Do sermons really work? Can the words of any one individual really have an effect on the way people live their lives? Is anyone out there actually listening? (Reading?)
Rabbis are probably unrealistic when they anticipate dramatic results from their sermons. The late Rabbi Sydney Katz of Pretoria once compared the chances of a sermon succeeding to the odds of a man standing on top of the Empire State Building and throwing down an aspirin which would be caught by a man on the street below who just happened to have a headache at the time!
But we still try.
The Prophet Isaiah called the great flood of this week's parshah "waters of Noah." According to our sages, this is because Noah bore a degree of responsibility for the devastating deluge. But why was it his fault? Wasn't he the righteous man of his time? Apparently, because Noah may not have tried hard enough to turn around the corrupt lifestyle of his generation, the waters are named after him. Yes, he built his ark, but did he reach out to those who never saw his ark? Did he shout out to his contemporaries that doomsday was really coming?
Ever since Noah, this is the mission of anyone charged with the task of spiritual leader.
What is a rabbi? A religious functionary, an "official" to preside over our rites of passage? Sure, that is a very important part of the job, but is that all it is? The essence of a rabbi is to be a teacher, a guide for life, a moral barometer and the conscience of the community. The word rabbi means "my teacher." The rabbi's job is to teach Torah and to teach right from wrong based on the G‑dly value system enshrined in the Torah.
So occasionally it becomes necessary for rabbi to play preacher and point out the error of a community's ways. That's why the Talmud states, "When you see a rabbi who is beloved by the entire community, it is not because he is so good but rather because he does not rebuke them in matters of faith" (Talmud, Ketubot 105).
Speaking for myself, I am not a loner. I'm not anti-social. I like people and would love to be loved by everyone without exception. But there are times when one cannot shirk the moral responsibility to say what is right—and, sometimes, what is wrong.
Which brings us back to Noah. The sages are divided on the extent of Noah's righteousness. Yes, the Bible calls him a tzaddik, a righteous man. But the title is qualified when it adds the word "in his generations." Was he objectively righteous or only in comparison to his evil generation? How would he have rated when compared to a really saintly man like Abraham?
As always, both these perspectives are Torah, and therefore true. The full picture can only be ascertained when we look at a thing with both eyes. Are we products of our environment? Is it impossible to resist societal pressures? If so, then any good we manage to do is an incredible achievement and deserving of praise. Or, do we have the power to triumph over any and every obstacle in our paths? Look at Abraham who came from a pagan family, discovered G‑d, and changed the world. Judged by that standard, anything less than greatness is a failure. Which perspective will it be?
I am not unmindful of the wonderful growth in our community and, indeed, in my congregation. Who knows better than me of the inspiring new commitments made by so many, especially over the High Holidays. Hundreds of good resolutions for mitzvahs—resolutions to increase in shul attendance, putting on tefillin, putting up a mezuzah, keeping Shabbat and kosher, Torah study, giving charity, doing acts of kindness, and more. In a world gone mad, we are doing fantastic.
But from time to time we need to look from the other perspective as well. How are we doing compared to Abraham? Compared to what we could be?
The philosopher Herman Cohen was once asked why his lectures were so deep and over the heads of most of his audience. He answered, "I aim where their heads should be." Well, I aim where your hearts should be, where your souls should be. I fully appreciate where my people are at, but I refuse to lose sight of where they should be going. That is my purpose, my sacred responsibility and my dream. I dream about the neshamah, the G‑dly soul within each of you.
You say, "Rabbi, we are ordinary guys." I say no Jew is ordinary. Every Jew is special. I know what you are doing and I am proud of you for it. But I also know what you are capable of. Don't sell yourself short.
Please, don't shatter my dream. If we stop dreaming we stop hoping and we stop living. I love you all. You are all wonderful, good Jews. But for me the definition of a good Jew has always been "one who is trying to be a better Jew." As good as we may be, let us try to be better still. G‑d bless you.