Fear and Trembling About High Holy Days Services

This past weekend, fear and trembling made a triumphant return to the Jewish calendar. The new month of Elul, which began this weekend, initiates the holiday countdown that will lead to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in just a few short weeks. But it is more than just a calendric alarm clock. As my colleague Rabbi David Markus recently wrote, Elul itself carries spiritual significance as a time to begin soul-searching and stock-taking of our individual behaviors over the past year.

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Elul carries with it a particular sense of urgency, if not dread, for those officiating at High Holy Days services. Summer vacation is now officially over. The lists of details for the myriad services that will take place — who is leading each reading, getting each aliyah, opening or closing the ark — can be truly staggering. Searches begin in earnest for those pithy anecdotes or fascinating studies of human nature that were clipped from newspapers or dog-eared in books we have been reading over the past year. Rabbis in smaller shuls now must coordinate with guest cantors, synagogue choirs, or brush up on their own chanting abilities. And, of course, there is the coup de gras —the High Holy Days sermons. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, for those looking for a new house of worship, “Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders.” At 83%, the quality of the sermon was the single highest factor in determining Americans’ choice of congregation.  So the pressure many rabbis feel, myself included, to craft and deliver quality sermons is tremendous.

But if I am honest with myself, the sermon actually is the easy part of transmitting meaning and content on the High Holy Days. It is conveyed in the vernacular and crafted to connect, deeply and personally, with those in attendance. What is truly hard, and what really fills me with fear, is how to make the rest of the services resonate.