How to give a great sermon

September 1, 2010

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.


July 3, 2009

“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes”.

I’ve never been totally convinced that the Almighty really did intend us to take a series of lines from the Torah, put them into funny little square boxes with long strips of leather attached and then to put them on every morning to pray, but I’m glad I do it nonetheless. And what about winding the strap round your forearm seven times, but without counting?

Every religion needs something a bit strange, and for me, laying tefillin is just a bit strange. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a unique selling proposition.

I grew up without tefillin and for me they epitomised everything that was wrong with religion; blind faith manifested in a ridiculous ritual. I just couldn’t get over how crazy it looked.  It undermined my pride in Judaism and even made me angry and embarrassed.  I saw the arm strap as a heroin addict’s tourniquet, and imagined an accompanying syringe filled with spiritual claptrap.

Perhaps this is the natural cynicism that one will find in most teenagers, especially those who grow up in an irreligious home.  Maturity should have seen my cynicism become indifference.  I ought to have stopped thinking how daft tefillin are and just got on with life, but that never happened.  I was always fascinated by tefillin, and as my spiritual journey progressed, I realised it wasn’t going to go very far without me buying a set and learning how to put them on.  That’s when I came to understand that laying tefillin, being such an obscure tradition, is something that defines Judaism.

As far as I’m aware, no other religion does anything like this.  Sure, they may have their own strange customs, but they don’t make black boxes out of the hides of particular animals, put particular prayers inside them in a particular order then stitch them up and add straps with clever little knots, and a detailed set of user instructions.

I also appreciate them on an aesthetic level.  Tefillin are beautiful things, and all the more beautiful when one considers how much care and attention goes into making them.  How the sofer writes with his attention fully on the job in hand, not listening to the radio or thinking about the weekend.  They are beautiful in that they look so perfect.  They are perfectly square, perfectly black, and the straps of my tefillin fit me perfectly now that we are familiar with each other.  When I wear them, and I create the “shin” on my hand, it looks great.  It’s a lovely, strong, clear “shin”.

My son has recently started to lay tefillin and now I think I really understand the meaning behind these peculiar objects.  His tefillin are enormous on him and the strap winds around his hand about 20 times. It keeps coming loose as the straps are rather stiff and we’re still trying to get it to fit his head properly (I think his head must swell and shrink with the weather or something).

The first time I helped him to put them on was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.  Here I was, continuing a tradition that stretched back at least 2000 years.  Doing my little bit.  L’dor v’dor.

As he gets older I imagine he’ll wonder why on earth we do this ridiculous thing.  I imagine he’ll stop laying tefillin at some point, or at least he’ll only do it occasionally.  And I hope that if that’s the case they’ll sit quietly in a drawer somewhere, patiently waiting for him to rediscover them, their beauty, and the tradition they represent.  And maybe he’ll start to use them regularly again one day and realise how peaceful one can sometimes feel when bound up in the straps, as I sometimes do when I daven shacharit.   It may look ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than some of the hats I see in shul.

Purim Rap

March 6, 2009

I’m sure I’m not alone with my deep fear for the future of Anglo-Jewry.  Perhaps it’s the fault of soap operas, Facebook and texting, I don’t know.  One thing’s for sure, a good proportion of our young people have the attention span of a gnat with ADHD.  They can’t concentrate for longer than 30 seconds and, furthermore, they talk as if they were brought up in the ghetto – not the Jewish one, the Elvis one.

Purim approaches.  How are we to ensure that our children are able to pass on the tale to future generations?  I have the answer.

Here’s a three minute purim rap (by my calculation the average teenager should only need to deal with five texts in that time) written in a language that will hopefully make sense to them, if not the rest of us.

“ Yo Vashti, let me see you dance”.
“Soz” she said, “you’ve got no chance”.
“You’re dissin’ me, get off the scene
I’ll find myself another queen”.

Virgins from across the nation
Competed to be his relation
Mordechai thought “I’ll eat my hat,
If he don’t think cuz’ Esther’s phat”.

“Esther, try to be his bride
You might as well, there’s no downside.
But keep well shtum, don’t give a clue
That you were born a lowly Jew”.

Dressed up in a fancy gown
Esther won the bling bling crown
While Mordi, waiting by the gates
Heard a plot hatched by two mates.

He’s like “Warn Ahashverosh,
So he can put on the kibosh”.
She’s to the king “these homeys are spies
They want you dead before sunrise”.

Later the King says “Haman’s cool,
I’m gonna let him help me rule”
The people bowed when he passed by
Except the Jew called Mordechai.

Now Haman he was truly wicked
No, I mean really wicked, not like, wicked.
I mean to say he was terribly bad.
I’m saying, bad, not, you know, bad.

So Haman made this evil plan
And mentioned it to the main man.
He goes: “I’m gonna kill the Jews.
Send messengers to spread the news.”

Now Mordechai knew what occurred
But didn’t know if Esther’d heard.
Hatach came back with news at last
And Esther told the Jews to fast.

She then went off to see her husband
Who offered to give her half all his land.
“Come to my place”, she goes, “for food
And bring with you that Haman dude”.

The King said “mmm, this food is sick,
But why d’you call us?  What’s drastic?”
She goes, “come back again tomorrow
I’ll tell you then about my sorrow”.

By now old Haman’s really miffed
Cos Mordi doesn’t get his drift.
“Build some gallows”, Zeresh said
“And in the morning see him dead”.

That night the king had trouble zizzing
So he got up to do some admin,
And decided to reward the man
Who’d grassed on Teresh and Bigtan.

He’s like: “how do I big up someone
Who’s served me better than anyone?”
Haman thinks “he must mean me”
And suggests a procession for all to see.

“Do it for Mordechai who sits at the gate,
Hurry blood, don’t be late”.
Reluctantly he performed the honour
Then rushed off for the second dinner.

Once again the King asked Esther
“Tell me what it is that’s vexed yer”.
She’s like “This Haman and his creeps
Have planned to murder all my peeps.”

Then Charvonah spoke and revealed
The gallows Haman had concealed
The King said “hang the Agagite,
And give Esther his whole estate”.

He then made Mordechai the estate’s new master
While Esther reminded him of the impending disaster
So to help the Jews in fear of attack
He gave them permission to all fight back.

Mordi was safe, reckoned the King
So he made the rules, and he used his ring.
The gentiles were scared and some went over
To Judaism before Passover.

On the thirteenth day of the month of Adar
Jews sought and killed Parshandata
And his bruvs; the sons of Haman
Plus 500, just in Shushan

Two whole days saw Jewish retribution
For Haman’s plan to inflict persecution
Thousands were stabbed, the place was trashed,
And that is the reason we now get mashed.


Building My Own Mishkan

March 1, 2009

So inspired was I by last week’s Torah portion that I decided to build my own tabernacle.  Well, when I say inspired, what I really mean is confused.  Reading the text, it is virtually impossible to understand the instructions to make, let’s face it, a few bits of simple furniture.  For the first time I appreciated those wordless IKEA instructions that at least allow one to believe they are succeeding in building whatever useless object it is they have queued for 3 days to purchase.

With this in mind, I thought I’d try IKEA first, and trotted round to Brent Park to see if they sold flat pack arks.  As it turns out they do (they’re called Fleemg I think, or is it Kllurm?) but unfortunately, as with all IKEA products, they only come in a non-standard size and as everyone knows, the Torah is very clear about the size of the tabernacle and all its contents.

I therefore decided I would have to study the text carefully and try to make my own from scratch.  Which brings me to the first of God’s little teases.  The almighty knows full well how useless we Jews are at DIY.  He must have been having a joke, right?  All those miracles just a few weeks ago, and yet he couldn’t just give the Israelites the Mishkan.  He had to send them into a sweat fuelled frenzy of panic while they tried to create this thing.  I can hear the arguments even now, passing down through the centuries.  “No! you said you’d collect the gold, I said I’d get the wood!” and “What on earth are you doing?  How are we supposed to put the cherubs on now, we haven’t finished gilding it yet!”

After several hours of translating and note taking, I took myself off, with trepidation, to Homebase.

“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I need 11 cubits of acacia wood, a cubit and a half wide, plus some acacia wood poles as well, two, about 8 cubits each”.
“How much?”
“What do you mean?  I just told you how much.  About 11 cubits”.
“What’s a cubit?”
I hesitated and then unconfidently placed my hands in front of me, flat palms facing each other, about shoulder width apart.  “About this much?”
“Right, well we don’t have acacia wood.  Will MDF do?”
“Not really”.
“Pine? Contiboard?”
“Oh give me the MDF then.  It’s got to be covered with gold anyway so no-one will know”.
“To cover the MDF?”
“We don’t sell gold”.
“I was aware.  I was thinking gold spray”.
“Aisle four”.
“Thanks.  And four gold rings?”
“What is this, the 12 days of Christmas?”
“They’re to hold the MDF poles”.
“Try the curtain section”.

For the crown and cherubs I spent hours sifting through tat at Camden Market and even then the angels were a bit too big.  Still, I did it, and now I feel truly connected to my ancestors as they traipsed through the desert.  In fact, I know exactly how my own antecedents must have felt:

“What kind of God is this?  He takes us into the desert and then gets us to play Changing Rooms.  When we get out of this mess I’m never going to do a single DIY job again for as long as I live.  I’ll find some goy to do it for me instead.”

And that’s why all you’ll ever find in a Jew’s tool kit is a butter knife and an old hammer with a loose head.