Three Sermons for the End of January—Tied Up in a Bow

Rabbi Jonathan Miller

Temple Emanu-El

Birmingham, AL

January 28, 2011


I wrote this sermon in a hurry.  I have told my son Aaron, the rabbinic student, that the best sermons are the ones that come flying off your fingers.  The ones that we labor over, picking with care each and every word are the ones that become laborious to write and a labor to hear.  I wrote this sermon last night in my sleep, and I awoke with tears on my pillow.

To say that this has been a tumultuous month would be an understatement.  And for me, personally, what is in store is even more upending than what has happened.  So this evening, I am going to share three sermons, and tie them together for you in a bow at the end.

Sermon Number 1: I want to reflect with you a little behind the scenes what transpired in the aftermath of Governor Robert Bentley stinging remarks at the Dexter Avenue Church on Martin Luther King Day, after his inauguration.  After proclaiming his desire to be the Governor for all Alabamians, he got carried away and de-brothered and de-sistered all those people who believe differently from him.  He was truly shocked and saddened at the furor that erupted in the aftermath of these words.  The people outside the church heard these words differently from the way he intended the words to be heard inside the church.  Our rabbis warned themselves:  “Chachamim, hizheeru b’divreichem—Sages, be cautious with your words.”

Immediately, I penned a letter that walked a very fine line between admonishing our new Governor and giving him the chance to make right.  I sent it to him by fax and I sent it to the congregation.  It went viral in cyberspace.  The next day, I was part of a delegation which spent an hour and a half in the new Governor’s office.  We shared a lot with each other, and Governor Bentley apologized to those he offended.  As far as I am concerned, this case is closed.  We ought to move forward.

Our words matter and our voices are heard.  I received more comments from this encounter than anything I have done in my life to this moment.  And I want to reflect with you I have learned.  We speak in a collective voice.  My words in writing to the Governor and what we shared around his table did not come from my heart only.  It came too from yours.  And that is why these words were heard in Montgomery.  We are a small community.  But even as our numbers are modest, the wisdom of our tradition is great.  And we have friends in the non-Jewish world who stand with us.  Most of the time, people will respond positively when we speak to them from the authenticity of who we are as Jews and as human beings.

My goal with Governor Bentley was to speak to his heart, and then give him a chance to move forward.  I confess to you that I had written an article for the Birmingham News about Governor Bentley’s words.  I had space reserved in Sunday’s paper.  But I decided to pull the article.  I did not want to grow this into a conflict.  It surely would have been satisfying for the moment to pick up the lance and sword and head into the public arena to draw blood.  His words hurt us, and I was ready and prepared to come out swinging.  But I gave myself the time to think. My goal was not to skewer our new governor, even though he spoke hurtfully to us.  I wanted him to be able to apologize and I wanted our state to move forward.  That was my goal.  To what purpose then would be my waging war on our new Governor? Sometimes, those of us who use our words as an arsenal need to be very careful.  “Sages, be cautious with your words”.  And our rabbis taught:  “Who is the greatest warrior?  One who turns an enemy into a friend.”  I hope our encounter with Governor Bentley has helped turn us towards a friendship that we otherwise might not have had.

Sermon Number 2:  What a month this has been at Temple Emanu-El!  Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss shared with me early in the month that he expected to be receiving a call to serve a new congregation as Senior Rabbi, and he will be leaving us June 30th.  He will have been with us for twelve years.  I am thrilled from him, absolutely thrilled.  And I am saddened too.  He has been a trusted colleague and a wonderful teacher for all of us, and especially for me.  Here is a groundbreaking observation:  In the world of rabbis and synagogues, rabbis come and go.  It is not at all uncommon for rabbis and congregations to link up and then decouple as each moves on.  But that is not the case here at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham.  Take note, no rabbi has left this congregation, Temple Emanu-El, for the past 21 years.  In its history, going back to 1882, no rabbi has ever left this congregation after serving more than five years.  So while we are so very excited for Scott and his family, we feel some measure of loss.  And frankly, we are somewhat bewildered.  What do we do now?  Should we engage a new rabbi?  What are we looking for?  How do we communicate to the congregation?  How do we best assure that we will maintain our tradition of innovation and outreach?  Over these twelve years, we have emerged from being a functioning congregation to being a synagogue of excellence, a congregation on the cutting edge.

So we are finding our way.  Our Temple leadership will be communicating with you in the weeks to come.  Please read your emails and engage us in conversation.  We have important decisions to make, and not too much time to let pass.

All of this came against the backdrop of my twentieth year anniversary here at Temple Emanu-El.  I will be absolutely honest with you.  With all the tumult going on in Montgomery and here at our Temple, I wasn’t too focused on last week’s celebration.  And purposefully, I was kept in the dark about the Shabbat events.  From the moment I walked in to our beautiful atrium, I was overwhelmed by the love I felt from this congregation.  True love is not a one way street either.  I was also overwhelmed by the love I felt for this congregation.  The words offered by my son Aaron, our president Mackie Horowitz, Dr. Roxanne Travelute, Rabbi Freelander, Rabbi Scott and Cantor Roskin were each more lovely than I would have imagined.  And I was heartened to hear my friends and congregants share, “Twenty more years, rabbi.  I hope you will be with us twenty more years!”  That is a long time and a lot of work, twenty more years.  I cannot imagine it.  But I am extremely grateful that nobody stood up to lead the chant as they do at political conventions:  “four more years.”  That would have been disheartening, to say the least.

This has been quite a month for us at Temple Emanu-El.  As I look backwards and as I look ahead, I am not entirely sure where we are going.  You will tell us in the month to come and in the years to come.  We will listen to you.  But this I know.  We will be guided by kindness, generosity and love.  This is a loving congregation.  We may not do everything just right.  But everything we do, we will do with great love.  We will be fine.  We will go from strength to strength.  That has been our way.  The future is always more compelling than our past, and our glory will be how we build for our future.  We do best when we love the most.

Sermon Number 3:  Because of this tumultuous month, I have been able to bury deep down in my kishkes the difficult task I have in front of me.  This week, we are dropping Benjamin off at college.  He is finally starting college.  Twenty percent of his 2014 graduating class starts in February.  He is the last of my children to go.  He was born here on a beastly hot July day at St. Vincent’s hospital.  And I will drop him off in Middlebury, Vermont.  It will be snowing and the predicted high temperature will be 13 degrees.  These are the bookends of his childhood.  I am reflecting on Benjamin’s life and I am reflecting on my life too.  And I am thinking about all of you.  Life, no matter how well we plan it, never goes according to our plans.  If we were in control, things would never change.  My baby would always be my baby.  I would always be twenty eight.  The stock market would always return 12%.  I would never grow.  I would always be the same.

But life doesn’t give us these kinds of options, and God doesn’t give us options either.  We live with free will, but life has its own plans.  If it were up to me, I would have frozen my life in 1994, just as Benjamin emerged from diapers, and Aaron and Alana were in the second and fourth grade.  I would have frozen my life before my father died.  I would have remained the same then as I was now, about to turn forty years old.  It was a sweet time for me.  I was old enough to have some wisdom and too young to be hurt by life and its struggles.  But my life moves on.  So does yours.  My children grow up.  So do yours.  My kids leave home to make lives of their own.  And so do yours.

So this Wednesday and Thursday, we will trudge through the snow and unload the rented minivan with Benjamin’s clothes, sheets, towels, snowboard, computer and printer, help him unpack—which is a useless task because he never puts his stuff away—put up a mezuzah, and shuffle out of there shedding the last child of our youth, wishing him well and saying goodbye.  It’s not over.  I know it’s not.  I am still his father and he is still my son.  And this is a transition that is so good and so sweet and so painful and so wrenching.  And we will talk to him and text him and email him and find reasons to holler at him and praise him and mommy and daddy him.  We will always love him, and he will always love us.  Only now we do it from afar.  I wish nothing would ever had changed and that my life as I had lived it would always be the life I will lead.  But God has wisdom far beyond mine.  And God has brought us all to this place where life changes and the world changes and we change and we know it is for blessing.  And I am so sad at the same time.

When my baby was born, he was a stranger to me.  But I promised to protect him and nurture him and provide for him.  And I loved him.  Now, I can no longer protect him or nurture him, not too much anyway.  I still have a few years to provide for him.  And I love him still more.  It’s just now I will have to love him from afar.  But loving from afar is still love, and that gives me comfort.

Tying up the bow:  Friends, here is my end of January message; kindness and love help us get through the difficult times in our lives.  It is that simple.  We cannot stand still.  We cannot take back yesterday’s moments or relive our journey.  We just keep moving forward.  We can only see ahead in life a few step at a time.  But our life’s spin through the years is a journey of miles and miles.  When we take God as our companion and walk with the people we love, it will all turn out alright.  It does.  It all turns out alright.  God sees to that.  And we move forward with kindness and love.

Shabbat Shalom

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