One of the best classes I ever took, in any field, was Homiletics, with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
Rabbi Lookstein taught this course on Fridays at YU, for members of the semichah program. I can’t imagine that the rabbi of Kehillath Jeshurun and principal of Ramaz had nothing else to do on a Friday morning, but every week he was there, helping us understand how to convey the Torah we had learned to various types of audiences.
I know I am not the only one who is greatly in his debt for this service; I'm still not a great orator, but I learned quite a bit in those sessions.
One of my favorite observations from Rabbi Lookstein’s class was this: You can only bang on the shtender [lectern] once. That’s it; you can come close, stop your hand just short, but once you actually hit it, you can never do it again.
As I understood his point, hitting a shtender while presenting a derashah is a demonstration of both passion and certitude, and to do it repeatedly, especially on diverse topics, demonstrates either a surfeit of passion or a surfeit of certitude, neither of which wins over an audience.
I am someone of passion, but I am rarely someone of certitude, so ironclad confident in my judgment that I will demand everyone agree with me. So I am not generally tempted to bang the shtender.
I did it once, for a Shabbos Shuvah derashah four years ago, when I was speaking about lashon hara tearing down community institutions. It was a particularly fraught time in our community, and I was right, I think; that wasn’t a squandering of the pulpit-thumping privilege.
But I wonder whether there have not been other times I could have, should have, given that resounding bang, whether there were not other causes I should have championed with the fever of the committed and the fervor of the certain:
Parents and children.
I’ve spoken about all of these, of course. All of them, in different ways, carry great weight for Jews as individuals, for Jewish families, for the Jewish nation and for the world. Any of them could have been a topic warranting the Big Bang.
But, in the final analysis, the speaker is compelled to choose his opportunity, and so I did.
What about your rabbi? What makes him bang the shtender? Nothing? Everything? Or certain topics?