By Art Samansky
On Rosh Hashanah, the mazhor advises, the destiny of all living things is written, and on Yom Kippur the fates are sealed. But something else also happens on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—rabbis across the spectrum offer their most important sermons of the year or at least sermons to the largest number of congregants.
Sadly, in too many cases, these highly visible sermons fall flat. The evidence is immediately obvious in the based-upon-reputation pre-sermon rush for the sanctuary doors, or the number of congregants who fall asleep around the second paragraph. Success can similarly be measured; in one shul with which I have great familiarity the rush to the doors is to get in before the rabbi begins his sermon.
But, the failure of sermons isn’t generally because the messages are weak (although some are), but more often they suffer from more than one of 10 critical presentation errors. The more the missteps the greater the likelihood of failure.
First is a poorly written sermon. Not all rabbis can write well, and their speeches could significantly benefit from a trained speechwriter. (To be fair, few of us would make skilled rabbis.) A speechwriter, of course, is a luxury few rabbis can afford. But, an inquiry might be made to the congregation for a volunteer who has that skill. You never know. Failing that, rabbis should concentrate on editing, editing, editing and not falling in love with their own words. Good writing requires numerous drafts; the first version can never be the final text. But, even a less than expertly written sermon can survive if other pitfalls are avoided. (The truly poorly written sermon hasn’t got, if you will, much of a prayer.)
Regardless of whether the rabbi pens his or her sermon, as one highly skilled rabbi I know points out, prepare and deliver the sermon “as if you were having a conversation with the congregants. Skip the preaching and shouting.”
And, as is often pointed out in basic college-level speech courses, use of strong, active verbs, easily recognizable nouns, and short sentences are central to success. Sermons are heard, not read by congregants—there’s no going back to immediately re-read or parse the sentence, later web-postings aside.
Second is irrelevancy. Too many sermons are steeped in the theoretical or are so far removed from being relevant to the average congregant that even the best message goes unnoticed. To get and keep the congregation interested, it is critical for rabbis to offer relevant commentary and focus on answering one question asked by every listener: why should I care, today?
Third is failing to develop focus. Too often the failed sermon has more messages than can be counted and is delivered almost scattershot: “I’ve got 10 things I want to tell you and I intend to tell you all of them as they come to mind.” Some years ago, in one synagogue, at least one group of congregants would make a “gentleman’s bet” at the start of the sermon—the first one to figure out what it was actually about would be named “sermon-winner.” Often no winner would be named and the sermon’s objective would remain a mystery. The best speeches adhere to the “rule of three” — the total number of key points tied directly to one overarching theme. (If the “rule of three” is sufficient for the Rosh Hashanah Silent Amidah, the rule should work for a sermon.)
Fourth is failure to understand technology. Random observation shows many rabbis have no idea how to use a microphone, where to stand in relation to the microphone, how loudly or softly to speak, and how to turn to one side of the congregation or the other without “going off mic.” Similarly, many rabbis don’t understand the basics of a wireless mic attached to his or her clothing, why it might not work well if improperly placed on the clothing, and why inadvertently hitting the attached wireless mic with a hand or notes will distort the sound—and the message.
Fifth is inattention to pronunciation and how not to swallow words or phrases, especially at the end of a sentence or thought. Many a message point has gone into the “what-did-he-say” box. The murmurings of the congregation focused on the missing word or phrase overwhelm the next sentences of the rabbi, ruining those thoughts as well. On the other hand, some rabbis talk so precisely—and loudly—that the remarks sound more like a verbal warm-up and the message sounds anything but sincere.
The importance of giving heed to errors four and five are obvious: if I can’t hear what you said, because of technology or pronunciation, it makes no difference what you said.
Sixth is poorly thought out length. The best speeches, and often the most memorable, are those that take no more than roughly 20 minutes—a few minutes over isn’t a major error. But, after that, observation suggests, people start losing focus and interest. More isn’t better. Consider, for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” at under 300 words, was roughly a two-minute presentation if read at a comfortable speed of about 150 words a minute.
To paraphrase one seminary professor—pointed out to me by a skilled rabbinical speaker—if you can’t hit oil within five minutes, stop boring, or you will be.
Seventh are the dangers of using jokes. Few rabbis are or have been stand-up comics; timing is central to joke-delivery. Further, few, if any rabbis, have a cadre of comedy writers at hand, as do many professional comics. As a result, almost every joke a rabbi is likely to tell has been heard before in one way or another. Lastly, what may strike a few members of the congregation, and the rabbi’s family, as funny or cute may be unintentionally hurtful to one or more listeners.
Even self-deprecating jokes may come across as being subtly directed at a congregant. The “hidden” feelings and sensitivities of people are just that—hidden. Of course, “put-down” jokes, regardless of target, should never even be thought of, let alone verbalized.
Over my roughly 60 years of actually listening (occasionally) to sermons (start the counting from my Bar Mitzvah), I have encountered fewer than a handful of rabbis who could make humor work. One exception is a rabbi I know well, and currently listen to intently, who has mastered the art of telling a light-hearted story—rather than a joke in the traditional sense—that folds directly into the sermon, or serves as a segue or a “tease” to the bigger message. Failing that rare skill, a rabbi should stick to being a rabbi and give up the faux comedy stage.
Eighth are sermons that veer into the repetitive category of, “I’m going to tell you what I’ m going to tell you; then I’m going to tell you; and then I’m going to tell you what I told you. Sometimes a rabbi falls into this oratorical style because of poor critical thinking and weak research, or because the point behind the sermon is so thin he or she is boxed into saying the same thing repeatedly. The style, beyond wasting time for meaningful “conversation” with the congregation, risks turning off listeners: “now that I know what you are going to ‘tell’ me, I think I’ll take a nap…or whisper to my neighbor.”
Ninth is a desire to unnecessarily add credibility to what was being said, by spending a huge amount of time citing the works and commentary of writers, movie-makers, theorists, Sages and others who said something that backed up the remark about to be made or just made.
Often the sermon sounds like a review class for an exam or a seminary Torah-study seminar for theologians. Says one very thoughtful rabbi, rabbinical students write many more “term papers” than sermons and unfortunately sometimes confuse the two. That same term-paper process also may play a role in the repetitive-style presentations. A sermon isn’t a footnoted term-paper.
Rabbis should recognize that as the leader of the congregation they start from a position of authority on a moral, ethical or religious issue and don’t need to bolster their credibility on those issues by continuously reciting comments of others to support the point.
Citing one or two sources on a special technical issue is fine. Beyond that, “verbal footnotes” should be kept to a minimum, and largely only to avoid plagiarism. As for Torah- study comments, often useful, rabbis should remember to keep them designed for the layman.
Tenth is a seemingly intentional effort to use two or three words or more where one will do— the “very pregnant” syndrome. Pregnant is pregnant and is neither “slightly” nor “very.” Skip the unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
To avoid most of these pitfalls, rabbis should be mindful of Hillel’s example of how to explain the whole Torah in the time it is possible for a person to stand on one foot.
Mr. Samansky is a principal of a communications consulting firm that includes presentation/speech training as one of its six core disciplines.