Words on a page can't do that for me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word. You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it's more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn't sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something "good." But how do they get there?
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It's empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don't walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn't eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for "nut" has the same numerical value as the word for "sin"); why the shofar can't come from a bull's horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life -- parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. -- and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.
If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as "Shabbat Tshuvah" (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be "Like a Good Neighbor...").
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their "label." Still, it's clear that there are major differences among the denominations -- both of style and substance -- which shouldn't surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn't arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B'nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi's Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he's got the Torah sources to back it up.
It makes you wonder what's next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
It's that time of year.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.