Rabbi Jonathan Miller
Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama
YOM KIPPUR MORNING SERMON--5762-2001
I am a little nervous this Yom Kippur morning. I am in uncharted territory for me as a rabbi. The events of the last two weeks have made sermon writing difficult. I spend much of the spring and summer reading and studying and preparing for these holy days. I take my sermons and addresses to you very seriously. I do the very best that I can. I try to make my sermons thought-filled. My old boss in Los Angeles, when I would get lazy, would say to me, “Jonathan, you are a rabbi. Your job is to think.” A congregation should expect from its rabbi thoughtfulness on the high holy days. But my mind is cluttered today. The sermon that I had prepared earlier this summer for this morning is a very good sermon. It is very thought-filled, and I will deliver it next year.
I want to share a different kind of message today. On this Yom Kippur, I want to speak with you, not at you, from my heart to your heart. The rabbis put it so beautifully, d’varim sh’yotsim min halav nichnasim el halev, words that go out from the heart enter the heart. The reality of Yom Kippur is that it is for our congregants and worshippers usually a private and alone time. Even though we come into our congregation, which is filled with people, this is a private time between us and God. We know our sins and our shortcomings. Our hurts and our disappointments and our failures are all uniquely private. But today, after the terror that was inflicted upon our nation, there is a commonality to our experience. We share the same pain. We share the same grief. We share the same fears. We share the same sadness. We share the same apprehension. I want to give voice to these common feelings, from my heart to your heart.
Last year, I spoke with unbridled optimism about the end of the era of Jewish victimhood. I said that we were no longer history’s victims. But instead, this has been the worst year that I can remember for the Jewish people and for the freedoms we cherish as Americans. We are stuck in a morass that seems to have no end.
The stories are just beginning to come out about the families of those whose lives were lost through this terrible bombing. One rabbi in New Jersey wrote that in his granddaughter’s class, three children are orphaned. People who were working are now without jobs. Our nation is fighting a war against an elusive enemy that cannot hope for victory against us. This enemy cares only for terror. How do we fight a war like this? We pray for our leaders and our nation that they may know both wisdom and fortitude.
I remember Vietnam. I remember the Six Day war in 1967 and the Yom Kippur war in 1973. I had thought with this new millennium that we would have provided a better world for our children. I have saved my money and planned for my future. My son, Aaron, is set to go off to college next year. There is a chance that if the war gets intense; he and young college boys his age will have to fight it. I am sorry that we couldn’t have given them a better world. They deserve a life of comfort and ease, of goodness and strength--and they inherit from us uncertainty. I apologize to our children for the hardships they may have to face. It should not be this way.
On Passover, we read four questions to introduce us to the Seder. I have four questions that I will discuss with you this morning, and that will be my address.
1. Why did this happen to us?
Sometimes things happen for reasons that can never be explained. People who posit those reasons, whether they are economic, sociological, political, or psychological, always fall short. I cannot tell you with any definition why this has happened to us. I can only tell you that it is not because we deserve it. Bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them. People become sick. People have accidents. People suffer pain. And there is no answer to the causes of our suffering. And sometimes good things happen to us too that we don’t deserve.
What would make someone get up on any given morning and say, “Today is the day that I will kill as many people as I can?” The Torah tells us, lev h’adam rah me’n’urav, the heart of man is evil from his youth. We have a darkness in our common humanity. Everyone has a dark side, which no one sees. Even moral people still have that darkness, but we keep that darkness under check and under control. We work on our goodness. Because other people do bad, we should still do good. My friends, don’t give up on people. On Rosh Hashanah evening, I mentioned Anne frank as a symbol of our people’s pain. But her writing is also a symbol of universal hope. You will recognize this famous quote, written on July 15, 1944:
" It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
"...And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them.”
My friends, that is the Jewish way. Hold on to your ideals. Don’t surrender them to despair.
2. How do we cope with an uncertain future?
I am somewhat worried about our President’s message when he spoke to us about the absolute outcome of this war. As Israel has shown us, this may be a war without a clear ending. But still, it is a war well worth waging. If we cannot make the world safe for freedom and our cherished American values, we certainly can make it safer for freedom and our cherished American values. Nobody can make the world absolutely safe. We may be able to deter terrorism, but we may not be able to eradicate it completely.
As your rabbi, I have had to bury people who have died from accidents. Living is fraught with risk. Safety is an illusion. Ask any parent who watches his child drive off in the family car the day he gets his driver’s license -- safety is an illusion. Our liturgy will not let us escape the randomness of life. Who by fire, who by plague, who shall be driven, who shall be secure? My wife tells me, “Life holds no promises”. I hate it when she tells me that. But whether I like it or not, life holds no promises. So how do we cope with this uncertainty? We cope by living our lives as normally as possible. That is what our President has asked of us. And those are the sentiments of the Bible when facing uncertain times. The psalmist wrote, lo amoot ki echea, I shall not die but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
And, if die I must, then I refuse to admit that my death is imminent. I am going to live. I am going to plan for the future. I am going to go on my trips with my children. I am going to change the oil in my car, go to work, and pay my bills. I am going to live. My daughter planned a trip to fly to Chicago in October to see her friends from camp. We are going to send her. We will not let the terrorists keep my daughter from seeing her friends.
I have not cashed out of my positions in the stock market. Maybe I am a fool. But where America is concerned, I have an irrational exuberance. I believe that the world is going to be better. And I will not alter my plans unless I have to. And if I have less when I retire, I will live on less. But I will not cancel my life, or my beliefs, or my hope, because of these terrorists.
In 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was under siege, the prophet Jeremiah bought a vineyard in Anathoth. The Babylonians had besieged Jerusalem, the country was falling to pieces, and exile was imminent. Judaean real estate was worthless. Jeremiah went out and bought a vineyard from his cousin, who must have been elated to get 17 silver shekels of hard currency for his then worthless land. From the book of Jeremiah:
14Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Take these documents, this deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one, and put them into an earthen jar, so that they may last a long time.” 15For thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.”
If we sacrifice our hopes and our dreams on the altar of our fears, we will die afraid, with nothing. That field in Anatot is worth a fortune today. I will not die afraid. Hold on to your dreams.
One more thought. We have embarked on a once in our lifetime Temple fundraising campaign. At this time, we have collected commitments from half of our congregation. We still have half of our congregation to visit, and the success of our campaign is crucial to the welfare of our congregation and the Jewish community in Birmingham for the next fifty years. You may be thinking, “The stock market is down, and times are uncertain. This is the worst time to ask people to make long term commitments”. But I will tell you this. I believe that this is the best time for us to have embarked on a campaign. Never since World War II have we come to realize the importance of our religious endeavors. We need our community. We need each other. In these difficult times, we have turned to Temple and to each other for strength. And we do not want to give the terrorists their desired victory if we are defeated in accomplishing our sacred purposes. Before the attack on September 11, I believed in this congregation. I have invested my life, my career, and my own resources in these holy endeavors. Now when our community needs us most, and when our world needs us most to succeed, I know that we will not fail.
3. How will we deal with our grief?
As a rabbi, I have come to respect grief. I do not deny it or try to shove it under the rug. So many of us do just the opposite. Modern culture tells us to try to push away the negative feelings and experiences, and then they will not exist. But grief does exist. Our grief is a part of us that never goes away. Six years ago, my father died. On the day that he died, he was only 17 years older than I am today. I grieved for my father then, and I grieve for him still. What I have learned from my grief, and what I have learned from being your rabbi, is that grief does not go away.
I remember saying once to someone grieving that time will heal all wounds. I was young then. And that person responded to me saying, “Rabbi, you don’t know what you are talking about. Time doesn’t heal wounds that cannot ever heal.” I know that now. Those of you who have grieved for the people you love know that too. What we do with our grief is learn to live with it. When we experience our loss, our pain is front and center. Nothing that we experience after our loss is quite the same. And in the aftermath of loss, it is hard to focus. We eat, but the food doesn’t taste quite the same. We may listen to music, but the music is flat. Things once funny don’t make us laugh. We go to work, get our work done, but by the time we get home, we forgot what we did all day. That is grief. And that is what we are going through as a community and as a nation.
I have also learned that what frightens us most about grief is the permanence of it. We become terrified that we will never again enjoy our food. We will never again laugh. We will never again feel passion. We will never again enjoy our lives. And why should we? The object of our loss remains lost for us. It is not coming back. King David, upon losing his child, said, “I will go to him. He will not come back to me.”
I have wept over the pain and loss of people I don’t know at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. I have pictured all the families with the empty place at the dinner table. I have looked at every poster of people bearing hope against hope--praying for those crushed to be made whole, for those burned to be healed, and for those suffocated to breathe again. I have continued to live, but I have experienced a lot less joy in my life since the bombing. And I hate that. I want to go back to September 10. I want life to be as it was. And I am not alone. You are with me. We are a grieving nation, and we will continue to grieve for some time.
But my friends, this is the first stage of grief. I can also tell you that someday you will go outside and the fog will have lifted. Someday music will sound beautiful again. Someday funny things will make us laugh again. I don’t know how it happens. But I know that it does. It always does.
Faith, my friends, is believing that we can still gain joy from our lives when we are grieving for our losses, when we cannot imagine life as anything different than how it is at this moment. Faith may come from weakness today. But it is based on strength borrowed from tomorrow. We cry, and then we wipe away our tears. We are a grieving community today. But we are also a community with faith. Life will get better. I promise you it will. It always does.
4. Where is God?
Of all the questions that I asked, this is the easiest question. I will tell you where God is in a moment.
If you think that God will, every time we act with our God-given freedoms to harm our fellow human beings, come and rescue us, you don’t understand God. We are absolutely free to make moral choices. And the choices that we sometimes make can hurt other people, and can hurt God too. That is why we have Yom Kippur to help us make changes in the choices we make. America as a nation hasn’t suffered very much. We are blessed because of that. We fought horrific battles on our soil in the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War was devastating to our country in lives and fortune. But otherwise, we were fortunate enough to have waged our battles on foreign soil. This battle has come to our country and into our homes through our televisions. That is the meaning of terror. We experience this horror together.
But we Jews have a unique knowledge of suffering. We know where God is during suffering. When the Babylonians carried us off into captivity, God accompanied us into our exile. During our litany of oppression, God sustained us. And when we were herded off to concentration camps, God was with us and not with our tormentors. That is why we carry on. So where was God on September 11? I will tell you. God was with the people on United flight 93 who overtook the hijackers. God was with the people who helped strangers in their building evacuate through the flames. God was with the firefighters and rescue workers who rushed in to save people, impervious to their own safety. God was with us at our prayer vigils as we lit our candles and prayed for healing. God is with us when we dedicate ourselves to our noble ideals and to each other. Throughout these crises, God has never left us.
I want to thank you today for being with me. Being your rabbi has been my privilege and my joy, even in this sorrow. We have felt our prayers and God’s love most immediately and profoundly this Yom Kippur in each other’s presence, and they have helped us walk through the valley of the shadow of death, not alone, but with God to guide us. I have no rhetorical flourish with which to end this message. This sermon is not bound together by any great ideas, just words from the heart.
In 1944, Chana Senesh a young Hungarian woman who had emigrated to Palestine a few years earlier, was parachuted behind Nazi lines to warn her community of their impending destruction. She was caught and hanged. She wrote this poem prior to her death. Her poem reflects the faith of our people. She was not alone when she died. God was with her.
Eli, Eli, sh’lo yegamer leolam. Hachol v’hayam, rish rush shel hamayim, b’rak hashamayim, t’fillat ha’adam. O lord, my God, I pray that these things never end. The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of man.