What is your sermon? – Yom Kippur 5773, Kol Nidrei

Every year, as the High Holidays are approaching, I find that a lot of people ask me how things are going.  Sometimes in jest, “Hey Rabbi, how are things going?” sometimes out of curiosity, “Rabbi, how are things going?”  Sometimes, out of concern for my sanity, “Rabbi, how are things going?”  As you can imagine, the High Holidays are an incredibly busy time of year for the staff and volunteers in a synagogue, with countless logistics, meetings, and coordination that has to take place.
For Rabbis, or at least for this one, my High Holiday preparations are dominated by the prospect of having to write and deliver sermons.  For whatever reason, there is a certain mystique around the High Holiday sermon.  As if it is supposed to be better researched, or more scholarly, or longer than usual.  Don’t worry, my High Holiday sermons are about the same length as my weekly Shabbat sermons.
But for some reason, I do feel the need to put more into them.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services bring our entire community together.  Plus, our synagogue is filled with guests and visitors.  It really is a special moment, a unique opportunity.
We come to synagogue on the High Holidays with the expectation, or at least the hope, to be inspired, or even transformed.  No pressure.
I have spoken on many occasions about how our tradition teaches us to prepare for the Days of Awe.  With introspection and soul-searching, reviewing our actions from the previous year and asking ourselves how we can make amends for those times when we have gone astray.  Only if we have done all of this soul-work does the day of Yom Kippur truly result in atonement.  In short, Yom Kippur only works if we do teshuvah first.
And so, it is a time for going deep into ourselves, and reaching out to those people whose lives touch ours.  It is a uniquely inward experience.
The irony for me, as I preach about it, is that there is a part of me that recognizes that this is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments.  The experience of a Rabbi on the High Holidays is unique.  Instead of preparing for a deeply personal experience, I prepare to help guide a community of hundreds of people through these holy days.
Turning inward in teshuvah is, to say the least, a challenge when I am so focused on finding an idea that I think might be relevant, and that will speak to, the hundreds of Jews who I know will be coming through these doors during the High Holidays.  Basically, we Rabbis guess.  All year long, I find myself on the alert for ideas, stories, and anecdotes that might be interesting.  When I hear one, I think to myself, “That would make a great High Holiday sermon!” and I file it away in the back of my mind.
For me, writing High Holiday sermons is a gut-wrenching experience.  The truth is, there is nothing special about me that makes what I have to say any more relevant or valid than what anyone else has to say.  I may have the title “Rabbi” in front of my name, but it does not give me any special wisdom.  I try to always remember this by asking myself:  “Who the heck are you?  How do you get off doing this?”
When I stand up here to speak, I am really just talking to myself.  That is the only thing I can do and remain true to my neshamah, my soul.  As I wrestle with topics for these sermons, I eventually wind up, whether consciously or unconsciously, choosing something that I am wrestling with in my own life.  Something that has been a struggle for me.  For Rosh Hashanah this year, that meant the ability to slow down and think before reacting in stressful situations, and my role as a father in guiding my children towards their dreams, rather than living out my failures through them.
Something happens in the course of writing a sermon.  The challenge of taking deep-seated emotions, hints of feelings, fragments of thoughts, and extracting them, and coalescing them into something that I can put into words and articulate to a room full of people is transformative.  I learn something about myself every time I go through the experience.
If you have ever taught anything, you know that you have only truly mastered a subject when you can teach it to others.  A Rabbi has not truly dealt with an issue until he or she has grappled with it before a congregation.
And just when I think I have wrapped it all up, there is always that person who comes up afterwards with a question, or a counterargument, that makes me reconsider everything I had thought.
I have been transformed by you, by all of the people whom I have been blessed to come into contact with.  That is why the High Holidays, for me, are a period of introspection and  personal growth.  As stressful as this process can be, I feel fortunate that this is my job.
And so, I put the challenge to all of us.  What is your sermon?
What have you learned in the past year through your successes and even more importantly, through your failures and regrets?  What have you learned from your education?  What have you learned from your marriage, or your divorce?  What have you learned from working?  Form building a home?  From raising children?
What has happened to you that has taught you something about life?  How could you share that lesson with someone else?
If you had 10 minutes to stand up in font of everyone you care about in the world, and tell them the most important things you know, what would you say?
It is said that we all have a Torah to teach.  A Torah of our lives.  Take the next 24 hours and think about it.  How can your life experience transform you and your loved ones?  Find someone with whom you can share your Torah, and from whose Torah you can learn, and sit down and have a conversation.

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