You’ll recognize the paraphrase of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Act III, scene 1) Interesting fact about that line, in fact that entire speech, now so sealed into our minds, as ‘canonized’ as anything in Shakespeare: There was actually a series of earlier versions. As an example, this version was printed in the First Quarto (1603):
To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…
So Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer of them all, despite his preternatural gifts, worked in drafts! And even after the play had been performed the Bard’s work continued, massaging the lines, rethinking concepts, rewriting. Evidently when he arrived at the following formula he realized perfection, and he stopped:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Pause indeed. For in the rabbinic world, this is the time of writing and rewriting, of switching phrases, of working ideas, struggling with transitions, worrying over the ebb and flow of a text that ironically and ultimately is meant to be spoken. Perfection in a sermon will never be achieved, for it simply does not exist. But we work hard, and we spend more time with these sermons that we do with anything else we’ll preach the rest of the year.
This year there is an extra challenge. What to say, or not to say, about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Presidential election? There is a clear legal definition you work with – a preacher may not endorse a candidate from the pulpit. Such an endorsement would forfeit the preacher’s house of worship’s non-profit status. But as we all know you can get awfully close to that line without crossing it. I’ve heard rabbis (and Christian preachers as well) say everything BUT ‘and you should vote for..’ They didn’t even need to say it, because their message was already clear.
Of course in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere some folks feel that even touching on politics during a sermon is akin to landing on the third rail. I had a congregant once tell me I shouldn’t even use the words Democrat or Republican from the pulpit. At the same time it feels almost cowardly, or in some way irresponsible, not to address the one issue that is on everyone’s mind.
So what to say? Or not to say? This is the challenge rabbis around the country are struggling with this year. In a way it is like the old joke about rabbis: the ideal rabbi has 25 years experience in the field, but is only 35 years old. She spends no money and requires little pay, but must dress well and drive a respectable car. He should be at meetings morning, noon, and night, but should also find time to spend with his family. You get the idea. So it is with the High Holiday sermon – it should be topical, but not touch on politics. And oh yes, it should make them laugh and cry, be filled with original insight and ancient wisdom, not make anyone angry, and perhaps most importantly of all, make them want to come back for more. After all, there is always Yom Kippur.