Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Rabbi's first speech?

What should go into a rabbi's opening derashah, his first speech to his new shul?

I had cause to think about this twice recently – first when a new Rabbi began his service at the shul where I daven, and then again when we hit Parshas Shoftim this past Shabbos and I remembered that Shoftim was my first Shabbos as rabbi of Young Israel of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, back in 1997.

My opening derashah in Rhode Island was a basic dvar torah, as though this week was no different from the one before. I began with appreciation for the community, of course, but moved rapidly into a dvar torah analysis of tzedek, and the difference between indifferent justice and a righteousness which understands the complexity of situations and moderates itself according to the needs of the moment. [Not a bad theme, but for a while in there I veered into comments about talking in shul, conversing with a spouse over the mechitzah, and missing minyan during the week. It wasn't a rant by any means, or even rebuke, but I wonder about the thought behind that choice of direction, especially as I had lived in the community for all of 6 days. I look at the text now with no small amount of amusement. The me of 1997 would be duly insulted.]

Fast-forward to Behaaloscha in 2001, my first Shabbos in Allentown. I began with profuse gratitude, appropriate to the warmth of the welcome we received in the community. Then I went into a discussion of the Menorah's branches and division which leads to destruction vs. division which leads to growth. It was a tone-setting derashah, an attempt to outline, through a dvar torah, an embrace of certain ideals, but still a derashah and not explicit about expressing a larger vision. I think I was afraid of coming off as self-indulgent.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, and the new Rabbi of my shul in Toronto opened with gratitude, followed by what could be considered a State of the Union address, a peroration on the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community of our day. There was a good blend of humor and stories and prescription and vision, certainly, and it went over very well… and, as the Rabbi noted, it wasn't really a derashah at all. It was what many people wanted - a chance to celebrate a new beginning.

What's best? The dvar torah (with or without mussar)? The tone-setting derashah that is too self-conscious to lay out a platform? The State of the Union address?

צריך עיון.


  1. all things being equal (never are)- lay out a process to get to the shared vision (u can't really know the community well enough yrt)
    Joel Rich

  2. I suggest teaching Mishna (and perhaps Talmud) and forget all speeches. One Mishna is worth more and has more Musar than all the Musar shmussim put together

  3. I'm a member of the same shul and heard the new Rav's derashah. It was as we call in the business world a "vision statement" and was a continuation of the derashah he gave at the probah.

    This is a unique situation because he is taking over from a Rav who was the founding rav of the shul who served the shul with distinction for decades. This shul in particular is at a crossroads; it has been losing members to other area shuls that came along after it was built. So a new page was being turned in the history of the shul and people wanted to know what direction the rav wanted to go and his priorities. It was this sense of purpose and vision that was one of the factors (not the most important though) that impressed me at the probah.

    So in this cituation I feel he made a good call as to how his derasha should be delivered.

  4. Joel-
    Indeed, although the search committee may expect you to feel confident recommending X or Y in answer to their questions...

    Adam Zur-
    Why is it a choice of Mishnah or Musar?

    Gd-forbid, nothing I wrote was intended to question the choice made by the Rav. As you know, I am a big fan of his.

  5. R'RH,
    Of course they do, but the truth is it's next to impossible to get enough information in that process to really know what the deal is (e.g. search committee talks about wanting to move to the next level in learning etc. but forgets to mention that if the rabbi misses a hospital visit for his regular shiur, it's a caning offense)
    Joel Rich

  6. I knew you weren't questioning the Rav's approach. I just wanted to point out that this was a special circumstance that lent itself to this approach. Another approach might have been appropriate for other situations.

    Obviously, there is no "correct answer" - as you said, "tzarich iyun" for each situation.

  7. I just deleted a long rant about (ie against) rabbis giving mussar. But it felt good to type it, even though I deleted it.

    Inspiring to self improvement yes. Mussar (that is to say, the minor sins of ours, or the major sins of others) no.

  8. No doubt you know, but the Rambam compares and contrasts mishpat and tzedakah in the penultimate chapter of the Moreh Nevuchim in Chapter III:53 here


  9. Note even the State of the Union address included mussar of sorts, although not of the rebuking kind, rather of the inspiring self improvement kind, in gently suggesting the benefits of greeting neighbors on the way to shul.

  10. Yes, Melech, agreed, it's easier to give Musar to others than to oneself!

  11. Michael, among my many issues with how mussar is given from the pulpit, is that very often it's either

    1. the minor sins of ours
    2. the major sins of others

    What I like to see from rabbis is an acknowledgement of how well we are all doing. Instead of rebuking for this or that imperfection, with the message that we always are lacking, how about just once getting up on the pulpit and saying how great the community is doing, in coming to shul, in learning, in halachic observance, in sacrificing enormously to pay tuition and donations to worthy causes etc etc etc

  12. Melech-
    1. I've never heard a shul rabbi speak about the "sins of others". Maybe in a political context (the world's attitude toward Israel), but never in a religious context. I guess I've been fortunate to have good rabbis.

    2. In my shul I adopted a practice I had heard about from another rabbi, of using the Shabbos before Rosh HaShanah to talk about the beauty of the shul and community. Not that this was the only time, but I always used this date to do it.