like this about his opposite gender spouse, we'd be bored, too, particularly if the story didn't relate to the rest of your sermon.
3. Don't Make Us Do All the Work
To the rabbi who insisted on turning his sermon into a question and answer session, I say: Put a little more effort into your preparation.
Testing is not teaching. Asking us why the Golden Calf was golden and then disagreeing with our answers was just mean.
Jewish tradition distinguishes between religious types of religious storytellers. There is the scholar ("darshan") and the rabbi ("maggid"). The darshan prepares students. The rabbi speaks to a congregation of non-students who are seeking guidance, comfort and understanding. There are no dumb questions. But asking questions instead of preparing a sermon is just lazy.
2. Don't Make It a Jackie Mason Routine
To the rabbi who began each sermon with a joke, sometimes the same joke, and almost always a bad joke, I say: If you don't take it seriously, we won't either.
Humor has its place. It's not always or often in temple though it can be when it is used to make a point. Jewish humor has countless jokes that convey deeper truths -- from Hasidic stories to Larry David -- but they only work when you choose and use the ones to say something meaningful.
Jokes for joke's sakes do not constitute a story or a sermon: They constitute shtick.
1. Don't Complain About It
To the rabbi who admitted he hated giving sermons, I say: Find another line of work.
Good storytellers must love what they do. Otherwise they aren't any good at it. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, it is very likely that the congregation won't either. If you don't like telling stories, you shouldn't be a maggid ora darshan. The world needs ditch-diggers, too.
My non-Jewish friends inform me that bad sermonizing is not limited to one faith. It is apparently a universal problem, ecumenical in its reach. But there is always next Sabbath, another Call to Worship, an infinite number of chances to hit the next one out of the park.
I, for one, will be rooting for you.