About maportnoy

Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, DC and children's book author.

A Rabbi’s Avodah

by Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

Writing a sermon (especially for the High Holidays) was always like piecing together a puzzle for me.

I would gather all the articles, essays, books I had collected
on particular subjects over the course of the year (and had carefully
filed away), and place them on my dining room/work table. In addition,
I would place to the side quotes/cartoons/clippings to use as
narrative illustrations. On a separate piece of paper, a list of
“sermon topic ideas” which had come to mind over the year would rest

It was then time to take a pen in hand, and begin (keep in mind
that I’m 60 years old, and when I began writing sermons, there were
ONLY pens!). The puzzle pieces would begin to converge to (hopefully)
form a coherent image.

The first line was the most critical—if I could captivate the
congregation with that one, I had their attention for at least the
first page. My favorites over the years: “Unlike many of the
Washington Redskins, I do not think God is responsible for the outcome
of football games”; “When I was a young girl, my sister and I used to
stuff the ballot boxes for the Miss Rheingold contest”; “Could-a.
Would-a. Should-a”; “Eight years ago, on Rosh Hashanah 5746 (September
16, 1985) I did the only thing other than praying that is appropriate
for a Jew to do on this holiday—I gave birth”; “What did the late
Reggie White, a star with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay
Packers, have in common with Ezra Stiles, the Puritan cleric who
became President of Yale University in 1778?”; “I spent a lot of time
this summer thinking about Jewish men”.

A few other tips which worked for me (no doubt, each of you has
your own):

1) I’m a Rabbi, not a prophet or a priest. that doesn’t mean I
can’t discuss politics or arcane rituals, but my main task is to teach
Torah, in the broadest sense of that term. Preaching in Washington
means that many of my congregants think they run the country and the
world (and some of them do). My opinions about public policy matter
only if they’re grounded in Torah and tradition—otherwise, my
listeners read (and sometimes write) the same stuff I do: on-line, in
print, on Twitter, etc. Apply this to your own location as

2) Every sermon ultimately is about God, Torah,
Israel—whether the topics are specific rituals; current events;
culture; sports (I have a few congregants who will tell you that I
talked about baseball “all the time”, which is factually untrue
(either baseball was the only topic they paid attention to; my one
major sermon using baseball as a metaphor was arguably my best over
the years; or it was a way of saying their rabbi was not “boring”). I
remember how after 9/11, many of us rabbis talked to each other about
what we could possibly say during that High Holiday season (after so
many words had been said, when words both seemed to matter so much or
seemed so insignificant in light of what had occurred). I argued then
(and still believe) that as people with a tragic history and
post-Holocaust, we are always speaking “after 9/11”, and that any
words we speak on the High Holidays must make sense with that history
in mind. Clearly, 2001 was not the year to offer a particularly
light-hearted sermon, but if what we’d prepared in the summer pre-
9/11 had become irrelevant, then it had probably been irrelevant
before 9/11 as well. There are ALWAYS people sitting in our
congregations who have experienced personal tragedies. And then there
are the tragedies we share as Jews and as Americans. We are dealing
in eternal verities. We try to do that in ways that uplift, inspire,
challenge, even charm, but we can never forget that this is a serious
business. Which brings me to #3:

3) The “Shmuel” rule. Shmuel Levi was a dear Israeli friend of
mine who was killed on the Golan Heights in a tank during the Yom
Kippur War. ANYTHING I say has to take in account that reality. I have
to think of that happy, kind, dedicated young man whose life was
snuffed out so prematurely. If I can say my words and be honest to
Shmuel’s life, the good and the sad, I’m doing o.k. Apply that to you
own person.

4) WORDS are critical. I know there are some of you (perhaps
many) who no longer speak from your printed texts. Good for you! (If
you do it well). I can’t do it. I’m very spontaneous and gregarious by
nature, but when it comes to delivering a sermonic message, I’m a
devout believer in craftsmanship. Over the years, I sat at my desk
selecting every word with care. I felt the need to really think
through what I wanted to say, to select words that would evoke the
deepest response. Sometimes I over-wrote, using a multi-syllabic word
where a shorter one would work. Sometimes perhaps I was a linguistic
show-off. We all have our flaws. But at the very least, I was always
putting forth my best effort, respecting my congregants, the holiness
of the season, and our textual tradition by creating a sermon with
depth and heft (which did not preclude humor).

It was never easy, but when each puzzle finally came together,
it felt like a ritual offering. Since I’m not a priest, it was my
“Avodah”, in both the Biblical and contemporary sense of the term.

I was exhausted and exhilarated.