Back in the days when I was a student rabbi, I learned an important lesson about sermon topics and substance. A sometimes friend was coming to visit our small congregation in Connecticut – a person who vacillated between extraordinary displays of warmth and incredible insensitivity, without predictability. This person had recently modified a public document to make the family name sound less Jewish and behaved with proactive belligerence about it, almost daring me to say or do something to provoke a disagreement.
So, summoning my latent passive-aggressive tendencies, I was sweetness and light during the weekend visit, and 1 wrote a sermon about being proud of one’s identity for that Friday night. The visitor was in synagogue to see me “rabbi.” The sermon went straight over the person’s head.
However, another member of the synagogue stood up at the end of the sermon and ran out of the room in tears. As soon as the service ended, 1 went to seek her out. She was furious with me. How dare I embarrass her like that? Her mother, a convert to Judaism who had been abandoned by her husband, had changed her name because of the abuse from both her ex-husband and her family of origin.
I, as a relatively recent arrival in town, had no clue about the story until that moment. But I learned an important lesson nonetheless about using my pulpit to avoid a necessary conversation with an individual. I remember vowing right then and there never to lecture an individual in front of a crowd again. When I speak about matters of the soul or matters of the heart, I always start with myself in the hopes that my own experiences will somehow translate in a shared experience with others.
Why do I mention this anecdote and its lesson? Nothing is more gratifying to me than to hear that something I said from the pulpit produced a personal insight for a congregant. But when I hear – as I did from too many congregants this past High Holy Day season – that a sermon I wrote was specifically about them, I am immediate in insisting otherwise. Whatever my other shortcomings, I would never so embarrass someone in those fifteen (okay, thirty-five) minutes of air time. If there were brave souls who shared their conclusion with me, there were certainly many more who felt too shamed to acknowledge similar conclusions.
Among the purposes of any decent religious tradition is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And no one among us, most especially me, is immune from the need for personal “tikkun,” refinement. But every member of the congregation should know that a personal matter will never be fodder for a public tongue-lashing. And if something sounds close to home in what I say, it is only because I share that characteristic and hope that, together, we can find a way to grow.