Rabbi Avis Miller

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Avis D. Miller


The common wisdom, taught to us in practical rabbinics 101, is that something always comes along at this time of year to make our long-planned sermons suddenly beside the point. And the remedy? Give the old sermon exactly as written, up to the next to the last page, at which time we announce: all this has relevance to world war 3, which broke out last week.

Those with really good memories will recall that this is not the first time I have used these words on the high holydays, and I must admit, the laughs were louder last time. The year was 1993, and Rabin and Arafat had just shaken hands on the white house lawn. We could afford to laugh then. Peace was on the horizon, and hope was in our hearts.

Laughing does not come easily today. A week to the day after the barbaric attack on our country, we are still feeling vulnerable and victimized and vigilant. We are stunned, and grieved, and perhaps most of all, enraged at the evil.

Unfortunately, we Jews are too familiar both with the pain and with the ability to go on. In the field of suffering and survival, we are pros.

But however we cope, we understand that life does go on. On this, the president of the U.S. and Jewish tradition agree. Monday night football may be canceled, but not monday night Rosh Hashanah. Not celebrating Rosh Hashanah with joy and hope gives those who hate us an additional victory.

The Talmud discusses what happens when a wedding procession and a funeral procession meet at the same corner. Who should go first? After much discussion, the rabbis decided that the wedding should go first, that life should take precedence.

These High Holydays are supposed to allow us introspection, much needed personal time to reflect on our lives and how we can become what we could and should be. Events on a wider screen, both in israel and now here in the U.S. have for the moment eclipsed our personal concerns.

Talking heads and writing hands, including many in this room today, have movingly and tirelessly reported and commented on our national tragedy.

So I will go on with basically what I had planned to say, albeit on kol nidre, with a focus our personal lives in mind.

During the despair of the second world war, some criticized winston churchill for making jokes. Churchill was reputed to answer his critics: if I thought that withholding laughter would bring back a single life, I would never again make a joke.

So let us not be afraid of smiling at ourselves, and if we find ourselves laughing, let us not feel guilty. Laughter, too, is a Jewish way of coping

There is a story of the minister who passed along to a beginning pastor a trick he used when he noticed the congregation nodding off.

“i suddenly say to them, ‘last night I held another man’s wife in my arms.’ and, when everyone sits up shocked, I continue, ‘it was my own dear mother.’”

The young preacher liked it and was ready the following sunday when most of his congregation was drowsing He said in a loud voice, “you know, last night I held another man’s wife in my arms.”

Stunned, the congregation sat bolt upright and stared. Unnerved, the young preacher stammered, “oh dear i’ve forgotten who she was.”

I bet that young minister replayed the scene over and over in his mind in the weeks and months that followed, as our tongues keep returning to a sore point on a tooth that aches.
I remember well a rabbinical convention held in boston a number of years back. After all the sitting I desperately needed some exercise. Unlike the small irregularly shaped puddles most hotels label as pools, the hyatt in cambridge had a nice lap pool. So I opted to skip a plenary to go swimming The speaker was a prominent Jew from washington, and I figured I could and did hear him hold forth all the time.

About a third of the way into my workout, a fire alarm rang I assumed it was a test, so I just kept on paddling along, ignoring the ringing, until the lifeguard booted me out. With just my suit, shoes and no socks, and a hastily grabbed skimpy hotel towel, I headed outside, where a freak early april snowstorm over the weekend had dropped ten inches of snow.

When we used to hold conventions in the catskills, everyone dressed casually, in jeans and sweatshirts. But this was boston, and boston is a button-down town. All the guys were wearing ties and jackets, and i--well, I wasn=t.

Even under the most ordinary of circumstances, we few women stick out in the crowd of male rabbis--and these circumstances were hardly ordinary.

My colleagues had a field day making what they thought were cute comments. Even the speaker, whom i=d known for years, ambled over and said: Askipped my session to go swimming I see.@ to this day, some will greet me at convention with: Agoing for a swim?@

Have you ever wanted to take back an embarrassing moment, a shameful act, or a word spoken in the heat of anger? Are you ever disturbed by memories? Wouldn’t it be nice to simply click the delete key and erase the pain while leaving only happy recollections?

The problem is that some things can’t be taken back. Some hurts cannot be undone. And unfortunately, no delete key can correct the past so that memories no longer hurt, frighten, or humiliate.

The past is just that past. Over. Finished. There is no taking it back, so let us learn from its harsh lessons as well as its joys. Then let us let it go, and leave it where it belongs in the past.

In the new year which awaits us, can we find the strength to let go, and put the past in the past?

A book called the mind of a mnemonist, written by the russian psychologist alexander luria, is about a man who has an extraordinary memory. Show him a page of several hundred random numbers, and he can instantly remember them in order. Read an entire opera libretto to him in italian, and he instantly remembers the whole thing And he doesn=t even understand italian. And go up to him 15 years later and he still remembers the entire libretto word for word.

So you would think that his life was fantastic, right?
This is a man who never forgot where he put his car keys or his glasses, never forgot anyone=s birthday or anniversary.
Wouldn=t you give anything to have that kind of memory?
But actually, this man would have done anything to have his special talent removed. Because to him, it was more of a curse than a blessing

His attention to every little detail made it difficult for him to follow even a simple conversation. When he would see people he knew, he would never recognize them, because he always remembered them exactly as they looked the last time he saw them. His mind was so cluttered up with things he wished he could forget that he lived a reclusive life, withdrawn from society.

The story of the mnemonist reminds us that as vital as it is to remember, it is just as important to be able to forget.

Some of us carry around the feeling of pain, even when its source has long since gone from our lives. Naomi remen (my grandfather=s blessings) tells of one woman, whose cancer had been successfully treated a decade earlier. She came to realize that since her original diagnosis many years before, she had never bought herself a really good pair of shoes, the kind that last, as if she might not get to wear them out and they would be wasted. She made vacation plans with her family a year in advance, but always bought her clothes at the very last minute, as if it was not until then that she could be sure that she might actually take the trip. And she put off having expensive dental work for no good reason at all.

Once the woman realized what she had been doing for so long, she resolved to release the past pain, to let it go. Ai do not know what all this means,@ she wrote. Aall I can say is this week I bought a pair of italian shoes. They were very expensive.@

At this time of year, when we contemplate the direction of our lives, we should ask ourselves: what is it that we need to let go? Perhaps something we did long ago that has been haunting us.

Kate wenner writes in hadassah magazine of how her father had been unwittingly involved in a terrible arson when his mother set fire to her small shop for the purpose of collecting insurance money:

When my father understood what was happening that night and when he witnessed the upstairs tenants running from the flames with their newborn baby, he was overwhelmed with shame. He broke into sobs when he confessed this secret to my sister, my brother, and me many, many years later. Only weeks before his death, he told us something we will never forget. He said he believed he got his cancer because he was tired from a lifetime of trying to bury his shame. He said that dying was the only way he could let go of it at last.

A painful secret, to be sure, a horrible memory to be carried from adolescence to deathbed.

But perhaps what most of us need to let go of are past hurts and resentments.

Sometimes we can let go of hurts by erasing the misunderstanding that caused them in the first place.

A story tells of a merchant in a small town who had identical twin sons. The boys worked for their father in the department store he owned and, when he died, they took over the store. Everything went well until the day a dollar bill disappeared. One of the brothers had left the bill on the cash register and walked outside with a customer. When he returned, the money was gone.

He asked his brother, “did you see that dollar bill on the cash register?” his brother replied that he had not. But the young man kept probing and questioning He would not let it alone. “dollar bills just don’t get up and walk away! Surely you must have seen it!” there was subtle accusation in his voice. Tempers began to rise. Resentment set in. Before long, a deep and bitter chasm divided the young men. They refused to speak. They finally decided they could no longer work together, and a dividing wall was built down the center of the store.

For twenty years hostility and bitterness grew, spreading to their families and to the community. Then one day a man in an automobile licensed in another state stopped in front of the store. He walked in and asked the clerk, “how long have you been here?” the clerk replied that he’d been there all his life. The customer said, “i must share something with you. Twenty years ago I was ‘riding the rails’ and came into this town in a boxcar. I hadn’t eaten for three days. I came into this store from the back door and saw a dollar bill on the cash register. I put it in my pocket and walked out. All these years I haven’t been able to forget that. I know it wasn’t much money, but I had to come back and ask your forgiveness.”

The stranger was amazed to see tears well up in the eyes of this middle aged man. “would you please go next door and tell that same story to the man in the store?” he said. Then the man was even more amazed to see two middle aged men, who looked very much alike, embracing each other and weeping together in the front of the store. After twenty years, the brokenness was mended. The wall of resentment that divided them came down.

But much more often in life, the grievances are no mistake. The resentments are for true cause. And people who have the strongest memories are not always at an advantage, especially those who use their gifts of memories to catalogue every indignity they=ve suffered each and every time someone has slighted them, or been disloyal, or broken a promise.

In Jewish folklore, there is an angel called purah, the angel of forgetfulness. A tale is told of a rabbi much like the man in the russian story who forgot nothing, but with a crucial difference. During his lifetime, this rabbi remembered everything he had seen or heard. But if someone sinned against him, purah, the angel of amnesia, would come and place her hands on his head, and he would forget everything bad that had happened to him.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our annual opportunities
For sorting out our memories. It=s the time to let go of the memories that are holding us back from becoming the people we ought to be.

We Jews are good at remembering We are the people who are supposed never to forget. We are not supposed to deal and move on. Zachor, we are commanded. We are supposed to remember.

Yet there comes a time when certain kinds on unproductive memories can weigh us down and preoccupy us and sap our emotional energy and prevent us from being all we can be and fulfilling our potential to perfect g=s world.

Elie wiesel returned home from a trip to the former yugoslavia with the impression that memory was too often the problem, not the solution. Too many times, people based their decisions--and staked their emotions--on memories of whose grandfather killed whose grandfather. And so the cycle of hatred and violence continues.

On this Yom Kippur, we ask ourselves: what memories, and other thoughts, do we hold fast, which we would be better off letting go?

Some years ago there was a rabbi who left his pulpit to go
To medical school and become a doctor. An old friend saw him
Several years later and expressed surprise at his career change, but said he assumed it had been because he could care for people in a more concrete way now that he was practicing medicine.

“not at all,” the doctor responded honestly, “the reasons were purely economic. I discovered that people will pay more money to care for their bodies than for their souls.”

Several years lapsed before the friend saw him again and
Discovered that he had left medicine for law. “what was your
Reason this time?” the friend asked.

“simple economics again,” replied the ex rabbi, ex doctor, now attorney. “i learned that people will pay more to prove they are right than to care for either body or soul.”

This man discovered something important about human nature. People want to be right. In conflict, most of us want to come out on top. When we are wronged, we want justice. If no justice is forthcoming, we lament about the unfairness of it all and brood in righteous indignation. Many people will go to great lengths to prove they are right and at tremendous cost, not only financially, but in other ways.

Being the “injured party” exacts a high toll on physical and
Emotional health. Some people pay dearly to be right. They stew about the injustice and it eats at them, sometimes physically. While they wait for an apology or to be vindicated, they grow resentful and bitter. They obsess on the cause of their pain and allow it to rob them of their happiness. In the end, some people discover they paid far too high a price to be right.

The only solution is to let it go.

A certain husband told his friend: Aevery time my wife and I have a fight, she gets historical.@ the friend replied: Adon=t you mean hysterical?@ Ano, I mean historical. She reminds me: >last month you did this to me, and three years ago you did that.= every time we have a fight, she gets historical.@
Every year I conduct a workshop called seven blessings for engaged and newly married couples. We advise couples against what I call Agunny sacking,@ stockpiling grievances. Some husbands and wives collect hurts, and then, during a major fight, unload everything they=ve been hoarding for just such an occasion.

People with perfect memories who keep exact tabs on both grievances and gifts too often succeed not in getting their strict desserts, but rather in making themselves miserable.

A peanuts cartoon: lucy says to charlie brown: Ai keep track of all the people who didn=t send me a christmas card, and then I hold a grudge against them. You look puzzled...wait >til I show you my list of people who didn=t give me any presents.@

And like lucy in the cartoon, how do we calculate?

Ai know so-and-so is down in the dumps since her sister died, but it=s their turn to have us over for dinner.@

Alet=s check and see what they gave our daughter when she got married...aha! It cost only about $90, and what their son and his fiancé chose for silver costs $120 a place setting Let=s find something less expensive.@

Ahe didn=t call to congratulate me on my promotion, so i=ll be darned if i=ll lift up the phone to call him.@

Anobody from their whole family came to visit when we were sitting shiva. How can they expect me to shlep all the way to detroit for their daughter=s wedding?@

And so forth. We all know the mentality.

A woman who wrote in the Alife is short--autobiography as haiku@ column for the washington post seems to have the right idea. (kathy stoner, alexandria):

Before he left, the man I loved told me all my faults. Ai=m only trying to help you,@ he explained. I put the things he said into an imaginary box and jammed it onto a high shelf. At first it fell off a lot. Each time, I had to examine everything that spilled out before I could shut the lid and put it back. Months passed. It almost never falls anymore. When it does, a lot less stuff comes out. Soon, i=m going to get rid of that box. I could really use the shelf space.

A lot of us could use the shelf space in our minds currently occupied by slights and hurts to open up new space for those we choose to love.

My colleague rabbi harold kushner relates the story of a woman in his congregation who came to see him. Ashe is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me: >since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he=s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?@

Kushner answers her: Ai=m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn=t; it was mean and selfish. I=m asking you to forgive because he doesn=t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman. I=d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of your life physically, but you keep holding on to him. You=re not hurting him by holding on to your resentment, but you are hurting yourself.@

Holding on to hatred is like grasping a hot coal. What gets burned is not our enemy--only our own hand.

Or as someone once said: Ahanging onto resentment is like letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.@ and when you plan to get even with someone, you are only letting that person continue to hurt you. The best way of getting even to is to let it go.

On these days of awe, we ask ourselves: do we want to be right or well? The truth is, too often we can’t be both. But only when we let go of being right, can we get on with healing Let go of being right and we can finally live fully and happily in the present.

It is no secret that those with the greatest capacity to hurt us are those closest to us, members of our own family.

Rabbi bob saks, who serves bet mishpacha here in washington, wrote a prayer (in a publication of the Jewish healing center movement) for those reciting yizkor who feel they do not have loving memories to reflect upon.

Rabbi saks writes about parents, but this might be someone else in your life. I share it with you so that you might reflect on your feelings about someone who died with whom, perhaps, you did not have the most positive relationship. But more importantly, maybe there is someone in your life now, who, like you, is still alive, and this may inspire you to find some resolution before one of you is gone. Here is rabbi saks’ prayer:

Dear g--
You know my heart
Indeed you know me better than I know myself
So I turn to you before I rise for yizkor
My emotions swirl as I say this prayer
The parent I remember was not kind to me
Death left me with a legacy
Of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay
That a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt
Help me o god
To subdue my bitter emotions
That do me no good
And to find that place in myself
Where happier memories may lie hidden
And where grief for all that could have been
All that should have been
May be calmed.
If I can=t forgive,
Or at least be soothed by the passage of time
I pray that you
Who raise up slaves to freedom
Will liberate me from the passion of my hurt and anger
And that you will lead me from this desert
To your holy place
Bud welch, who lost a daughter in the oklahoma city bomb blast, tells the following story (wp):

Athere was a woman who came up to me in december of =99 at a meeting Her daughter was killed in the bombing, like mine. She said to me, very quietly, in essence: >bud, I want to be where you are. How did you get there?=

Aat first I didn=t know what to tell her. I said, Ahere=s what I think is going on with youY.@

Bud holds up a tightened fist.

Ai had her make a fist and I said: >look in there, where your fingers are squeezed into your palm. Look in that little space here, inside your fist. See? You=re holding on to it. There=s vengeance in there. I understand. You=re holding on to it because you feel like you=re honoring your daughter=s life. But here=s what I think; I think you can honor her better by letting go of the hate and rage. Loosen it up just a little at a time. If you feel like you=re losing too much of it, then tighten it up again. Then, loosen it later, see if that revenge is slipping out. Physically try it.

A few months later, bud was coming back from a death row vigil, outside an arizona penitentiary. Somewhere in the warped heat of a desert nowhere, as he drove back to the interstate, bud=s cell phone rang

The connection was bad, but it was the woman with the clenched fist, calling from oklahoma city.

Ashe said, >bud, i=ve been trying what you said, with the fistY i=ve been trying, and I think it=s beginning to work.=@

There is no way to Aget even@ in life. Whatever your personal position on the death penalty, no one would argue that execution squares matters. How could we possibly get even with those responsible for last week=s atrocity?

The day after the execution of the oklahoma city bomber, joel achenbach wrote in the washington post: satisfied? Did it feel like justice? Did it heal any wounds, ease any pain? Did it bring closure to the tragedy?

What did you feel yesterday morning when you heard the news?

It felt sad, that=s for sure. Whatever your feelings on the death penalty, this was not a happy morning for america.

Here=s another way justice could have been served, suggests achenbach: ignore him. Let him know, through years of inattention, that his message had persuaded no one, that he was not only wrong, he was uninteresting Tell him that his life wasn=t worth the cost of the chemicals necessary to execute him.

Never again speak his name.
What columnist joel achenbach, and bereaved father bud welch, are suggesting is not something so lofty and noble as forgiveness. As we know from the events of last week, there are times when we cannot forgive and there are times when we must not forgive. But there is a difference between justice, which rights wrongs, and vengeance, which diminishes us.

As we will read on the shabbat following Yom Kippur: mine is the vengeance -- Ali ha-nakam,@ says the l.

If human vengeance is not a Jewish response to evil, neither is Aturning the other cheek@. The Jewish response is found in the maftir reading for the shabbat preceding purim (deut. 25:17): Aremember what amalek did to you on your journey, after you left egypt--how, undeterred by fear of g, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear...you shall surely blot out the memory of amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!@

Before this week, I could never make sense of the internal contradiction of what we are commanded concerning human

Evil: blot out the memory of amalek, and at the same time, do not forget.

We must not forget the evil perpetrated by the nazis, or by those responsible for the attack on america. We must work to root out that evil, so that it never happens again--not in america, not in israel, not anywhere in the world. I am a proud and grateful american. If my mother and grandparents had not come to this country, which welcomed them, then I would have shared the fate of others in my family, in austria and in russia. I trust and support our country=s efforts to do what is humanly possible to respond to these barbaric acts.

But there may come a time when we can do no more to destroy that evil, when we may have to call on God To take over the retribution. As we pray in the amidah on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

Wickedness will be silenced, all evil will vanish like smoke when you, o g, remove the domination of arrogance from the earth.

In the lingo of the twelve step programs: let go, and let God

Now, just a week after the attack on america, we are not yet ready to let go. Our emotions are still raw. We are still grieving and still angry.

But that time of letting go will eventually come, and it need not come either by way of forgiveness on the one hand, nor vengeance on the other. And when that time of letting does come, we should blot out the memory of the perpetrators, by not letting them have an emotional hold over us, by living according to the very values that these evil men sought to destroy.

The rabbis made a pun on the name for the day of atonement. They called it Yom ki-purim, a day Aki@, like, purim. Why?

Because we should rejoice that God Will forgive our sins. This year we should likewise declare our solemn fast to be AYom ki-purim@, a day like purim, a day on which we blot out the names of evil, just as we stamp our feet on purim to obliterate the very sound of haman=s name.

Like bud welch and joel achenbach, what I am talking about here is something much more mundane, more pedestrian, and much more common than forgiveness. Do what we can to see that justice prevails, and then just let go. Let go of memories of evil and injustice and hurts, along with past embarrassments and mistakes from long ago, memories that do us no good, and that take up space in our minds and hearts and lives, space that could be used productively.

A schoolteacher entered his room a few minutes early and noticed a mealworm laboriously crawling along the floor. It had somehow been injured. The back part of the worm was dead and dried up, but still attached to the front, living part by just a thin thread.

As the teacher studied the strange sight of a poor worm pulling its dead half across the floor, a little girl ran in and noticed it there. Picking it up, she said, “oh, oscar, when are you going to lose that dead part so you can really live?”

Letting go of the past allows us to live more fully in the present.

On Yom Kippur we will ask God For the strength to let go of our sins. In one of the long list of al heit sins is the sin we have committed by Asinat chinam@, which is translated as causeless hatred. The story of the wrongly accused twin is one of true sinat chinam, hatred without true cause. The brother was innocent.

But without doing violence to the hebrew, we could also translate sinat chinam as hatred to no avail, hatred which is in vain, resentment which serves no good purpose.

There is really nothing particularly profound about it. If we refuse to carry around bitterness, we may surprise ourselves at how much energy we have left for building bonds with those we love.

Our lives are colored by our leisure thoughts. As james lane allen has put it: Ayou are today where your thoughts have brought you. You will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.@

William blake wrote a poem he called the poison tree, a fantasy about the power of negative thinking (norton anth 2, p. 60):

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow
and it grew both day and night,
till it bore an apple bright.
and my foe beheld it shine,
and he knew that it was mine.
and I watered it in fears,
night and morning with my tears;
and I sunned it with smiles,
and with soft deceitful wiles.
and into my garden stole,
when the night had veiled the pole.
in the morning glad I see
my foe outstretched beneath the tree.

We all recognize that the truth is exactly the opposite. If thoughts and looks could kill, there would be a lot more dead people. In fact, the poison we feel against others, whether justified or not, hurts them not a whit. Negative emotions like anger, wrath, and anxiety are turned back on us, and shortens our lives, our health.

I don=t pretend to know what happens to us after I die. But this I do know:

Shrouds have no pockets.

The traditional white garments in which the hevra kadisha will wrap us for burial have no place to hold anything--neither material possessions, nor embarrassments, nor resentments nor hates.

On these days of awe, we dress in white, as if to remind ourselves of the day of death which we all will face, the day on which we will be forced to let it go.

And on kol nidre, we will ask that God Release us from all vows and promises that we have made, promises that we meant when we made them. We will pray to God To Alet it go@.

In our prayers, we refer to God As the one who remembers all that is forgotten. Someone once quipped that over the desk in g=s office hangs a plaque that reads: Ag Forgets everything you remember, and God Remembers everything you forget.@

GOD Remembers, so we can forget, and let go.

An ann landers gem of the day: some people believe Ahanging in there@ shows great strength. The truth is, letting go can be the ultimate test.

As we reflect on our lives during these high holydays, may God Grant us the power to remember, the wisdom to know when to forget, and strength to let go.

L=shana tova tikateivu
May we all be inscribed for a good, sweet new year

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