My friend Moishe has a problem. His rabbi’s sermons are so dull they make the hum of an air conditioning unit sound compelling in comparison. Moishe is not alone.
I doubt they spend more than half a day at rabbinic college on sermons, which is odd given that it’s the only part of the service the rest of us are ever likely to understand. Every sermon I have witnessed in an orthodox shul follows the same old pattern.
By way of introduction, your spiritual leader tells you how fascinating and important this week’s sedra is. There’s an uninteresting paradox here: the more tedious the sedra, the more fascinating he’ll tell you it is, the more irrelevant it appears, the more important it must be.
Soon after embarking on his twisting journey, the rabbi recites a line or two from the weekly portion in Hebrew and continues without pausing into the English translation. This is the key line around which his message pivots.
The rabbi then links this chosen phrase to something from recent current affairs. This is a crucial step for without it we would question the relevance of Judaism to our modern lives. That the link is both as tenuous and as convenient as Nick Griffin’s support for Israel is neither here nor there.
At some point the rabbi may well alight on a “curiosity” in the text. In other words, something that either makes no sense at all to anyone with a normally wired brain, or something that is so abhorrent to modern sensibilities that we are forced to place it within the category of “Hashem the inexplicable”. To help with this discomfort the rabbi provides you with some equally incomprehensible reasoning from one of our sages. This explanatory discourse is about as unfathomable as the Dorabella Cipher but don’t worry – the point is to send your head into a spiral of confusion so that you become unaware of everything you are subsequently told.
The conclusion is a delightful sleight of tongue. Here’s how the whole thing happens in stages:
1 The sedra for this week is relevant to what is happening in the world today.
2 Our modern lives are built upon ancient traditions.
3 Our ancient traditions are maintained by observing the mitzvot
4 If we don’t keep mitzvot we are not good Jews
5 That means you, buddy. Thank you and good shabbos.
The only variation on this theme comes at the high holy days when the message is substituted for one along the lines of “coming to shul twice a year is not often enough”, which is about as encouraging as your doctor inviting you to contract some nasty diseases so you can make more frequent visits to the surgery.
Finally, I must stress that this only holds for those who attend orthodox shuls. The rest of you probably receive a discourse on human rights in Papua New Guinea. I’m not sure which I’d prefer.