October 9, 2008
Sermon of the Year
Here in Pico-Robertson, it's the sermon many people wait for all year— the one that rabbis often spend months preparing.
Even its time slot is unique. Unlike regular sermons that are part of the morning prayer service, the Shabbat Shuva sermon has its own time and space: late afternoon, when the big meals and rituals are behind us, the light of dusk beckons, and everyone knows there are precious few moments left of their holy day of rest.
Film directors call this end-of-day light the "golden light." It's not the bright, naked light of the mid-day, nor the dramatic darkness of the night. It's the light that bridges those two worlds. Spiritually, it's the time when the past and the future caress each other -- the day is still fresh in our mind, but we can feel the breath of the approaching night.
On Shabbat Shuva, the time of year is also golden: We've just left the bright intensity of the Day of Judgment and are about to enter the somber and moody intensity of the Day of Atonement.
It is under this golden, transitional light that hundreds of Torah-observant Jews migrate through the streets of Pico-Robertson every year to hear their respective rabbis give what is affectionately called "the Shabbat Shuva drash."
It's a sermon that comes with an ancient pedigree. Over the centuries, the tradition was for rabbis to give only two sermons a year, on Shabbat Shuva and on the Shabbat before Pesach. Today, of course, rabbis of all denominations have become human sermon machines, giving sermons every Shabbat and on all the holidays.
In the Orthodox world, however, maybe as homage to our ancestors, the rabbis still treat their Shabbat Shuva sermons as their most important of the year. There's a sense of anticipation you don't feel any other time of the year, even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
A rabbi friend of mine, in trying to explain the uniqueness of the Shabbat Shuva sermon, has this theory that the sermon itself is part of the process of teshuvah (repentance or return) that is our central spiritual task at this time of year. In this view, the sermon is not just a sermon, but a deep personal act, one that can lead to some uncomfortable moments.
I've seen it happen. At Young Israel of Century City, I once saw Rabbi Elazar Muskin, during his Shabbat Shuva drash, express his personal embarrassment at a letter he had received during the previous year. It was from a visitor who did not feel welcomed at his shul. In front of a rapt audience, the rabbi stood there and took the heat. Then, in the spirit of teshuvah, he implored his flock to be welcoming at all times so the shul would never receive a letter like that again.
The most uncomfortable I've felt at a Shabbat Shuva drash was last week, when Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea Congregation meditated on the touchy subject of ulterior motives in religious practice.
I sat a few feet from the rabbi. While people were still shuffling in, I could see Kanefsky, dressed in a white robe, closing his eyes in deep concentration as he stood at the lectern.
He picked one phrase from the Shabbat prayer -- "And purify our hearts to serve You with truth" -- and asked: "Do we have a prayer?"
He spent the first 30 minutes making the case that no, we don't have a prayer. Through the words of King David, Rashi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides, Isaiah and even Sigmund Freud, he dissected the simple reality that human nature is innately driven by self-interest and ulterior motives.
Yes, even when we live a religious life. We might tell ourselves that our motives are noble and Godly, but deep down, we know we are motivated by more mundane things, like a need for community, a desire to belong and feel accepted, the security of an orderly lifestyle, a craving for honor and recognition, and so on.
Kanefsky made it a point not to denigrate these motives, because they are part of human nature. But Judaism at its best, he explained, helps us transcend our natures in the service of a higher and holier ideal.
This is where it got uncomfortable.
Kanefsky accused himself of often having ulterior motives when he prayed enthusiastically on Shabbat. Why? Because deep down, he knew this behavior was expected of him, and it was hard to separate the motive of "playing to the crowd" from the purer motive of "serving God with truth."
This might look like someone being too hard on himself, but if you were up close like I was, you could see that Kanefsky meant it. Evidently, he was going through his own teshuvah in front of his flock. He was telling us that while no one will ever have the purity of Abraham, the essence of being religiously observant and of doing teshuvah was to aim for a greater purity in our relationship with God.
To help us in that journey, he enlisted the words of Heschel from "God in Search of Man":
"This is how we must begin in our effort to purify the self: To become aware of our inner enslavement to the ego, to detect the taints in our virtues, the tinge of idolatry in our worship of God.... The sting of shame is the only pain the ego cannot bear.... To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection."
As people filed out of the shul and into the twilight on Pico Boulevard, I had this feeling that the rabbi had given us enough taints, tinges, stings and hopes to last us until the next sermon of the year.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.