In the 15th century book Eine Haqore, Joseph ibn Shem Tov tells of a self-regarding preacher. He began by telling the congregation that his talk would be divided into three parts: the first both he and they would understand. The second, only he would understand. The third neither of them would understand. Shem Tov adds that most of the sermons he hears fall in the third category.
Sermons (or drashot) are as old as faith, and criticisms about sermons as old as sermons. “A bad preacher, like the good rain, does not know when to stop,” complained Ralph Waldo Emerson, voicing a sentiment shared by many congregants throughout the centuries. For Anthony Trollope, “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.” Leon Modena in the 17th century said that there was thunder and lightning on Sinai because God knew that when Jews hear words of Torah, they fall asleep!
Words can uplift, and they can sedate. But to have great poems, as Whitman reminds us, there must be great readers. A sermon is a collaboration; it requires an adept speaker, and an eager audience. Given both, words of Torah, through the magic medium of the human voice, can both instruct and inspire.
Rabbi David Wolpe’s musings are shared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter, Recharge, a weekly collection of readings to refresh your soul. Sign up to receive the newsletter.