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How I Stopped Writing High Holiday Sermons

Two years ago, at age 93, my father passed away suddenly and peacefully in Israel, where he had lived for many years. I flew to Israel for the funeral and the first half of shiva, sitting the second half in America. I rose from shiva three days before Erev Rosh Hashanah.

I was, at the time, in my tenth year as the rabbi at Vassar College, where I always delivered two High Holiday sermons a year. My Rosh Hashanah sermon had already been written. It explored the difference between teshuvah, repentance, and kaparah, atonement, and included references from the events of that past summer, reflections on the Torah readings, and a story from my childhood. It was clever and well-crafted, and utterly irrelevant to my new state of grief. There was no way I could deliver that sermon.

I stood before my campus community on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, shaken and in deep grief, having done no last-minute preparation and with no sermon to deliver. In my welcome, I told the students that my father had just died suddenly; that I had risen from shiva three days before; that I might cry during the prayers. Then I launched into the service, my heart over-flowing with gratitude for the beloved and supportive community that I was privileged to serve.

When it was time for the sermon, I spoke, with no anchor and no notes. I talked about what it felt like to lose a parent—as if the platform you’d been standing on your whole life, and didn’t even know you’d been standing on, had suddenly been kicked away. I talked about how vivid life seemed at that moment, and imagined what it would be like to live every moment with this acute knowledge of life’s fragility. I talked about my inability, in that state of mind, to inhabit my rabbinic role and voice, and could hear myself, as if from a distance, speaking in an intimate and vulnerable tone. And, as promised in my welcome, I cried.

My students are always respectful during High Holiday services, but the quality in the room on that evening matched the quality in my heart—an altered state of intense presence. Students came up afterward and hugged me silently. My boss, a Presbytarian minister, told me it sounded like God had been speaking through me. I believed him, and felt humbled by his words.

When Rosh Hashanah was over, I immediately started wondering—with more curiosity than anxiety—what I would do for Yom Kippur. Should I pull out a stock sermon from a prior year? Reconfigure the Rosh Hashanah sermon I had already prepared? I knew intellectually that I could do this, but as the week progressed it became clear that emotionally I could do no such thing.

On the evening of Kol Nidre, I stood in front of them again, with no anchor and no notes, and spoke. It was different from the prior week—I had thought more about what I wanted to say—but it was also the same. During that talk it suddenly occurred to me that my father had inadvertently handed me a great gift by dying ten days before Rosh Hashanah and ten years into my rabbinate—enough years to give me the confidence, and the earned trust, to grieve in public, to fully shed the mask. I don’t remember much of that talk, but I do remember sharing that thought, as it came to me, in my unrehearsed, unwritten sermon. 

I have not written a High Holiday sermon since, and I don’t plan to this year. I don’t presume that this is what any other rabbi should do and I don’t know what I will do next year. With time, it will be harder to capture that intense feeling of presence, and perhaps my courage will falter. But so far, my father’s pre-Rosh Hashanah yahrzeit still serves as a cherished catalyst, plunging me into the extreme vulnerability and joy at the heart of this annual Jewish adventure of the soul.  

Rena Blumenthal graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003. She just completed eleven years as the campus rabbi at Vassar College, and now works as a freelance rabbi.

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