I preach because I have to. Ask my children, who, like animals before a storm, sense an approaching sermon and run for shelter. Several times a day almost anything–a rose in Central Park, an overheard conversation, or a newspaper article–will connect me to something I remember Moses or God or some other tzadik like my grandmother said. Before I know it, I’m building a bridge of words between what is happening at this moment and eternity.
I’ll give you an example. What do you do when you hear that a slumlord is being honored by an organization that does good work? Or that a teacher is fired because she dared to teach an unpopular truth? These things stab at my heart and make me bitter, cynical, until I remember that Nachum of Bratzlav said that we come into the world seeing the bottles with labels on them. When we get old enough to read them we see they are all mislabeled and we spend our lifetimes putting the right labels on the right bottles. The bima is where I get to put the labels where I want them.
I preach because I’m often lonely, wondering if anyone feels and thinks as I do. For twenty years I sat imperially alone before my writing machine, hammering out words to my imaginary reader. I liked the safety of this communication, with no one to frown skeptically as I pirouetted with a new idea and no one to yawn as I stressed an important point. Having the chance to polish and sharpen my words kept me powerful and in control of my voice and image.
But one day I wrote a book, Rescuers: Portraits etc., that sent me on the preacher’s path. Just as the page is flat and the world richly dimensional, so I left a two dimensional space to enter into a living, breathing chamber. After interviewing over a hundred Christians who rescued Jews in the Holocaust, I wrote a book about them. These people changed my perception of the highest moral good of which a person is capable.
Preaching is a conversation more intimate and dynamic than any written word. When I went to talk to these people, something happened to me. Audience responses to the rescuers’ stories revealed a hunger to know that there is goodness in the world. Each talk I gave became better because of the group response that preceded it. To inspire means to breathe in the spirit. The rescuers had done that for me and I felt that spirit when I spoke. Preaching was what I was doing, and in responding to the people before me, in their yearning to reach their best selves, I reached for that in myself,too.
So now, I’ve chosen a path that allows me to talk about whatever awakens, troubles, and enlivens me in a dialogue. My mind and heart respond to the energy a congregation provides and I find that my ideas are richer from the synergy that comes from preaching.
And I’m part of our long tradition– God spoke and from words, a world was created. In our speaking and in our responding, we build a bridge not only to the tradition but to each other.