Sermon: The Rope
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
June 23, 2017/Parashat Korach
In anticipation of my taking my leave from my daily duties as your rabbi, I have composed a four-part series to address you this month from my pulpit. Then I hand over the keys to the kingdom. In the past few weeks, I spoke about living in Birmingham and the situation of Jews in the world today. Next week is my final service, and I will speak about Temple Emanu-El. This week I want to speak to you about the congregational rabbinate and give you a more personal picture of my experience as your rabbi.
First, a Torah lesson. This week’s Torah Portion, Korach, shares a story of Jewish leadership, going back to our journey through the desert. Leadership is not easy, and at times it can be challenging and even painful. Moses’ cousins, Korach and Datan and Aviram challenge Moses and Aaron. They say, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” Moses and Aaron are dismayed. They have devoted their lives to freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, committing them to Torah, and delivering them through the desert into the Promised Land. It has not been easy. Who on earth would sign up for such a task?
Spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well for the mutineers. But that is not what I want to address tonight. What I want to share with you is Korach’s challenge: “Why do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly? Isn’t the whole community holy?”
The answer the Torah puts forward is rather blunt. Watch out, the earth is going to swallow you up. But that is not the way we do things today. Being a rabbi has been an unparalleled joy for me. I have faced challenges and difficulties most people do not face. My position would seem to infer that I have a knowledge of God and life that sets me apart from other people. I will share with you a secret. I have always felt inadequate to provide real spiritual insight. I think most clergy look into the mirror and see themselves as ordinary men and women. Even with all the schooling and reading, what can we know about life until we have experienced it?
As a rabbi, I am not really part of any Jewish peer group. There is a community of lawyers and physicians and insurance salesmen and real estate developers and ROMEOS (retired old men eating out). But there is not a community of Reform rabbis here in Birmingham, Alabama. My experience has been sort of lonely. I have felt your love and affection all these years, but Jewish leadership and religious leadership separates the rabbi from the congregation. That is the way it is and the way it must be. I have been so involved in your lives over the decades. I have been with you in times of great joy and in times of great sorrow. Some of you have shared your intimate secrets and your deepest fears and your penetrating questions with me. I am grateful to have been a part of your lives.
And still, the rabbinate is a lonely calling. I want you to understand that. Moses and Aaron walked every step of the way with their people. They did not ride a camel or a donkey through the desert. Instead, they stood with their people as they led them at the same time. With them. Separate from them. Like them. Different from them. The people, when they were spiritually void, they went to Aaron the High Priest. The people, when they sought direction and meaning, they went to Moses their prophet and teacher. But Aaron and Moses, where do they go? To whom can they turn?
That really has been my experience as your rabbi. I have been a part of you and a deep and satisfying part of this community. And I have also been alone on the journey towards Eretz Yisrael. I walk with you, and I am different at the same time. This is not a complaint. It is the price we pay for the calling. Leadership, and particularly religious leadership, is a unique way and different way to devote the hours and months and years and decades of one’s life. The rabbinate is so stimulating intellectually and often (not always) fulfilling spiritually. We walk with you. We walk ahead of you. Sometimes we even walk behind you cleaning up the piles you leave on the road. The rabbinate is a challenging life.
Still, I understand my role as a rabbi more clearly now. I can lift my head above the emails and phone messages and spread sheets of synagogue and community life. I would still have chosen this for my career. It has been hard. You do not know what kind of hard it is. (Let me interrupt my train of thought to share with you that so many people work very hard—I admire the attorneys who have to account for every hour in 6 minute intervals, the retailers who have to wait on their customers sometimes seven days a week, the doctors who are on call for us and go in early in the morning and come home late at night after they take care of us when we are sick and hurting, and especially these days the real estate agents who hold our hand and knock us around with a two by four to make sure that we get our houses sold!—you get the picture—people work hard and life is challenging.) But what I said is that you do not know what kind of hard it is to be there for others with a loving and caring heart. You are all in my mind, my thoughts and my prayers. Being your rabbi is a different kind of hard because it means being involved and engaged and separate and different.
I want to share with you about me. I became a rabbi for many reasons. I grew up in a rabbinic home. I admired my father. He was outspoken and impactful. I also saw how he grew from his younger years to develop a true spiritual core before he died at the age of 64. We evolve into the people we become. It is not as though we flip a switch, and suddenly the light comes on. It is more that we rub the sticks together day after day and year after year, and sometimes we get a spark, and rarely will that even spark catch fire. But when it does, I cannot describe in words how satisfying it is to spread the fire and the warmth.
Like so many men who make a similar journey, I started to measure myself in relation to my father. But soon I stepped out of his shadow. I wish that I were more like him, and I am proud that I am different. Early on in my life, God became very important. As a teenager, and then in college and in my twenties and thirties and occasionally now and then too, I experience God directly and intimately. It is as though for a few moments I disappear within myself away from the world. I emerge from these experiences quiet and reassured about life. I wish I could turn the experience on and engage with God on my terms with a spiritual snap of my fingers. But that does not work. God engages on God’s terms with me.
I have never really shared this with you in this language, and I want to do so now. Maybe some of you have had experiences like this, and you thought you were alone. I want you to realize that serving God is ultimately the source of my strength as your rabbi. I am not a social worker or a community organizer or a linguist or a counsellor as much as I am a rabbi. And when your lives got tough, and when my life would get tough, I would harken back to my experiences throughout my life with my quiet encounters with God. These God moments helped me move forward and hold my head up and take it without giving it back. I always had a sense of calling because God had called me. I am not unique. God calls all of us. But I learned to listen to the calling and respond to you and the challenges I faced with the word, “Hineini, Here I am.” Sometimes I embraced God enthusiastically, and sometimes, like the Prophet Jonah, I tried to escape. But God always brought me back to my spiritual home.
I originally became a rabbi to serve the Jewish people. Only later did I learn that serving the Jewish people was secondary to serving God.
I want to share with you some of my core beliefs. I believe that religious people are happier and more content and more likely to do good more consistently than people who are not religious. “What about the fear of sin?” you may ask. “What about the wars and strife and divisions brought on by religion?” A person who is violent or hateful is violent or hateful regardless of whether that person is religious or not. I believe that religious people are happier than non-religious people because I have observed that our doing whatever we want whenever we want is ultimately shallow. Doing what we are supposed to do, that is the more challenging and difficult and ultimately the most satisfying way to live. I live with demands and I have embraced them. A life with purpose and obligation is what we need to make our lives more complete and satisfying.
Religious people ought to understand connections because we feel connected to God and the universe. We feel connected to each other, to our families and to our community—and connected to our obligations and to people we have never met because we share a common humanity.
As I prepare to take my leave, I am being praised up and down for my dedication to interfaith relations. But here is the odd part. I have never been too concerned about interfaith relations. This has not been on my radar. Before I came to Birmingham, I knew very little about other faiths.
I have always been concerned about Judaism. My goal was never to hide my being Jewish, or to act in such a way that Christians, Muslims and the few atheists that find themselves in the south would find me acceptable to them. To the contrary. My goal was always to promote Judaism. It was that simple. I have written and spoken on behalf of Judaism, on behalf of Zion, and on behalf of my synagogue and Jewish tradition because I believe that Judaism and Zion and our synagogue and Jewish tradition offer wisdom and insight about the world to make our world better. Judaism and Jewish life, when it is well lived, engenders respect among our non-Jewish neighbors.
Here is the key to interfaith relations. Be authentically Jewish. Be yourselves. Let the wisdom of our tradition shine forth. Speak and act as though you are an authority on who you are as a Jew, and be proud to share that.
If people will reject us because we are Jewish, that is their problem and not ours. It means that the wisdom and beauty of Jewish practice and faith will remain hidden from them, and they will be much the poorer.
And in turn, be open to the spiritual messages of all people. When we are open and listening to others, we learn more about them to appreciate them and to appreciate our own faith and wisdom in contrast. God is bigger, far bigger than the message of any teacher or scripture or tradition. The rabbinic sage, Ben Zoma asks the question, “Who is the one who is truly wise?” And he provides an answer, “The one who learns from all people.” I have become a better Jew over the decades because I have learned from all people and from so many of the world’s great religions.
I want to share another core belief for you to consider. Judaism describes the nature of humanity as physical and spiritual. We are our bodies. And we are our souls. We can measure our bodies in the minutest of detail. We measure our height and our weight and our appetite and our exercise and our heart rate and our cholesterol all the way down to the cellular and then the genetic level. But we cannot measure the spirit. The soul cannot be quantified. The spirit is the source of the intangibles: meaning, and beauty, and love, and sacrifice, and care, and tears and smiles. Our bodies enable us to live. Our soul-force makes life worth living.
We live happiest when we integrate our bodies and our souls. As I have aged, I have felt my body decline. I am physically not who I was forty-one years ago when I left for Jerusalem for my first year of seminary. But my soul continues with its force unabated. Now that I am older, I appreciate more the spiritual force that animates my life.
Early on as a young man, I began to believe with an unprovable surety that the death of our bodies is not the end of being. The soul comes from God. It is a piece of Divine energy that infuses our lives with higher purpose, with joy and with sadness. No other animal has a soul force like we human beings have. And I am convinced that this force, this energy does not vanish at the end of our physical being. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. Albert Einstein wrote, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” I believe that this is true for human beings. Even with the death of our bodies, life continues on with the soul and its energy changing from one form to another. So, as I am growing older and the years ahead are fewer and fewer, I am not afraid of death as I know it. I believe wholly and completely that God who granted us our souls will preserve them in the time to come. I have hope and not despair. I am even imbued with a bit of curiosity, and hope that I can live my final years without physical suffering.
In this unusual penultimate sermon of my career, I have meandered about and taken up many topics. I have spoken to you from my heart. Maybe you have been touched by something that I have shared.
I do not want to conclude without sharing with you my greatest joy and satisfaction. I have loved my wife for 42 years, and children and my granddaughter. In just two weeks, Judi and I expect our second granddaughter. I have tried to be a good husband and a good father. I have not always been at my best. Now the opportunity for us to be together as a family is my major motivation to conclude my rabbinate at this somewhat early age.
I want to pay tribute to my children and especially to Judi. I signed up to be your rabbi. They did not sign up to be rabbi’s children or the rabbi’s wife. They are here because they love me, and because I love you. We have had many blessings as a family because of my work. My income has been secure, and I am grateful to the Temple and to Judi’s devotion to her work for the ability to live comfortably and educate my children. We enjoyed many opportunities that other people don’t have to discuss and engage interesting people and ideas.
But my care for you and my responsibilities too often took me away from them. I had meetings and classes and emergencies that meant that Jon or Dad could not show up. Too often, we had to break our plans. Judi traveled to weddings and bar mitzvahs of family and friends without me. I missed out on parents’ weekends and girl scouts and school plays. And Judi and my children were usually understanding. They loved me and admired me, even when they missed me.
I could not have been your rabbi were it not for the passionate and understanding love that graced my heart from my wife and my children. Behind the scenes in my life, these people gave me a refuge and comfort when I needed it. And they encouraged me to serve you when you needed me. They are heroes to me.
The Mishna describes the role of the High Priest on Yom Kippur afternoon. The High Priest was just a man like every other man. On Yom Kippur afternoon, his attendees at the Temple would tie a rope around his waist in case something might happen to him. He would then enter inside the Holy of Holies and stand in God’s immediate presence. The High Priest would make atonement for himself and his sins. He would then make atonement for his household, his wife and children. Then he would make atonement for the Jewish people and all the world. First himself. Then his family. Then his people. Then the world.
That was his responsibility. He was tied to the Temple. Tied to his duties. Tied to the responsibility of engaging the world.
I am taking off the rope that has bound me to this sanctuary and that has bound me to you. I want to devote this next chapter of my life to my family. I want to give them more of me, and I want to know them better. But I want you to know, untying the rope is not an easy thing to do. I can no longer go into the Holy of Holies, into the inner sanctum of your lives and your hopes and your fears and your love. I will now stand on the outside. As I conclude my term—when I had disappointed you, I hope and pray that you realize that I am only a human being. When I had made you proud, I hope you realize that I tried my best to be a conduit between you and what is holy and between you and your highest ideals and aspirations. I hope that you will look back on this evening and on these years with a forgiving spirit and with a grateful heart.
This holy congregation and your rabbi have been tied together for a very long time. It is now time for us to loosen the knot and go forward, together and apart, with gratitude and with peace. Korah was correct in his challenge: “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them.” Remember that you are a holy community. The Lord is with you. I will pray for you. And I hope that you will pray that the Lord will be with Judi, our family and me as we move towards the next chapter of our lives.