It’s often said (and I’ve heard this in the name of no less formidable a speaker than the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik) that the worst time to speak is Kol Nidrei, when people are stressed and worried about the Yom Kippur fast as well as their davening, bloated from their pre-fast meal, and tired from the day’s labors.
Over the years I’ve spoken in a broad range of settings, synagogues and chapels, my own pulpits and those of others, at breakfasts and kiddushes and bar mitzvahs and weddings, bris and shalom zachar and funeral and funeral and hakamat matzeivah (unveiling) and funeral, Shabbos and weekdays and after minyan and Yamim Noraim, etc, and I’d agree that Kol Nidrei is tough.
Nonetheless, I find the toughest speaking slot to be a communal Shabbos lunch.
* Food in front of people, passed around tables, possibly distributed by wait staff or, at any rate, lounging enticingly on a buffet.
* Kids freed from davening and youth groups and let loose to roam or munch or play.
* Social conversation around the table rudely interrupted for the words of a speaker – that would be moi – who may be heard any other time, in any other venue.
What can you say at such a moment, that will be more interesting to people than their food and their friends? How can you even get their attention?
I know the formula, of course:
* A joke or an amusing story
* A leading question
* A light lesson
* A closing zinger.
Simple, to the point. You’re not there to lecture, and it’s not the forum for a deep concept. In that setting, most people are looking for food, not food for thought.
But although I know the protocol, I find this to be my most challenging pulpit. I’m just not as smooth at the light presentation, and particularly in front of crowds I don’t know well.
I had a chance to do it at Shabbos lunch at one shul a couple of weeks ago, and wasn’t able to pull it off; I came away quite unsatisfied. I have another such engagement this coming Shabbos, at a different shul, and there I am supposed to speak with real depth on a serious topic. It’s going to be a challenge.
In one sense, I’m glad there is an opportunity to grow, something I don’t do as well as I could/should, a speaking skill I need to develop. But it’s nerve-wracking, nonetheless.
And I need to find a good lead-in joke for a serious class on the Halachah and Ethics of Prisoner Exchanges…