Posts Tagged ‘sermon’


You Can’t be Someone Else, You Can Only be More Fully Yourself

Posted on: November 19th, 2010 by Hayim Herring

When I first began working as a congregational rabbi, I used to ask my wife to comment on my sermons. One day she said to me, “your sermon was good, but do you have to sound so preachy?” I thought that was a funny question to ask a “preacher.” But I’ve learned over the years that the most effective preaching doesn’t sound preachy. Years later, in the work that I did when I was executive director of STAR, I was introduced to Eda Roth, who is a communications specialist and this week’s guest blogger. Eda explains how rabbis and all people involved in public communications benefit when they step out of their role and step back into their authentic selves.  Hayim Herring

Rabbi Hayim Herring has quoted me as saying “You cannot be someone else. You can only be more fully yourself.” What does that mean? Most people express a narrow range of themselves. We all develop habits and stay within a certain range of expression. Professionalism adds even more constrictions. Whether business, healthcare, non-profits or the Rabbinate, there seems to be an agreed upon, accepted set of limitations called “what is appropriate” or “professional”.

Recently when working with rabbinical students, I heard a generic commonality in what and how they were expressing, rather than the vibrant individuality and uniqueness of who they really were, with their insights, passion and genuine desire to reach people. Granted, as students they were beginning to learn effective modes of constructing sermons and messages, but the danger was that some of those early habits would become entrenched and limit them and their capacity to genuinely inspire others; that they would stay within a rather safe, comfortable, borrowed and habituated range.

There is an unmistakable ring of truth when we touch genuine chords of who we are – our individuality, passion understanding, insight – and allow those to be heard and felt. That’s the power of words made manifest. If our expression is timid, or limited, if we are afraid to be loud enough to be heard, or so bombastic that we are not making our own genuine connections with the text and allow that to be heard, then our communication is not genuine.

Years ago a rabbi came to me for voice coaching. He felt his voice was constricted and reported that he would run out of breath. As we worked, we addressed not only on the dynamics of the voice, but his connection to what he was saying in his sermons. Were his messages coming across as compellingly as he desired? Was he really reaching people? We continued to explore the message itself, his real connection to what he was saying, the fullness and freedom of how he was saying it, and whether and when he was genuinely connecting with those to whom he was speaking (whether a Bar Mitzvah or a congregation).

In connecting with text or Torah, it comes most alive when we bring our insights, understanding and passion to the text, and allow those to express THROUGH the text. It’s then that truth and meaning become immediate real and alive, not just historical cultural memory and wisdom revisited. Say, for example, we are quoting from Proverbs, “Trust in God with all your heart and lean not upon your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God and God will direct your paths.” We first, of course, begin with the text itself. What is it saying? How is meaning conveyed through the construct of language itself? What is the architecture of the language, the arc of the phrasing? Then we address how we enter and fulfill that text. If we bring what we know, understand, have lived of those words to our expression of the text, then it becomes present and alive with meaning. Our understanding, our individuality, what we know and have lived of that text enables us to become a transparency for the truth of the text and IS what reveals meaning. It is not reducing the text to us, but allowing who we are to come through the text. We then become a link in the chain of generations through which the word is not only passed down, but is alive, real and immediate. That is then the power of the word, expressed and felt.

How honest, how daring, how real are we willing to be? More than a repeating or rehearsed expression, do we express ourselves genuinely, authentically? That can only happen if the fullness of who we really are is opened and available. We bring our intellectual understanding, our passion, compassion, the fullness of our voices available to reveal that expression, and most of all; great love of truth and of all to whom we communicate. We do not constrict or circumscribe expression, but ultimately allow and reveal.

It is a noble goal – to inspire – to breathe divine life into – others; to allow that divine life to breathe into us.

Eda Roth
Eda Roth & Associates
Real Presence and Communication

Eda Roth is a communications consultant who uses her acting and directing skills to enable people be more value-based, genuine, strategic and clear. You can reach her at

What’s the most important sermon for rabbis to give this new year? Add your opinion!

Posted on: August 20th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of a month-long, intensive period of spiritual preparation for Rosh ha-Shanah. If you’re a rabbi, you probably have some good ideas by now about what your sermon ideas will be on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. But, speaking from experience, there’s still time for one or two more to make it into your sermon. If you’re a congregant, in a few weeks, you might be asking, “What is the rabbi going to speak about this year?”

The sanctuary or chapel may not be so full during weekly Shabbat services, but it’s packed on these holidays. Rabbis have an annual opportunity to reach large numbers of their congregants during these days. One message may not change a life, but it can draw people into greater Jewish involvement—or, it can move them further from it. So, rabbis especially feel the weight of the responsibility and opportunity to reach for deep impact with their sermons at this time, and congregants who primarily come to services infrequently hope for words that are meaningful and relevant for them.

So, here are two timely questions for readers of Tools for Shuls:

  1. What issues are most important for rabbis to address this year in their Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur sermons?
  2. What topics should they avoid?

Whether you’re a rabbi or a congregant, please contribute your ideas. I’ll share the responses in the next post, which will appear this coming Monday.


Rabbi Herring

Are You Sleeping? Rabbis and the Art of Public Speaking

Posted on: February 20th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

When I was a congregational rabbi, after a few years, I started adhering to one rule rigorously when giving sermons: never speak long enough for people to fall asleep! There were a few other rules which I followed, too.  Giving a brilliant sermon every week was mission impossible for me.  However, it was always possible to find some new dimension of Torah in the broadest sense that would engage people with a new idea, a new way of framing an issue, advocating for a cause which was significant or helping people find personal relevance in Jewish practice. 

Equally important, regardless of the topic, I had the extremely good fortune of having several models of outstanding communicators from whom I learned the art of public speaking and a good friend in the congregation who generously volunteered his time to shred my words and reconstitute them in a way that would grab and hold people’s attention. In a prior life, he had been a journalist and helped me realize that communicating big ideas simply was essential to my rabbinate.

The Talmud (AZ 35b) asks, “To what is a scholar to be compared? To a vial of fragrant ointment. When its cover is removed, the fragrance of its ointment is diffused. When it is covered, its fragrance is concealed.” My experience with many rabbis when it comes to public speaking has been that they are like “the vial with the cover on.” They do have a lot of wisdom to share, but the way they publicly communicate gets in the way of their ideas. They develop bad speaking habits in rabbinical school and often don’t receive help once they are in the congregation.

This is really inexcusable.  People in the congregation, whether members or guests, will form opinions about Judaism based on what they hear during a rabbi’s sermon. Rabbis are given a unique opportunity: they can inspire involvement in Jewish life, or discourage it, by how they communicate their messages.

I’m going to recommend one book which I recently finished reading, entitled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They offer a six-point formula communicating ideas that can be extremely helpful for public speaking:

You’ll note that if you look at the first letter of each of these six points, they almost spell the word, success. There are many additional ways in which rabbis and become successful communicators of Jewish wisdom and tradition.  What I’d like to hear from you is your recommendations on how rabbis can communicate with greater impact, especially in an age when attention spans seem to have shortened.  And, if you are a rabbi and have your own story about how you learn to become a better communicator, please be sure to share that as well!

Rabbi Hayim Herring