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?