Prophet, Priest or Pastor: The Rabbi on the High Holy Days

Sermon given September 10, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


I gave the worst sermon of my life on a Friday immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. ‘Tis the season, as they say, but not to be jolly, in this case. Rather, at this time of the year, Jews, and particularly Rabbis, are heavily focused on the High Holy Days. No explanation excuses a bad sermon, and that one was a real dud, but perhaps I could ask for forgiveness, because I was legitimately focused on the sermons I would offer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

So we come, once again, to the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah. Tonight is Shabbat, a day holier in our faith than the New Year that we shall observe Wednesday night and Thursday. Tonight we celebrate Erica’s Bat Mitzvah, Bari and David’s love. This evening, you have come to worship, and the tradition established by my predecessors entitles you to expect a thoughtful sermon from this pulpit. Under the circumstances, the best way I know to do that is to welcome you to my world. Tonight, I invite you into the mind of the Rabbi, preparing for the High Holy Days.

When our people first began celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they had no Rabbis. Instead, Priests conducted the penitential rites. The Priest declared the new year. The Priest received the peoples’ sacrifices. The Priest recited the formulaic prayers, asking God’s forgiveness, for himself, for his family, and for all the House of Israel.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, this year as every year, we shall re-create with words and music the most scared moments in the ancient Temple. The High Priest, robed in splendor, would enter the Holy of Holies, uttering God’s proper Name, in the presence of the tablets of the commandments. Only the High Priest knew the correct pronunciation of God’s name. Only he shared that most intimate, even personal relationship with God. The High Priest seemed to know God better than anyone else. The Priest was our ancestors’ link to God.

The active priesthood went the way of the sacrifices themselves, with the Temple’s destruction in the year 70. Judaism teaches that each one of us may enjoy a direct relationship with God. The Jew requires no intermediary to reach the Almighty. Each of us is part of mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests. Every one of us is equally holy. Nobody knows God best.

And yet, at our Temple, as at Jewish congregations throughout the world, we Rabbis will ascend the bimah in our white robes. I shall declare the new year. The Rabbis and Hazzan will prostrate ourselves before the holy Ark at the time of the Great Aleinu on Yom Kippur afternoon. We shall serve a priestly function.

Indeed, throughout the year, Temple members, some in jest but others in all seriousness, will ask me to intercede with God on their behalf. “Pray for me Rabbi,” and I oblige, with a full heart. I do not imagine that God listens to me more than God hears their own prayers. I do not believe that I know God best. Nobody needs my particular intercession to reach God. You don’t need me to ask forgiveness on your behalf. The Rabbi need not be the one to invoke God’s blessing on your marriage, your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, your Confirmation, or your newborn baby.

The truth, though, is that all of us feel distanced from God, at least sometimes. We do need somebody else to pray for us. We do want a person of holiness to invite God’s presence into our lives. Even a Rabbi needs a Rabbi, and I have felt privileged to be blessed, to feel God’s presence, as, for example, at the moment when Rabbi Stahl blessed me upon my Installation as Senior Rabbi. He conferred some of his enhanced holiness upon me.

Like every Rabbi, I struggle with my own inadequacy to serve in that priestly role. I am a flawed human being. I do not enjoy unique access to God. And yet, as our Holy Days approach, I humbly stand ready to invite God’s presence into the life of every worshiper at Temple Beth-El, and to pray for each of you, as I ask you to pray for me.

Priests were not always alone in religious leadership of our people in ancient Israel. From time to time, a prophet would arise, called by God, usually to tell the people where they had gone wrong. Often, corrupt priests or kings were the targets of their exhortations. God spoke to the prophet, and the prophet brought the divine world to the people. Some might ignore the prophet, but they would do so at their peril.

Our tradition teaches that prophecy ended with Malachi, more than two millennia ago. God no longer speaks with a clear message, delivered to a particular holy person. When somebody tells you what God wants you to do, quite specifically, in this world, my advice, and our tradition’s caution, is that you should run the other way. If a religious leader suggests how you should vote, allegedly on the basis of God’s wishes, that clergy person is not only jeopardizing the congregation’s tax-exempt status, but is also guilty of blasphemy.

No, we don’t have prophets, and yet we still need prophecy. On Yom Kippur morning, we shall hear, this year, as every year, the powerful exhortations of Isaiah. The prophet cautions us not to be satisfied by our ritual observance. Fasting is of no account, if we oppress our workers. Repentance means nothing, if we ignore the poverty that surrounds us.

The prophets of old have left a magnificent legacy, and a terrible burden, for the Rabbis of today. We do not hear God speak to us directly, and yet we Rabbis must continue the prophetic tradition. We abdicate our sacred responsibility, if we fail to speak out against the evils of this world. We are not worthy of this storied pulpit, if we do not urge the congregation to make the sacrifices necessary to build a better tomorrow.

Prophets were often unpopular. Rabbis, similarly, may be subject to criticism, particularly when we raise the prophetic voice. Surely, not everyone will agree with any one Rabbi’s interpretations of the Torah’s message for the issues of today. Struggle, we must, though, to make our tradition live, to teach us what we must learn in our own day and age. Worshipers at Temple Beth-El will hear no prophet on these High Holy Days. May they hear instead the words of Rabbis, striving to be worthy of the prophetic tradition of Judaism.

Neither Priest nor Prophet concerned themselves with the pastoral care of their people. Moreover, the early Rabbis were scholars of Torah. They taught the laws of Judaism, but they did not specialize in visiting the sick; they did not officiate at funerals; and they certainly did not provide spiritual counseling. In fact, the expectation that the Rabbi serve as pastor is entirely modern, even as it stretches throughout all the streams of contemporary Judaism, and certainly includes our Orthodox Rabbis here in San Antonio.

On the High Holy Days, being a good pastor includes staying in touch with at least some of our congregants who are unable to worship with us at Temple. Being a pastor on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also calls upon the Rabbi to offer sermons that bring comfort to those who are in pain, and to bring healing to a community bruised by tough times.

Our High Holy Day season at Temple Beth-El really begins tomorrow night, with the penitential prayers of the late night Selichot Service. Beginning just over 24 hours from now, your Rabbis will serve a priestly role, asking forgiveness on behalf of all the congregation. For my own part, you may expect to hear from a Rabbi in the prophetic stance, in my sermons on Kol Nidre night and on Yom Kippur morning. You may experience messages in more of a pastoral role on Rosh Hashanah Eve and at the Yizkor-Memorial Service. My prayer is that, whether my role is priestly, prophetic or pastoral, I will ever lead and preach as a Rabbi, charged with offering God’s words of Torah to the Jewish people.

As I prepare for the High Holy Days, and as you get ready in your own ways, I ask your prayers for me, as I shall pray for you.

Amen.