Five chaverim share thoughts on a social-justice-themed sermon they might give in the upcoming High Holiday season. We hope that their insights will move your intellectual gears as you prepare to deliver sacred messages to your community. Each chaver will share a topic, the text they are basing their sermon around, and the takeaway they hope their audience will leave with. These are not meant to be full length divrei Torah, just bullet points that you can use to help you in writing your own sermons.
Rabbi Mona Alfi – Congregation B’nai Israel (Sacramento, Calif.)
“Fight Apathy & Choose Life” starts by acknowledging that it is a normal human reaction to shut down and to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of critical problems facing society, and to say “not my problem.” But now, more than ever, it is critical for us to act, and for us to work together on the issues that concern us the most. On the High Holidays, we are called on to “choose life” – not life for the sake of merely existing, but rather a life which makes the world better than how we found it.
- Unetaneh Tokef – Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah transcend the harshness of the decree.
- “This day I call heaven and earth to witness regarding you: life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. Choose life—so that you and your children may live—by loving, obeying, and staying close to THE ETERNAL your God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, read in many Reform congregations in lieu of the traditional reading from Leviticus 16.)
- “[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)
The High Holiday liturgy — from the Unetaneh Tokef to the Yom Kippur morning Torah reading — reminds us that life and death is in our hands, not only God’s. Choosing life is not just about averting death, it is about choosing to live with purpose and meaning. On Yom Kippur, we are reminded how interconnected our lives are, how each of our choices impacts our fellow humans. But that is our strength and our redemption. If we choose to act together by engaging in teshuvah (engaging in a fresh start), with acts of tefillah (to replenish our souls), and with tzedakah (giving our time and resources), we can, together, choose life.
Rabbi James M. Bennett – Congregation Shaare Emeth (Saint Louis, Mo.)
“Whence Integrity? Restoring the Ethical Imperative to our Lives” would acknowledge a void of integrity, ethics, and decency in our generation. Divisive polarization, self-interest, politics, fears of loss, and abandonment of our core principles in the public sphere have eroded the importance of integrity and ethics, values that religious and faith traditions — including our own — have cherished and taught for generations. One of our most compelling challenges, if we seek to increase justice in our world today, is to restore this ethical imperative and to make integrity one of our highest aspirational values once again.
- וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹקיךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶֽם׃
Do not wrong one another but have awe/fear for your God; for I the ETERNAL am your God. (Leviticus 25:14,17)
- Rashi teaches of וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ (“do not wrong”) in verse 17: “Do not wrong one another: Here we are warned against wronging by words—one should not annoy another person, man, nor give unfitting advice… and if you should say, “who knows whether I had any intention to do another person evil?” The Torah therefore states: “but you shall have awe/fear for God,” the One who knows our thoughts.”
Many failures of justice have shined a bright light on our failure of integrity. Our first task is to restore a sense of ethical imperative to our lives once again, individually and collectively. Through faith and action, we must commit to rising from these Days of Awe committed to living lives of integrity, guided by the highest ethical values of our faith, and to work actively, by example and with our hearts, voices, and votes, to encourage others to join us in this sacred task.
Rabbi Barry Block – Congregation B’nai Israel (Little Rock, Ark.)
“We Are a Traumatized Nation” would explore how America has been traumatized by a long, unprecedented, and enduring pandemic; by threats to democracy; by antisemitism that none of us, Gen-X or older at least, expected to recur in our lifetimes; by a history and present of systemic racism; and by recent Supreme Court decisions limiting Americans’ rights and threatening to limit them further.
- Based on Rabbi Shoshanah Conover’s contribution for Parshat Chukat in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, the mashal would be Moses at the waters of Meribah — grieving Miriam’s recent death, and also traumatized by his entire life experience, beginning with being placed in the Nile as a baby.
The nechemta would be a teaching that Rabbi Conover shares from Midrash Yelamdenu, that Moses’ and Aaron’s staffs are the same. The staff that Moses uses to strike the rock at Meribah is also the rod that he earlier lifted to part the sea and is Aaron’s staff that blossoms. The future can be better.
Rabbi Lauren Henderson – Or Hadash (Sandy Springs, Ga.)
“We, the Dreamers: Imagining the Future of our Zionism” would focus on reengaging with the notion of Zionism. It is time for the community — for the most part deeply connected to Israel, but spanning a range of political viewpoints — to address different generations that seem unable to acknowledge where each other are coming from. How can we reconcile those varying perspectives, from undying love for the nation-state to complete disillusionment with the enterprise, to talk productively about what assumptions we bring to the table?
Psalm 126 (Shir HaMa’alot)
Shaul Tchernikovsky’s poem “Ani Ma’amin” (also known as “Sachki Sachki“)
We must think about what our Zionism could and should look like 75 years into the project of building the State of Israel. As a Jewish community primarily living in North America, we need to reclaim the work of dreaming and envisioning the future of Israel, and not just see our Zionism as about preserving the status quo.
Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg – Shir Tikvah (Minneapolis, Minn.)
“Rupture and Release: Greeting the New Year and This Unimagined World” would explore how our tradition equips us to meet the challenges of this climate crisis and our warming planet. As we leave our shmita year and move into a posture of action and cultivation, hopefully the community can be set up to take on further learning and principled action in the year to come.
- היום הרת עולם should be read not as the world reborn as it was, but as a demand on us to be open to a world being born in a new way, with challenge and beauty that we can’t anticipate.
- The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh explores the link between imagination and our capacity to understand and address climate catastrophe.
Let us understand היום הרת עולם not as the day the world is reset but as the day the world opens to what is coming. We don’t return to what was but open to what is irrevocably changed. Let’s aim our imaginations towards the world being born this year without needing it to resemble what was.