Sunday Stories: “The Sermon”

The Sermon
by Joe Winkler

The hush of the synagogue in early morning, making room for the sun pouring through stained glass windows, illuminating the dust in the room in slanted patterns. The moans and groans of an old shul, coughing as you step on its carpet next to the bimah, up until the holy ark. You walk to the ark and kiss the veil, just like your father used to do, and you open up the doors just say hi to the Torahs, like you did as a child, quietly, and tell them your plans for the day, the outlines of your sermon, your love for their idea and ideals.

“You know, Rabbi, I’ve heard a hasidic story about something like this, but I’ve never seen this kind of a behavior from a Rabbi.” A voice from nowhere.

You turn around, more at the shock of the existence of this voice intruding on your solitude with God than on the content of its speech. Standing there, in the main sanctuary of all places, stands a woman, one you’ve never seen in this shul or at any communal event. You’ve trained yourself to forego the necessary taking in of a woman from the bottom up, first because, you believe, this objectifies women, and second, though you don’t believe in the validity of the strict archaic rules of how to look at women, you do find that noticing body parts only inflames your desires which hinders your ability to think clearly, so why risk it.

Consequently, you only see her face, a face that immediately enraptures you, commands your all, makes you feel those rare religious feelings you’ve come to label as an encounter with the sublime, or the oceanic. Yet instead of a waterfall, or a piece of literature, or a meditative session, for the first time in your life a person, a woman, not your wife, makes you feel God’s immanence in an unprecedented manner. Her cheek bones protrude, small curvy hills on her face that stretch her ivory skin over the blushed part of her cheeks. Her eyebrows look angular, expressive without movement. Her hair looks like a shampoo commercial – auburn, full bodied, layered, shiny, and softer than air – you imagine.

You try to think of some Biblical, Talmudic or Rabbinic precedent for this type of experience, but you don’t even draw a blank because her face, her smile, her smirk, her almost perfect teeth, slightly off white, signs of expensive braces draws you in like a tractor beam you loved in Star Trek. Her nose, a slight hook, makes you think of skiing, and her eyes, a mixture of pigments which you can’t pin down all be debilitates you.

“Hi,” she says.

Time elapses, at it always does, but you can’t tell how much, and to you it could be a year or a microsecond since you first saw her. Her hand, you notice, thin, slender, those tiny paintbrushes of fingers with immaculate nail polish, a strident red, cut perfectly, is outstretched towards you. You remember that as a policy, per halacha, you try not to shake a woman’s hand, unless of course, this might embarrass her. Not knowing this woman, you decide not take that chance, but you hesitate at first. Her hand hangs in the ether, not shaking at all, a sword pointed towards your stomach.

“Hi,” you say and give her right hand, a womanly hand, one that someone once told you that if the pulpit failed you should model as hand model for women’s jewelry. A hand with enlarged knuckles on two fingers from the times you broke them playing basketball as a kid. As you palm grazes her smooth, dry palm you realize that sweat covers your palm. She embraces your sweat, and clasps your hand in hers for more seconds than you think is normal, but you realize your sense of time and real time no longer concur on many important matters. You either shake hands for perhaps 7 seconds beyond what you would consider normal, or for the normal amount of time. You both seem to pass communiques that can only be communicated through touch, resistant to the power of words. As she lets go, she doesn’t simply open her hand like most people, but slides her hand out of yours so as to maximize touching.

Your mind will not stop bombarding you with a terrible thought: Naomi, your beloved wife of 8 years, never made you feel like this, even in your most intimate moments of lovemaking. In a millisecond you suddenly, with the weight of a whole tradition of poetry, understand the poetic exaggerations of Neruda, of Whitman, and of the ultimate bard of love, the writer of the biblical Song of Songs. Also, you realize that you’ve had a massive erection now for upwards of two minutes, perhaps, and luckily the erection went straight up, caught between your slightly baggy pants and your belt, thankful for the weight loss engendered by this job.

“Hi,” you say again, softly as if words could caress.

“Hey,” she says, “I feel like mixing things up.”

You can’t know for sure what a guffaw is, but it seems to be this, an involuntary full body laugh at a lame joke. You immediately compose yourself and wipe your hand through your gelled, (once a week) hair. Try as you might your erection will not abate, in fact, if possible, it grows stronger with each passing second.

“Welcome to the shul. I haven’t seen you here before, and to come at such an early hour!” You immediately realize you say this with too much enthusiasm. If you were fifteen your voice would surely crack. Your nerves, you realize, feel starker in contrast to her inhuman calm. She blinks in rhythmic time. You still will not look at her body.

“Actually, I heard about you and your great sermons. So, I wanted to come here one for myself.”

“Really, you heard that, about me?”

“Yes, from numerous people.”

Yes, you think with conviction, this erection only continue to grows, you understand another concept, again, for the first time i.e. a throbbing hard-on. The talmud tells us that if you feel beset by satanic urges then take yourself to the house of learning or the house of prayer, but what happens, you think, when the satan comes to the house of prayer or learning itself? Sermons though, sermons make you feel more comfortable, and in control. Talk about sermons.

“Well, you are in luck today, my new friend.”

“Chani,” She interjects. “My name is Chani Rabinowitz.” She turns her face slightly away from her, as if in embarrassment of her name, but at the last second, as you stare at her gesture, she turns into a sly coyness, a flirtation, if you aren’t mistaken. You are in no way prepared for this. You missed the how to flirt or not flirt with a congregant class in rabbinic classes. You want to bury your face in the smell of her hair.

“Well, you are in luck today, Chani, because I have a doozy of a sermon prepared for you today.”

“Really, I do feel lucky, very lucky then.” She appears to roll words off her tongue, as if to show off her the dexterity of her tongue tasting every L, rolling every R against the soft terrain of her mouth. Even in your unfortunate mistakes with pornography, you never felt this kind of subtle sexuality emanating from a person, as if radiant.

You can’t tell when, but somehow, without you noticing she has moved closer to you, and you haven’t moved back, at all, despite your awareness of your proximity. The proximity, more than anything, her smell, a soft blush of flowers that you can’t place, draws your attention, finally, to her body. You never really understand why important biblical women, almost as a prerequisite, were gorgeous, as if that insured their righteousness in some superficial manner, but now you understand. The power of it all. She wears a button down beige argyle sweater, with a silk blouse beneath and a pearl necklace adorning the perfectly shaped slope of her neck, laying comfortably over her collarbone and resting in that alcove of space between her neck and shoulders all tighter than Chinese finger trap. Her breasts, you feel ashamed to notice, look made up by a surgeon, circular, upstanding, supple, ample, each one the size of your grasp, you imagine on the canvas of your mind. She stands with absurd posture, the posture of royalty which only makes her breasts more prominent, more important, perhaps. Her waist slopes in and looks molded like a clay sculpture. She wears a clean, neat, pleated black skirt that shimmers slightly, enough, you think. When she makes the slightest movement of her body, her skirt contorts to the outline of her thighs, as if to say hello. Her black tights, pulled tight so you can almost see through them at certain points, and her legs make you feel a little faint, slightly muscular, but thin, and curvaceous. She wears flats, with toe cleavage, a ludicrous idea up until this very moment.

This whole time, or however much time has elapsed, she’s been talking you realize, but you haven’t heard one thing she said. You smile, nod, and decide to attempt to just ask her a question about herself, an innocuous one.

God will not give anyone a test that they cannot pass, you remember, it just requires the ability to dig deep into real spiritual powers. You didn’t masturbate for almost 5 years in Yeshiva, you can handle this.



Two minutes to the sermon and your thoughts puzzle you. You try to remember the sermon and you can only feel its outlines. Your body, it tingles in parts and in ways you didn’t imagine possible. You feel you would easily dismiss all these thoughts, but you still feel oddly closer to God than since you can remember.

Sermon time. You feel old for the first time in your life. When you get up out of your chair you swear you can hear your body creak. You walk to the podium with your papers and take your watch off your wrist and put it into your left hand.

You let yourself go into auto-pilot. You cough, once. Look over to your wife and smile. She smiles back. She’s pretty too, you realize, and for a second, as your heart slows down, so does the pounding in your erection. You feel unfettered from the chains of desire. You don’t tempt fate by looking at Chani, but you can feel her stare on your face, as if physical; it pokes at your ribcage, asking to be let in. You begin:

“We rarely discuss why we believe. We think that either logic compels us, or experiences guides us in the path of truth. But both of these options run into insurmountable problems.”

You haven’t thought of Chani, until right now, for almost three minutes. You overestimated her power. Your erection has subsided, and you feel no fear in looking in her direction, with a triumphant glow.

“We find ourselves, my friends, in a double bind. If logic compels us then we cannot choose to believe.  If not logic, but subjectivity guides us then we lose all of the Truth of our beliefs. What distinguishes our holy tradition from the holy traditions of other religions? Furthermore, if we use subjectivity as a gauge for truth, then how do we reconcile our simultaneous neglect of large swathes of our more physical life?”

You feel swelled up with confidence. Your words, their poetry, their incisive nature cuts through thousands of years of philosophical fluff. You tamp down on the arrogance, but you can feel the rapt attention filling the room like visible molecules. Oddly, your erection returns, but not because of Chani, you think.

“If religion makes us feel good, then what about desire, about our mere physicality, how do we make room for it in our spiritual strivings; our urges, our needs, our fantasies, our wildest dreams, to where do we relegate this part of self, our imagination, must we give up all of these aspects of life, of experience to serve God? What kind of God demands this type of sacrifice, does he not want us to enjoy pleasure in all its manifestations?  Some will tell you that the commandments make us happy, allow us to lead a more fulfilled life. If so, what type of God would want 99.9% of the world to live a less happy life than the 1%? We fail to realize the limitations of our experiences. We sacrifice the needs of our flesh on the altar of spiritual transcendence, but to what end? We forgot how to eat, how to kiss, how to touch, how to look, how to smile, how to flirt and then lie to ourselves in assuming this type of modesty provides true happiness, what arrogance! We can’t know the Godliness enmeshed in every note of a sultry woman singer; can you imagine, a whole life spent not hearing some of the most beautiful, sexual, angelic, and evocative voices in the world? Are they not part of God’s creation?”

People look at you now, not with the eyes of interest, but with the eyes of worry. You feel unhinged, as a puppet with your strings lax. The podium provides a convenient edifice to lean upon as you catch the eyes of your wife. She looks angry more than terrified or embarrassed or sad. She looks betrayed, by what, you don’t know. She needs to trust you. Chani, if you are not mistaken, has unbuttoned the second to top botton on her blouse.

“Can we truly say that a committed couple with a torrid sex-life in anyway loses a chance at this world happiness, or holiness? Why, and how, then do we constrict ourselves?”

Chani smiles for the first time in a long time, she still stands, despite the attention this draws and she begins to shuckle, in the manner of fervid congregants praying for the health of a beloved. She rocks back and forth, gently, her hair she waves back with a shake of her head. She stops, bites her lip gently and urges me to go on. You can tell that you are rambling now, your thoughts, desultory, inchoate. The social embarrassment in the room all but stifles you.

“Of course, where else can we look but to the wisdom of Chazal? Chazal, in the Talmud record that while Joseph was in the throes of fervid sexual desire for Potiphar’s voluptuous wife, he almost succumbed to his desires. Imagine the most attractive version of yourself, and now imagine your boss’s wife, a stunner, the perfect image of sexuality with curvy everything pursuing your body day in and out. Imagine the desire she stirs in you, imagine something taking over every moment of your waking life, and insinuating herself into your dream world. You can’t help but feel that God wants this for you, because otherwise, why would it feel so strong, so right? At a certain point, no amount of logic, or warning, or threat of hell will shake someone out of a sexual stupor. It is as futile as fighting a flood with fire.”

Chani’s naked body comes before the eye of your mind. Somehow, your memory bank fills in the parts you have yet to see, and your heart hurts from its pounding. In your mind, she walks slowly towards a fully clothed you, and stands centimeters away, her body heat touching yours. You breathe heavily. You know you’ve never wanted anything more in your life. Even the pained look on your wife’s face does little to abate your unprecedented desire. You are breathing heavily and it affects your speech. Sweat starts to accumulate on your brow, and your skin tingles as if pre-orgasmic.

“Yet, at the moment before coitus, the rabbis tell us, Joseph held back because the face of his father appeared to him as if in a vision. The weight of tradition stayed his hands. Sometimes, we cannot answer our questions if not for this weight of tradition. So, Let me ask you, my friends,  whose face do you see at the moment of temptation?”

You stopped speaking, for a while now, from the frontal lobe. Straight amygdala, or subconscious. You don’t even want control anymore despite a fear for what you might say.

“I can tell you what face I see. I see no face, no vision, no image, no fatherly or motherly image with me to assuage my fears of sin. But I take solace in my independence, and perhaps, we can realize that not needing an image to save us from failing, in the end, signifies a strength. Without a vision, without a Jacob of our own, how though do we overcome our physicality, how do we deny our basic animalistic impulses, instincts and desires? We like to think to ourselves that God, while he gives us unbounded impulse and desire, like a pressurized valve, he allows certain holy releases, but to whom does this suffice? Ecclesiastes reminds us that no man will die with even a tenth of his desires fulfilled. What kind of Father, Creator, Lord creates a life in which emptiness and feeling unfulfilled is our eternal lot? Should we not rebel against these constraints, experiment more, tries out new adventures in sexuality, cuisine, push our bodies, the way we push our souls, to the extremes of its capabilities? What if we overestimate the importance of self control. What if we push ourselves to the extremes of self control instead of the Golden, Median path?”

You feel beaten, lost, as if your transgression of adultery was already consummated, time being just a technicality. She know this, you think. She wanted this, she planned this for some reason. Not out of attraction, but to break you. Maybe she moves from shul to shul tempting rabbis and collects those who fail. You can see how it will happen, beginning in passion, ending, quickly, in disgust. Most likely with clothing on, just out of spite. Unhappy even in the moment of lust, but you know you can’t say no. This internal battle, in your mind, is what counts. Your mind, your intellect, if it fails you then you can no longer rely on anything, you think. A real loss in life. Your first.

Time returns to you, in a quick realization, in the same way that Adam and Eve understood their nakedness. You’ve been silent, lost in the jungles of your mind for two minutes now. An unprecedented silence. Tears well in your eyes. No one speaks, or moves, or even coughs. Through the glassy water in your eyes, you see Naomi. She looks sullen, embarrassed. She can barely look at your eyes. Self-hatred becomes a new reality for you. All this time, times been happening. Your thoughts do not move as fast you think. Everyone waits, their hearts holding their breath, hoping to forget this moment, and this moment. How do you come back from this type of embarrassment, do you make a public apology, or lie about some acute onset disease? Two minutes and thirty second.

You mouth speaks for you without your permission.

“The rabbi tell us numerous times that a person can save their whole world in one second. They tell us the story of a sinner who saves his eternal soul at the last second of his life through tears, through repentance. Yet, they forget to tell us about the implied inverse, perhaps out of sensitivity i.e. that you can lose your world in one second. The Rabbis understood the promise of one moment, of this moment, to change everything. A very radical form of the power of free will. For all you can say about the Rabbis, this idea is one of their more creative, insightful, intelligent and wise additions into the canon of wisdom. Self control is nothing less than an avenue of self-awareness, of self creation, of true choice. So we practice it in the realms of life that exert the strongest resistance. We choose, even when it eludes our logic because that makes it an actual choice.”

As from out of nowhere, this undeserved infusion of spirit, of beatitude, allays your questions of self-worth under the weight of experience. You look at your wife and smile a warm smile that tells her you lived through, thrived because of the storm. She understands, of course, she always understands everything about you.

Your erection remains, even engorges, but you accept it with the quietude of saints. You sense the beginning of the orgasm, the sweat accumulating like dew on your brow, the heavy breathing, your digits contracting and you hold on to the pew with equanimity. You feel this thunderous revelation overtake your body but you show your congregation none of it.

“All I can say is that you can live through all of the ambiguity, fully embracing doubt and your imagination, but still choose to believe, to live based on principles and fundamentals you want to be true, because in a world of ambiguity where nothing compels you more than anything else, where logic dictates uncertainty at best, it requires courage to choose a path, and religion might just be another path to choose amongst others for its own complex set of slightly satisfying reasons, but at worst, your version wouldn’t hurt anyone. Then you can choose the truths of religion because you want to enact the vision it seeks in this world.”

You say these words to your congregation. They smile, awkwardly. You are tearing, ever so lightly, though you are not sure why. You smile so they begin to smile. To come around. You shepherd them into calm, acceptance. The semen leaks through your boxer briefs onto your suit and hardens.

Saved by the wettest of dreams. God’s gift couched in sin. You don’t understand but you accept it, and like that, in the wisp of a whispering wind, on the glow of this auspicious ejaculation everything passes into transcendence.

Joe Winkler is a freelancer writer living in the Upper West Side. He writes for Vol.1 Brooklyn, Tablet Magazine, and The Rumpus. He also spent numerous years studying for Rabbinic Ordination at a right wing Yeshiva but did not finish because shit got complicated. He is now engaged in his ridiculous goal to read all of the big and pretentious books to fill some sort of ineffable hole in his life. 

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