Monday, September 18, 2017

A Rabbinic Nightmare

My first High Holy Day pulpit was at Beale Air Force Base about an hour north of Sacramento.  (Beale had at one time been a Japanese internment camp.)  My rabbi, William Dalin, who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah, was retired military.  He functioned as the chief Jewish chaplain of the western states.  As such it was his responsibility to make sure that someone was available to lead High Holy Day services wherever Jewish military personnel were stationed.  I was in college at the University of California, Berkeley, and Rabbi Dalin called to ask me to lead services at a base.  There was someone from the local lay community who would assist with davening and reading Torah, but I would have overall responsibility to prepare sermons and oversee the conduct of the service.  That was 1968.

I have led High Holy Day services every year thereafter until my retirement just over two years ago.  This will be my third Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where I will attend rather than lead services, be a congregant in the pews, rather than trying to infuse added meaning into these Days of Awe from the pulpit.  It's a very different feeling and a wonderful relief.

So what terrorizes a pulpit rabbi, or at least what annual nightmares plagued me year after year?  The prospect of arriving at Rosh Hashanah services without a sermon!  How would I stand before the congregation and excuse my lack of preparation? It's comparable to the universal nightmare of appearing in public stark naked.

Not only am I no longer plagued by such nightmares, but I have come to appreciate what August and September are like.  I can now do wonderful ordinary things during these extraordinary months of the year: enjoy a relaxing meal and conversation, read the paper and do the crossword, go bike riding with grandchildren visiting from San Diego, attend a theater production with my wife.  Such amazing joy.

Although I was not always as productive on a day by day basis during these weeks as I would have liked to be; in fact I was often the opposite of productive.  Writing what one hopes will be profound thoughts is enormously difficult.  Nevertheless August and September were devoted to High Holy Day prep.  Certainly much else filled the agenda.  Weekly Bar/Bar Mitzvah celebrations, speaking every Friday evening and Saturday morning, funerals and hospital visits which proceed as always.  The school year and the calendar of synagogue events preparation: adult ed, High Holy Day honors, teen assignments for parts, etc. all need to be attended too and in fact dealing with those matters allowed me a welcome excuse to procrastinate.

Each year there invariably was a book or two whose subject matter intrigued me and I considered to
possibly contain thoughts for an appropriate Kol Nidre sermon.  And those times were devoted as well to searching for a sermon's opening story or anecdotes to share as the long service progressed.

All my High Holy Day angst certainly had its affect on my family, most particularly my wife, of course.  I focused all of my energy on the need to be prepared.  Those closest to me suffered.

People continue to wonder how I have adjusted to retirement.  Without doubt the biggest change is my ability to prepare for these Days of Awe as a private person.  It is difficult to describe what a relief it is.  I am looking forward to davening along with our new cantor and to listening to the thoughts about repentance from David Kosak, our rabbi.

Someday he too will experience how wonderful August and September can be.  

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