High Holiday Sermons Will Ask Congregants to Look Inward


As an Orthodox rabbi, Isaac Leizerowski has some thoughts about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. The leader of Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob in Philadelphia believes that those speeches should focus on the same themes.

The High Holidays, according to Leizerowski, are not a time to talk about politics, current events or “the latest fads in society.” They are a time for self-reflection and self-improvement — a process that culminates with repentance during the Yom Kippur fast.

“And everyone hopefully has the insight to be able to repair their own small world,” Leizerowski said. “All Orthodox rabbis have the same theme.”

During the upcoming High Holidays beginning Sept. 25, when 5782 becomes 5783, other area rabbis are following the lead of their more traditional contemporaries. Spiritual leaders in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions alike are asking their congregants to look inward, not outward, this year.

Rabbi Danielle Parmenter of Darchei Noam in Ambler is asking her congregants to step back this High Holiday season, and to rediscover the spiritual. (Photo by Debbie Goldberg)

Even a non-denominational rabbi, Danielle Parmenter of the Darchei Noam congregation in Ambler, is encouraging her members to “fight our human desire to be entertained and captivated every single moment.” In explaining why she chose that theme, Parmenter quoted the German spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” she said.

But we have lost this bit of wisdom, she argued.

“We’re just so distracted. We can’t be with our own thoughts. We’re too afraid. They’re too powerful,” she continued. “We watch TV. We’re on social media all the time. They numb us from God’s presence.”

According to Parmenter, we are living in a dark time. The world, with its pandemic, wars and inflation pressures, feels like it’s falling apart. But she believes that, despite all of that, “we are moving toward the light.”

The first step, though, is to step back; to breathe; to clear our minds. Only then can we do what we are supposed to do during the reflective month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays, and during the holidays themselves: Look out and notice that the king is in the fields.

The king, spoiler alert, is God, and during the month of Elul, “God leaves the divine realm to be with the masses,” Parmenter explained. And if we are able to become present, we will also be able to see that our own realm is now divine.

“We need to look for God in the little details of life,” she said. “What we often think are mundane moments are filled with potential for magnificence and connection.”

Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown is reminding his congregants this High Holiday season to play the long game, and to focus less on material rewards. (Courtesy of Rabbi Aaron Gaber)

Rabbi Aaron Gaber of the Conservative Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown believes that, in 5783, we should begin to choose “the infinity game” over “the finite game.” What he means is that Jews must focus less on short-term goals, relating to events like elections and economic cycles, and more on long-term goals that are not about a material reward.

In his sermon, Gaber plans to discuss a synagogue effort to send honey bears to congregants to wish them a happy new year. It would be less expensive to make members come to the temple to pick them up. But then, the “sweet new year” sentiment from leaders to congregants would not have been as clear.

He is also going to talk about Project Tzedek, a partnership between CBOI and a local school district to work on issues like food insecurity and educational access. There is no specific goal with the partnership — just a general one to try and make things better.

“At the end of the game, I won’t know what the score is, but that we are working towards bettering ourselves and bettering others,” Gaber said.

Rabbi Nathan Weiner of the Conservative Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, New Jersey, lost his 47-year-old brother earlier this year. So, on the holidays, he wants to talk about how “life doesn’t end with death.”

The Jewish God is a God of oneness, according to Weiner. But what is oneness when it comes to the cycle of life and death? And returning to the Earth? And a soul that is without end?

You can neither see nor touch Weiner’s brother’s presence in the lives of the people he left behind, like his two teenage children. But he is still there. They can feel his influence and refer to what he might say.

“Being is eternal,” Weiner said.

With that intense focus on spirituality, rabbis from all denominations are embracing Orthodoxy this year.

“To the spiritual class of people, we do not need world events to spur us to a realization of what is lacking,” Leizerowski concluded. “We believe in a God.” JE

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