Shalom, Haver

What a full-tilt couple of weeks it’s been for me and so many of my temple family. There was the March 10 20th anniversary celebration, including great food, a beautiful video presentation, speeches, jazz, and so many members of the TBA flock, not to mention old friends from many years ago. And a week later we were saying goodbye to our rabbi emeritus, Bob Miller.
I was so sad when Rabbi Miller told me he wasn’t feeling up to attending the party on Saturday night. First, I know he loved a good party. Second, his loving support of my rabbinate has been a true gift.We had a bond of friendship and common cause. We both loved Beth Avodah, and we loved and appreciated each other.
Rabbi Miller’s dedication to Beth Avodah was and will remain deeply inspiring. It’s in that spirit that I share the eulogy I delivered on Sunday, March 18th.
.נולד אדם – הכל שמחין, מת – הכל בוכין. ואינו כן
When a person is born, we all celebrate, and when a person dies, everyone cries. But it shouldn’t be this way. Rather, when a person is born, it’s not appropriate to celebrate for him because no one knows what his portion will be and on what deeds he shall stand, whether he will be righteous or wicked, good or evil. But when he dies, we should indeed rejoice, for he has passed away with a good name and left the world in peace.
It is like a parable of two ships near a harbor. One was going out to sea, and the other was coming in from its voyages. Everyone around the harbor was celebrating for the one setting out, while no one celebrated the ship coming in. Someone came up and said, “These actions are backward! We shouldn’t celebrate the ship that’s first starting out on its journey because none of us knows what it shall encounter out there: how long will it last, and what storms will it face? Likewise, we should celebrate for the one that’s returning home because it enters in peace.”
From Kohelet Rabba 7:4
Rabbi Miller always loved a good text. No matter what the occasion: a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a Shabbat service, a funeral: he found just the right citation. He did it without Google or a software package. Rabbi Miller had a great memory for Torah and Torah commentaries. That had something to do with his Yeshiva background, as well as his training at HUC for the Reform rabbinate. He absorbed it all – it was in him. No, it WAS him.
With all his heart, he believed that his rabbinate was a sacred calling. Rabbi Miller’s generation of Reform rabbis saw themselves as teachers of the tradition, as living transmitters of the ancient teachings of Judaism. But they also carried a heavy responsibility as creators of an all-new, post-war, post-Holocaust, postmodern Judaism that now included a state of Israel.
Rabbi Miller also loved rabbis. He went out of his way to gather with them, shmooze, study, learn with them. His colleagues, still active or retired have written to me praising his memory, his kindness, his menschlichkeit, his humanity, and his laughter.
Rabbi Miller took that mantle of the rabbinate seriously and wore it with pride all of his days. He was a gifted teacher and a skilled homilist. He spoke with insight and passion, and always with a good text. He knew his way around the liturgy and never felt as if he had to look over his shoulder at his more traditional contemporaries. His background gave him the vocabulary to daven with the Orthodox and the traditional Conservative communities. In fact, this knowledge base gave him a valuable carte blanche enabling him to enter different circles of the Jewish community. He strongly supported the establishment of the JCC in Newton and the Rashi School.
Rabbi Miller’s erudition was unassailable. But he didn’t lead with that aspect of his rabbinate. Yes, he loved Judaism. But more than that: he loved Jews. It was why God put him on this earth: to serve the Jewish people. He loved our mores, our culture, our unique ways of living our lives. Nobody could shmooze like Bob Miller. Nobody could interrogate a complete stranger with such innocent wonder.
Rabbi Miller cared about his flock. He held them close and loved them. He treated them with compassion and understanding. He listened with warmth and concern. When people had difficult issues in their lives and came to him with their tzuris, Rabbi Miller listened and did not hold back when he believed they were headed in the wrong direction. He was an authentic, unpretentious man who loved his life and the people in it.
Having said all this, I don’t want to leave the impression that Rabbi Miller cared only about Jews. He did deeply believe that all men and women were created in God’s image. Which is to say that he was an equal opportunity schmoozer. I can recall so many times when we were together, and if a Hispanic person were working near him, he’d look at their name tag and begin a conversation in a terribly butchered Spanish. But it worked every time.
As much as he loved being a rabbi, he approached retirement without much ambivalence. He had literally given himself to his congregation for so many years and realized, to his chagrin, that he had missed so many important moments with his kids and grandkids as well as with his partner, Margaret.
Margaret was an essential part of Bob’s life. She was his companion, ever present and ever vigilant. She was his fierce defender. Margaret brought Bob the soft edges he lacked. She introduced him to the broader world of art and music. She adored Bob. And he thought himself to be a lucky man to have such a classy, beautiful, erudite wife.
They had big plans for his retirement, which included being designated clergy on a cruise ship around the world. It was during that cruise that Margaret began to show symptoms of what would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s. They had to leave the ship and come home.
I know how this terrible confluence of events broke his heart. He told me that he had waited too long, that he had done a disservice to Margaret and the kids. But most of all, his heart broke for his Margaret. She was supposed to be the stronger one. She was supposed to take care of him. Whenever we spoke of Margaret and the terrible ravages of Parkinson’s, he would shake his head in disbelief, as if this could not be happening to her. He shlepped her to doctors’ appointments, picked up medications, spoke with her physicians, got her to PT. He devoted his life to her. And he never ever once complained, never once bemoaned his fate. He said his heart wept for Margaret every day.
When he had the accident, landing face first at the bottom of the steps in their home, we all feared that he would die. Then we feared he would have brain damage and perhaps paralysis. When I saw him at the hospital the day after the accident, he looked terrifying. That he fully recovered is truly miraculous. It was a combination of stubbornness and his reluctance to leave Margaret that kept him going.
Margaret’s death devastated him. I watched it wash over him like a tsunami. The waters of grief receded to the horizon and then rose and overwhelmed him. He had to reconfigure his life from the center of a large congregational family to becoming a widower with grown children. The steadfastness of his children was his lifeline, his reason to keep going. Your love, your empathy helped your dad survive. He missed so many events in your lives, but he never doubted your love for him, nor did you ever doubt his love for you.
Bob’s move to Newbridge was a brilliant decision. It was a new chapter in his life, one he adapted to with vigor and joy. Rabbi Judi Ehrlich of Newbridge is here this morning and will speak of his life there. Suffice to say that those of us who loved Bob found such solace in his new life there. Walking with Bob down the hall, in the cafeteria, anywhere on the grounds of his new home, was like being with the mayor of Newbridge.
Twenty-one years ago, as Bob prepared to retire from the temple he loved so much, he said to his people, and often repeated the words, “You can love two rabbis.” It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a subtle request. What a gift that was to me, a gift I will never forget.
This past year at Rosh Hashanah, Bob blessed me on my 20th anniversary. He came up to the bimah and said how great it was to celebrate two big events: the 20thanniversary of my tenure at Beth Avodah, and the 20th anniversary of his retirement. Then he laughed that laugh, that right from the belly, unexpurgated laugh: so loud, so unrestrained, so him! His kindness and his loving approbation were in his words, in his laughter, in his embrace.
Bob and I spoke last on Wednesday. He was foggy and exhausted, yet he wanted to know how the 20th-anniversary celebration had gone. I described the event, and he kvelled. I told him that I had acknowledged how I had come into what had been his world for almost three decades and proceeded to change things: a lot, and that I didn’t get it right all the time. He shook his head. “Every rabbi has to be true to himself. I brought new ideas with me when I got to Beth Avodah. You did the same; it’s the only way it can be.”
Even at the end of his life, he was full of affirmation and kindness.
Bob Miller was a loving son and brother, a passionate husband and father and grandfather. He was a learned, great and kind rabbi. He loved Temple Beth Avodah with a deep and abiding strength.
Bob Miller was my dear friend. He was my rav muvhak – a teacher of rabbis. He was a delight. And I will miss him with all of my heart.
הכל צריכין
לשמוח ולשבח שנפטר בשם טוב בשלום מן העולם הוא
So it is when a person dies. Better to rejoice and celebrate, for he has left this world in peace and with a good name.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: