Friday, September 01, 2000

Between Arrogance and Awe

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

"Here I am, stuck in the middle with you..."
It's that time of year again. Elul has come, the holidays approach, and I am stuck. Struck dumb by the vastness of the task, the wideness of the world, I once again feel myself wanting for words.

Almost every year, as the summer inexorably fades to fall, I have a recurring dream. It is Rosh Hashanah. I step up to the lectern for the beginning of my sermon. I open the manila file folder in which I have placed my remarks and, to my horror, the folder is empty. I look out at the sea of faces. And I wing it.

I haven't had the dream yet this year. But it is due sometime soon.

The funny thing is: I've never, ever, ever put a sermon in a file folder before reading it.

"Hin'ni, he'ani mimas, nifchad m'pachad yosheiv t'hilot Yisrael."  It is the cantor's prayer at the opening of High Holy Day services, or the rabbi's. They are among the most sincere words of prayer I utter all year long. "Behold, me of little merit, trembling and afraid as I stand before You, to plead for your people Israel." And plead with them. And find something to say.

Two things make High Holy Day sermons hard for me. The first is sorting through my head. The second is sorting through my heart. 

As to the first, truly, there is so very much to say. Each year, the events of the past, the horrors of hatred or nature, each year its own share of earthquakes or hurricanes, terrorism and hate crimes, each year another occasion to dwell on the nature of suffering whatever its source. Each year there are the gaffes of leaders, the stumbling of the mighty, examples of moral outrage -- or courage -- all around. Meditations on the meaning of life, the contemplation of death, the vastness of the universe and, of course, the importance of Israel Bonds.

From the middle of the summer, every article, every encounter, every touch of nature's beauty and every hint of a possible insight becomes grist for the proverbial sermonic mill. Do or say something interesting anywhere near a rabbi during the summer, and risk being immortalized in front of a captive congregation. The ideas and insights cook in some kind of mental mulligatawny soup until either something wonderful emerges, or it does not.

Which spice to use, which ingredient stands out, can affect the feel of the whole holiday period for countless listeners. (Except for those who sleep during the sermon. That, too, is an ancient Jewish tradition.)

First comes the sifting of ideas. Then must come the sifting of the soul.

For who am I, after all, to stand up there, and try to touch people's lives? What right do I have to try, and what chutzpah to think I can succeed? There are times -- often when I encounter very capable colleagues, at conferences, in teaching sessions where someone shares a brilliant insight or opens up a whole new world for me, or in encounters with people I am supposed to be teaching, who give and teach me so much more than I give to them -- when I am stunned into silence, in awe and appreciation, at the gifts I have been given from others, at the depth and talent and wisdom and powerful presence of others.

I have seen so very, very many colleagues and companions. What hope have I to hope to stand among these giants?

I speak of the dilemma of this season, from a rabbi's point of view. But it is not just for rabbis and cantors. Perhaps I am not alone in standing on the razor's edge, between appreciation and envy, between arrogance and awe.

To accomplish anything of significance in this world, all of us must find the right mix, the proper balance, between a perspective so broad that it stills our hand, and a bloated view of our own importance.

In that narrow and occasional zone of a healthy ego, we discover anew: that what we do matters. That we can reach others. And that, if we let the world touch us, we can, perhaps, touch the world in return.