FICTION: A Rosh Hashana Sermon Throws a Congregation into Turmoil
An Excerpt from the novel CONGREGATI
Eli Stone steadied the pages of his sermon against the motion of the car and jotted down a few notes in the margin. He still committed his sermons to memory. It was a lifelong habit and even though he took the pages with him to the pulpit, he seldom referred to them. He looked forward to this evening’s service. There was something immensely gratifying about being in the pulpit on the High Holidays. Religion no longer held a central place in the lives of most of his congregants, but no matter how far they strayed during the year they still flocked back to the synagogue on Rosh Hashonah, like birds following some ancient migratory path, seeking to reaffirm a commitment to their faith.
His wife, Rachel, took her eyes off the road for a moment. “You feeling okay?”
“I’m feeling fine.” It was an evasive response. That morning while he was shaving, the muscles in his right leg cramped again. It had happened regularly over the past month. He found himself stumbling occasionally, and he had begun to experience some numbness in the fingers of his right hand. At his annual checkup, he mentioned the symptoms to his doctor who sent him to a specialist. There had been tests and more tests.
Rachel turned the car into the synagogue parking lot, pulled to a stop in their accustomed parking space and sat quietly for a moment, her hands gripping wheel, the motor running, cool air still whispering from the vents.
“Will you tell the congregation tonight? Please, Eli.”
Eli opened the car door abruptly and started for the synagogue without her. The hot air assaulted him. He could feel himself begin to perspire.
Mark Winnick, the congregation’s 35-year old assistant rabbi, stood at the top of a short flight of steps that led to the pulpit from a tiny vestry under the choir loft and cracked the door open just wide enough to look out.
“Thirty-six empties, Rabbi. They’re filling fast.”
Mark was obsessed with numbers. He kept track of the number of times the phone rang before his secretary picked it up. He counted the number of people ahead of him in movie lines. He even counted his pulse occasionally, pretending to check his wristwatch. Sometimes when he was on the pulpit his lips moved while he was counting. It drove his wife, Susan, crazy.
“Don’t do that! It makes you look stupid!”
“No one notices.”
“Of course they notice.”
He held the door open for Eli who brushed by him without a word. Mark made his way to his seat on the far side of the pulpit and, balancing his prayer book on the wide arm of his chair, watched latecomers straggle in. He caught a glimpse of Susan in the fourth row and tried to keep his lips from moving. He leaned back, eyes half closed in an attitude of meditation and stared up at the stained glass windows that circled the sanctuary dome. Each panel depicted a different prophet. Jeremiah, with his piercing eyes and long white hair, was his favorite. He wondered if the prophets, as they grew older, ever thought about retiring and letting their assistants take over.
Linda Freling hurried down the aisle, slid into the pew next to Sally Minton and gave her arm a little squeeze. They had met in college and now, twenty years later, they were still close friends.
“Hi, Sally, have I missed anything?
“It’s just getting started. Where’s Peter?”
“Working, where else? He said he’d get here later if he could.”
Sally noted the tiny smile that flitted cross Mark’s face as he shifted in his seat, adjusting the long robe that had bunched up under him. “Rabbi Winnick looks as happy as if he’s in his right mind,” Sally whispered.
“He should be,” Linda whispered back, “considering the raise we just gave him.” Unlike Sally, who found Mark unimpressive, Linda liked him. She recalled the first time they met. He had filled in at the last moment as a moderator at a sisterhood conference in Indianapolis. At the end of the day she asked him if he would meet her for a drink. She invited him to her suite, kicked off her shoes and curled up in a chair with her legs tucked under her. She was curious where things might go, but then the phone rang and it was Peter calling and by the time the call was over, Mark was at the door saying he had work to do.
When Mark’s name came up as a candidate to replace Eli’s previous assistant, Linda went to bat for him. Five years later, with his contract up for renewal, Mark had called her for advice and she had agreed to talk to Rabbi Stone on his behalf.
She had breezed past a surprised Roz McGiver, Eli’s secretary, and entered Eli’s book-lined study.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you, Rabbi, Linda said, settling nervously in a chair across from Eli and bracing herself for a difficult conversation.
Eli hadn’t wanted Linda to become the president of the congregation. Wives of rich men were always trouble. ut Linda had lobbied hard for the job and in the end a majority of the Board had voted for her.
“Not at all. “
Linda paused, hoping that Eli might inquire into the reasons for her visit, but he remained silent. “Rabbi Winnick’s contract is coming up for renewal and I wonder if you have a minute to talk about it.”
“How has he been doing in your opinion?”
“He’s doing well.”
Linda sensed a note of caution in Eli’s voice. “If you have some reservations about him, Rabbi, perhaps we should discuss them.”
Eli wasn’t accustomed to having to explain himself. He remained silent, his hands folded together on his desk.
“If you have no reservations, I’d like to suggest that we offer Mark a five-year extension on his contract.”
“I hadn’t given much thought to the matter, but I would think a three-year extension is more than adequate.
Linda contemplated the consequence of disagreeing with Eli. He always listened to her politely but invariably ignored her suggestions. “Perhaps we could offer him associate status. That would go a long way toward making him feel appreciated.”
“What makes you think he isn’t appreciated?”
“I didn’t mean to suggest that he wasn’t.”
“Why don’t we leave things the way they are, Linda.” There was an undercurrent of irritation in Eli’s voice. “Mark’s still young . Maybe in another year or two we can talk about it.” Being an associate implied succession and Eli didn’t want Mark around when the time came for the congregation to select his successor. If Eli’s health forced him to retire early and Mark hadn’t left on his own, he would let him go. There would be no trouble finding a suitable replacement.
Linda was desperate. It would be humiliating to walk away empty handed. What was the point of being president of the congregation if you couldn’t get a few things done your way?
“How would you feel about an increase in his salary?”
Eli had no problem with that. There were lawyers and accountants on the Board to make sure that any salary adjustments were appropriate. “Whatever you and the Board decide is fine with me.” Eli got up from behind his desk and extended his hand. “Give Peter my best.”
It took Linda a moment to realize that the meeting was over. She felt like a schoolgirl called to the principal’s office and reprimanded for misbehaving. “Well, I won’t take up any more of your time, Rabbi. I know how busy you must be.” She could feel Roz McGiver watching her as she walked out the door in a quiet rage.
It had grown uncomfortably warm in the sanctuary and the congregation was getting restless. Eli’s sermon had gone well. It was time for the closing benediction. He walked toward the lectern and glanced briefly in Rachel’s direction. Her soft brown eyes implored him.
“Before we close tonight’s service,” Eli began, “there is a personal matter I want to share with you. This may be the last service that I will be conducting from this pulpit. My doctors tell me I have ALS. Most of you know it as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The doctors will do what they can to slow down the progress of the disease but there are no miracle cures. I’ve had forty great years as rabbi of this congregation. You have allowed me the freedom to express my opinions from this pulpit and to champion the causes I believe in. For that I am truly grateful. I intend to serve as your rabbi for as long as my health permits, and when the time comes for me to step aside I know that this institution will be left in secure and caring hands and that the traditions that have been its hallmark for the past one hundred and twenty-seven years will be sustained for generations to come. Now let us rise for the final benediction.”
Eli raised his arms in the manner of the priests of old. The congregation stood, stunned and silent. A few people wept openly.
RAPHAEL D. SILVER grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a prominent rabbi. Following a career as a real estate developer, he became a film producer; Hester Street and Crossing Delancey are among his credits. He resided in New York City with his wife, the film director Joan Micklin Silver.