Inspiration from the bima


A week in advance, Rabbi Hyim Shafner surrounds himself with liturgical materials and “books of secular philosophy, science and literature” for inspiration. Rabbi Mordecai Miller spends almost a full year to gather thoughts and hone important points. Though Rabbi James Stone Goodman prepares ahead of time, he does not always use his notes when he begins to speak. Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose likes to leave some options open until the last minute.

Like most clergy, rabbis write sermons year-round, but each year Rosh Hashana calls for something special, a thought-provoking New Year’s message designed to serve the many congregants who fill temples and synagogues to overflowing. Four local rabbis recently shared their thoughts about their preparation, their process and the primary topics they will address at the beginning of the High Holy Days.


Rabbi Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation in University City could not yet say what his main message might be, but he did say report that his theme likely would not be related to current events.

“The function of a sermon, especially on the High Holidays, is to help people turn inward and do teshuvah — return and repentance — and have a greater insight into and vision of their relationship with God and others,” said Shafner.

Last year on Rosh Hashana, Shafner spoke about silence. “My idea was born from a notion that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote, that the shofar is not only about sound but about silence,” he said. “Then I looked into other Jewish ideas about silence and secular ideas in philosophy, existentialism, literary theory and psychology in regard to the role of silence, and made some conclusions as to why silence would be an important part of the sound of the shofar and how it would move us to the work of the High Holidays, of connection to the divine and shoring up our relationships with others.”

Rabbi Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in Richmond Heights, said he will build this year’s sermon on “the significance of the High Holy Days, on the meaning of Kol Nidre and on reaching out.”

Miller, who works on his sermon throughout the year, wants to “speak to people’s hearts, to demonstrate palpably how much the Tradition still speaks to today.” What is the primary message Miller wants to convey? “Hope,” he said.

For inspiration, Rabbi Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom follows the Psalms, particularly A Song to David. “First there is music to enter the place of greatest communication, to prepare the space, so to speak, for the burn. Then the speaking. I usually enter the space with musical preparation,” said Goodman, whose Congregation Neve Shalom is located in Creve Coeur.

This year, Goodman has written a piece that includes five images that he calls “imago.” He said, “Each one is transformative and related to the inner work of the season, the days of awe. I never know how I will give them over until the moment itself. Sometimes I don’t speak them at all. I hand them out and talk about them later in groups.”

Goodman added that he is not a fan of the word “sermon.” He said, “I have only heard one in my life that made any difference to me, and it wasn’t really a sermon, it was a story-telling.”

Goodman continued, “Now I write my stories/poems in advance, but often don’t take my papers out of my bag. I pay attention to my community, to the music, and I respect the silences. I think there are entirely too many words in the synagogue, so I am writing mostly in poetic forms now, and I always combine my offerings with music.”

Rabbi Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona, also in Creve Coeur, will offer congregants a sermon this year on Israel. “Our community seems to have lost that intimate connection between Diaspora Jewry and the hub in the homeland,” he said.

“We’re taking this seriously, and the ongoing effort that we’re involved with has impacted our culture as an institution. I hope the effort will motivate people to go to Israel, to participate with Israel in some way and to help support Israel.”

Rose will speak on the first day and Rabbi Emeritus Bernard Lipnick will speak the second day. “We’ll take different tacks,” said Rose. “Rabbi Lipnick’s orientation will be more nostalgic, as he was in Israel in 1948 and 1949.”

At the beginning of each summer, Rose starts putting together a file “to spark thought, ideas, direction” for the Rosh Hashana sermon. “I wrote a piece on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, ‘My life is my message,’ and that is an important mantra for me this year,” said Rose. “We are always being observed by the next generation and by people around us.”

Rose said that he rarely writes out full sermons in advance and he does not speak from notes — except on the High Holy Days. “I’m interested in mitigating the distance between pulpit and pew, so I like to come down into the congregation, walk around and talk. Some people love it and some do not,” he said.

Admitting that his approach is harder to pull off with the large crowds at Rosh Hashana, Rose said that he has not yet decided what he will do this year. “This introduces tension and drama,” he said, laughing. “Let’s keep them guessing.”

An organic approach

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth in Creve Coeur approaches composing sermons in an organic way, allowing ideas to germinate for a long time before he does any writing. That method sometimes leads to embracing the challenge — and thrill — of writing on deadline.

“In general, I think about possible topics for a long time, take notes, gather ideas, and then finally put the sermon to paper when it is timely — and of course, when the pressure is on,” said Bennett.

“I think that sermons need to come from within. When I feel that I have something meaningful to say, then it is easiest to say it. When I have something that inspires me, I find it easiest to share my inspiration with others,” Bennett continued. “When I finally sit down to prepare my messages, the words usually come.”

Bennett said that with each sermon, the experience is different, and he is never certain in advance what the response will be. “Some of the sermons I have given that have evoked the strongest responses surprised me. Those I thought would be most effective fell flat, and those that touched people the most were sometimes the ones I least expected to do so,” he said.

“But in general, the sermons I have found to be most meaningful to the congregation are those that come from within my experience, revealing my journey and struggles, and that reflect the very real journey and struggle of the people to whom I am speaking.”

Because of that, Bennett has come to believe that a sermon is a dialogue, “a conversation, in which I speak not only my own experience, doubts, wonder and amazement, but in which I strive to give voice to these same facets of my congregation’s experience as well.”

He added, “When the congregation responds, either affirming or challenging what I have shared, that is the most gratifying of all. I feel somewhat like an artist or musician who creates and then awaits the feedback of those who see or hear.”

This year on Rosh Hashana, Bennett will address the engagement of American Jews with Israel. “It is both a responsibility and an opportunity for American Reform Jews to be engaged in a meaningful way with Israel,” said Bennett. “To borrow from the language of MAKOM — an Israel engagement program of the Jewish Agency for Israel — we should be able to both hug and wrestle with Israel at the same time.”

Bennett added that he hopes to motivate his congregation to increase “travel to Israel, interest in the well-being of Israel and advocacy for Israel.” He said, “I firmly believe that this will also increase the relevance and meaning of Jewish life for each of us here as well.”