Airport havdalah
Almost Tisha b'Av

Revising my sermons; revising me

One of the things I talked about last week at Kenyon, with my students who were there to learn how to blog, was the question of whether one is an external or an internal processor. Some people think and ponder and mull and then sit down to write and everything pours onto screen (or paper) fully-formed. Others sit down to write, and as they do, the piece takes shape. The writing is integral to the thinking.

I am an external processor, for sure. I do my best thinking through writing. I suspect that this has always been true -- ever since I started writing in a cloth-bound diary at the age of ten, which I did for years. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" asked EM Forster. I know the feeling! Of course, revision is always part of my process. But I think best when I have keyboard at hand.

This is one of the reasons why my high holiday sermons go through so many iterations. I start jotting down ideas in early summer -- sometimes a quote, or a thought, or a yearning. Then three of those questions or ideas sprout their own documents, and when I can make the time, I sit down and write. Eventually I have drafts which are the right length -- but that's still only the beginning of my process.

I let them sit. I come back to them a day or a week later and notice, sometimes, that what I had thought was extraneous is actually the heart of the thing. Time to tear it apart and rewrite around that. Or I discover that what I've written would make a fine lecture for a class on a subject in which I am interested, but it isn't a sermon, especially not one for the Days of Awe, this lofty and powerful season.

The stakes feel high. When it comes to many of those whom I serve, this feels like my one chance this year to reach them -- to make them feel something, to awaken something in them, to give them hope and inspiration. And there's a lot going on in high holiday services: melodies we don't hear at other seasons, prayers we don't otherwise recite. Can I cut through that to reach people where they are?

By any ordinary count the journey toward the High Holidays has yet to begin. Some begin with Tisha b'Av, the emotional low point of our liturgical year, and from there count the days up toward Rosh Hashanah. (See, e.g., Rabbi Alan Lew's tremendous This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared.) Some count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a reverse Omer.

Some begin their preparations for the holidays at the start of the month of Elul, and dedicate those weeks to a process of internal teshuvah, repentance / return, perhaps focusing especially on relationship with self and with God in order to be able to focus on interpersonal teshuvah during the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See, e.g., See Me: Elul poems.)

But for those of us who are blessed to be in my line of work -- and I mean that wholeheartedly; I still wake up some days and marvel that I get to do this! -- preparations for the Days of Awe begin months in advance. My community maintains a 90-item to-do list on a wiki page which begins with "seek and find cantor" and ends with "get volunteers to take down the sukkah after Shemini Atzeret."

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. A lot of cats to herd, if you prefer that metaphor. A lot of details to manage. The danger for me is that I can get so caught up in the details that I don't do my own inner work of preparation. Over these last five years, I've learned that working on my sermons in bits and pieces all summer can be part of my inner work. As I revise them, I'm also revising me.