Lovers
Lovers

By Rabbi Jonathan Miller

“Lovers”

SERMON DELIVERED AT SOUTH HIGHLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH BY RABBI JONATHAN MILLER, TEMPLE EMANU-EL, BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA, NOVEMBER 14, 2004

I am honored to be here at the South Highland’s Presbyterian Church and to be with Rev. Ed Hurley, Rev. Noelle Read and Rev. Denney Read. They are my dear friends and teachers and colleagues, and you here are my friends too. I will never forget how when we walked back with our Torah Scrolls from the Southside Baptist Church to our new building, you were assembled with signs that read “welcome home” and joined in our march. And during that joyful and soul filled day, you added to the joy of our community. You understood the meaning of home for us. That is something that friends do for friends. They understand the meaning of home for their friends.

I want to share a story I first heard from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. I am sure this story preceded Mr. Wiesel. He shared the story of two peasants drinking together at a tavern. Maybe they were in Russia, or maybe in Poland, or maybe in the Ukraine or maybe in Romania, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe they were Jewish, maybe they were Catholic, maybe they were Orthodox, it doesn’t really matter. (But it is safe to assume that they were not Presbyterian!) As the evening wore on, they become less inhibited. The first peasant asked, “My friend, do you love me.” “Of course I love you,” his comrade replied with a smile. Another round of vodka. “Really, do you love me?” “Yes, I love you,” responded his friend. Another round of vodka, “I need to know now, do you love me?” as he repeated his question a third time. His friend looked at him and responded, “I love you, I love you, I love you, what else do you want?” Forlorn, his friend waited a moment, looked at his buddy and said, “If you love me, if you truly love me, you would know what hurts me.”

I am here today to speak to you as a Jew to tell you what hurts me. I can do that because I trust you, and you trust me. You are my friends. I don’t expect that you will agree with me about everything I share with you. That is not the point of being in a relationship with friends we love. The goal of lovers is not to agree, but to understand, to appreciate, to celebrate and to console.

Make no mistake about it, we are lovers. Together we are lovers of the same things. We love God. We love our country. We love our community. We love our corner of Highland Avenue. We love our traditions. We love justice. We love mercy. As religious communities, we love the sometimes unlovable. We love the good. We love God’s commandments. We love our families and we love our people. We are lovers of the same things.

I want to share with you today about what it is like to live as a Jew in today’s world. You don’t have to fix it for me or mend me my wounds, just understand me. I was born in 1954. My grandparents were born in Poland. There was not a day that passed that they didn’t experience some kind of anti-Jewish bigotry in Europe. They spoke Yiddish and Polish and Russian. They came to this country with nothing after World War I, and eventually settled in the Bronx. They were hard working. My grandfather was a platinum smith. My other grandfather was a dressmaker. My grandmother worked in a sweatshop. They always rented their apartments. Their children, my parents, went to college and bought their own home. The seminal events for my grandparents was leaving the anti-Semitism of Poland and coming to America. The seminal events for my parents were learning about the Holocaust and the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. My father, of blessed memory, was planning to move to Israel in the early 1950’s, but he was run over by a taxicab in New York and had to convalesce for six months. He literally missed the boat. He became a rabbi instead of an Israeli farmer. The seminal event for me as a child was the Six Day War, during my Bar Mitzvah year, and the Yom Kippur War. I left college to spend five months in Israel working on a kibbutz after the Yom Kippur War. I was nineteen, and I couldn’t concentrate on my studies when my people were in peril. That was the coldest and most lonely winter of my life. The seminal events for my children are the terror bombings in Israel, which prevented them from going there to travel and study, and of course September 11, 2001.

My friends, I want you to know what hurts me just so that you can understand what it is like to be a Jew. It hurts me to live in a world where my existence and the existence of my people are not assured. It hurts me to live in a world were the nations of the world question the value of my being. It hurts me to live in a world where the battle lines in the war on terror, or the battle lines of the Cold War, or the battle lines of World War II, or the battle lines of modernization, all the battle lines of civilization—all seem to fall upon the doorpost of my people wherever and whenever we live. It hurts me to live in a world where the bad people, the evil people still target my people and me first. It hurts to live in a world where we still remain God’s suffering servants. Christians read the same passage from Isaiah that we Jews do from our Bibles. For Christians, God’s suffering servant is foretold to be Jesus. For us as Jews, we know who was God’s suffering servant in his day and in our own, it is the body of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.
From the book of Isaiah:
53 “Who can believe what we have heard?
Upon whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown,
Like a tree trunk out of arid ground.
He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him:
No charm, that we should find him pleasing.
3He was despised, shunned by men,
A man of suffering, familiar with disease.
As one who hid his face from us,
He was despised, we held him of no account.
4Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God;
5But he was wounded because of our sins,
Crushed because of our iniquities.
He bore the chastisement that made us whole,
And by his bruises we were healed.
6We all went astray like sheep,
Each going his own way;
And the LORD visited upon him
The guilt of all of us.”

I would like for the Jewish people to relinquish our historic role as God’s suffering servant. We have filled that role for a very long time. I would like to live in peace without persecution, without wondering how it is we are going to survive into the next generation. I would love to sit under my vine and under my fig tree, unafraid. I would love to live without having to pray that there will be a Jewish world for my grandchildren. I would like not to have to worry about those who cheerfully send their children to death for the pleasure of doing me and my people harm.

This past summer, the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly voted 431-62 to begin to divest its funds of companies that do business with Israel. They cited the “evil” of Israel’s ongoing occupation. They decried the establishment of the security barrier now being erected in Israel to stop the waves of suicide bombings and destruction. I don’t want, nor do I intend to go through a point/counterpoint discussion of the General Assembly Overtures. Is Israel the only country in the world worthy of divestment and delegitimization from the Presbyterian Church USA? Not Iran, not Saudi Arabia, not Serbia, not Russia, not Liberia, not China, not Pakistan, not Myanmar, not Zimbabwe, not Haiti, not Indonesia, not Cambodia, not Sudan, not Syria-- is only Israel worthy of such attention?! And consider, is the only evil in the Middle East that of the Israeli occupation? Israel had tried to end that occupation in 1993 under Yitzhak Rabin, and then in 2000 under negotiations with Prime Minister Barak and President Clinton. These attempts were answered with terror, destruction and death. Even today, Israel is preparing to un-occupy most of the territories captured during 1967. While these attempts at reconciliation and peace were taking place between the leaders, the Palestinians were smuggling in explosives by ship and tunnel, and preparing their young people to become shaheed, suicide “martyrs” as they terrorize Israel’s population. Now, they are firing rockets into Israeli cities. Which is evil, the cult of terror, death and destruction, or the innate desire of a civilization to protect itself from those whose greatest hope is its destruction? On 9/11, America suffered approximately 3000 casualties. Through this second intifada alone, Israel has suffered the proportional equivalent of 50,000 deaths, and many many injured as well.

Or course, I mourn too for another lost generation of Palestinian youth to this cult of death. It all didn’t have to be. It didn’t have to be. Arab violence preceded the State of Israel in the 1920s and 1930s. It didn’t have to be in 1948, in 1956, in 1967, in 1973, during the first intifada and during the latest wave of murderous violence. After 1967 Six Days War, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and Levi Eshkol waited in vain for the phone to ring. To whom could they return the territories? Who would come forward to make peace with Israel? Instead, Israel heard loud and clear the three “Nos” from the Arab world after their victory: no peace, no negotiation, no recognition. We have experienced violence and not acceptance; terror and not peace; violence and not co-existence. Violence, terror, violence. We Americans battle the same violence all over the world, but at the end of the day, we get to go home, and Israel stays as the first defense in our war against radical Islam. And if, God forbid, Israel would cease to exist, they would still come at us, Presbyterians and Jews alike outside of Israel, and attack us all over the world with their insatiable appetite to destroy yet more of our western civilization of love, respect, democracy, human rights, and decency.

I know that most of you disagree with this Overture of divestment from your national organization. I am not here to holler at you or scream or carry on. Most of you agree with me anyway. Instead, I am here for you to hear what it is like to be me, to be a member of my people. I want you to understand the pain I feel when my homeland, which has never known a single day of peace or acceptance in the world of nations, which has had to defend itself against the hatred of fanatical enemies, is declared as a legitimate target by the people who are my friends, my co-lovers, and my colleagues in making the world better and more just and more Godly. I want you to understand my abandonment and my loneliness. That’s all. Just understand what it feels like to be me and my people, to lose our friends, to have to fight alone.

Every Rosh Hashanah, we Jews read the Binding of Isaac as our Torah reading. You know and love the Bible, and you know and love this puzzling story. Yehuda Amichai, the famous Israeli poet wrote this remarkable poem in Hebrew. I will read its translation to you.

The Hero of the Binding
Yehuda Amichai

The true hero of the binding was the ram
Who did not know about the conspiracy between the others.
He practically volunteered to die in place of Isaac.
I would like to sing about him a song of remembrance,
about the curly wool and about his human eyes
about the horns which were so silent in his live head
and after being slaughtered they made from them shofarot
to sound the alarm of their war
or to sound the alarm of their vulgar happiness.

I would like to remember the final picture
like a beautiful photograph from a timely fashion newspaper;
The tanned and spoiled youth in his dandy clothes
and next to him the angel who wears a long silk dress
for a festive reception.
And the two of them in empty eyes
stare to two empty places

And behind them, as a colorful background, the ram
seized in the thicket before slaughter.
And the thicket his last friend.

The angel went home
Isaac went home
and Abraham and God went long ago.

But the true hero of the binding
Is the ram.

My friends, everyone else can go home. The angels can go home and shut their doors. The Christians can go home and shut their doors. The Presbyterians can go home and shut their doors. The Moslems can go home and shut their doors. The Democrats can go home and shut their doors. The Republicans can go home and shut their doors. The French, and the Germans, and the British, and the Italians, and the Spanish, and the Swiss, and the Swedes, and the Finns, and the Norwegians can go home and shut their doors. Actually, they went home and shut their doors a long time ago. And who is left outside in the wild to face the devouring beast?

The ram. The ram who is caught by his horns in the thicket. The ram who is sacrificed on the altar so Isaac and Abraham might live. The ram is left out in the wild, caught by his horns in the thicket. The ram is exposed and everyone else went to hide in the safety of their doorways from the butcher’s knives. But the thickets won’t let go. Oh sure, in the end everyone will thank the ram, Abraham and Isaac and God and the Republicans and the Democrats and the French and the Presbyterians. Everyone will thank the ram and hold the ram up as a fine model of sacrifice and suffering. And they will remove his horns to trumpet their respect. But even then, the knives will still be flashing, searching for their next victim.

But the ram was the first to be slaughtered.

I don’t want to be that ram. Not now and not ever again. I have had enough of being the ram.

This is what it is like to be me. Thank you for your love and understanding.

Amen

Rabbi Jonathan Miller

Temple Emanu-El Birmingham. AL flourishes under the enthusiastic leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Miller, who joined our congregation in 1991. Previously, he served as a rabbi in Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand. He was ordained at the New York Campus of Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, after having graduated from Brandeis University. Rabbi Miller embraces the traditions of our congregation, while at the same time providing exciting and innovative program-ming. Rabbi Miller is married to Judith Schulmann-Miller, and they have three children: Aaron, Alana, and Benjamin

To reach Rabbi Miller e-mail Rabbi Jonathan Miller

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