Rabbi Perlman delivered this on Kol Nidrei – 5782
Not too many years ago, a congregant, who I will call Moshe, came to me, overcome with a need to repent. He said, “Rabbi, the other evening I did not say Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) after I ate with my family.”
I asked him, “Why not?”
He responded, “Also, Rabbi, I did not wash my hands or say Motzi over the bread.”
I told him, “You know, Moshe, you just gave me two examples of breaking Halacha, Jewish Law, not one; and you still haven’t told me why you did not say Birkat Hamazon.”
Rabbi, it was because the “The food wasn’t kosher!”
“You mean to tell me that you ate non-kosher food and you are worried about not saying Birkat Hamazon?”
“Rabbi, I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t a Kosher restaurant.”
“Moshe, your story has gone from bad to worse. If you are so worried about not saying Birkat Hamazon, why did you choose not to eat in a Kosher restaurant?”
“Rabbi, I couldn’t find a kosher restaurant open at that time. It was Yom Kippur.”
Even for many secular Jews, Yom Kippur is regarded as a sacred day. People who rarely come to Shul, come on this day. This is not only true in the United States, but even in Israel. The difference is, during Yom Kippur in Israel, there are no cars moving on the streets. All Israel becomes quiet, from the most secular to the most observant Jew.
My question is, why? Is this learned behavior? Is it because we were brainwashed? Do we do it because we do not want to feel like we will be an outcast in the Jewish community? Is it because of something that runs even deeper; something inborn; something in our Jewish genes?
During recent decades, thanks to the rapid growth in the ability to perform analytics, there have been great breakthroughs in the study of heredity. With advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are getting a clearer understanding of the genetic factors that are passed down from generation to generation.
For example, 8 years ago, Dr. Brian Dias, a researcher of psychology at Emory University, wanted to know if mice passed down certain aspects of their memory to their offspring. To do this, 5 times a day over a 3-day period, Dr. Dias put young male mice into a chamber and, for 10 seconds, pumped in a fragrance that smelled like almonds. This was immediately followed by a very short, very mild electric shock on their feet. Soon, the mice associated the smell with the shock.
After this, Dr. Dias exposed the trained mice to the almond smell, but not the mild shock. Even so, they stopped moving. As an unintended consequence, Dr. Dias found that the smell made the mice more prone to be startled by loud noises.
Ten days after the experiment ended, Dr. Diaz collected sperm from the mice and inseminated it into female mice. Surprisingly, like their fathers, the new generation of both male and female mice showed a sensitivity to that fragrance. Smelling the almonds made them more sensitive to loud sounds, even though this generation of mice had not been exposed to the mild shock. Then, when this generation of new mice mated, the grandchildren of the original frightened males also showed that same sensitivity to the almond fragrance.
So, since learned behavior can be genetically passed down, then could it be that the generations of Jews who have honored the High Holy Days through feasting and fasting, repenting, and spending time in communal Prayer, have genetically passed that to us? Is that why I always have this unexplainable, but insatiable desire for apples and honey this time of year? As an aside, I also have an insatiable desire for gribbinas, but that is true all year long.
Anyway, I wonder what other behaviors and characteristics have been genetically passed down to us through the generations? Clearly there must have been some. Maybe that is why some of us who are born as Jews have a level of Yiddishkeit that we could never expect from a Jew by Choice.
Could these genetic codes be a source for how the Jewish People feel about the need for higher education; how we are driven to excel in fields like entertainment, medicine, law, finance, engineering, and technology? If we look at South Korea, we must wonder why they have such a strong connection with Talmudic learning. South Koreans learn using our Chavruta method of rabbinic one-on-one, partner-to-partner argument-based learning that is found in every Yeshiva.
An interesting article about this appeared in the Times of Israel entitled: “Talmud inspired-learning-craze sweeps South Korea.” In it, a Seoul-based student named Choi Jae-young said: “Jews account for just 0.2 percent of the world’s population, but 23 percent of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish. And despite all the time and money we spend on education, only one Korean has ever won a Nobel award. That irks many Koreans. It makes us want to learn the Jews’ secrets.”
Getting back to Talmudic study, “The result is, dozens of private Chavruta-themed academies have appeared throughout the country. They cater to everyone from toddlers to adults. Some make use of Korean-language Talmudic texts, while others follow entirely secular curricula.”
Frankly, I am a bit skeptical about this. Is learning Talmud going to help the Koreans earn a Nobel prize? While I had never met Elie Wiesel, he should rest in peace, did the fact that he had learned Talmud as a child in Hungary help him earn his Nobel Peace Prize? Almost none of the other winners had studied it.
The fact is, Jews are not even the group in America with the highest college graduation rates. That goes to Hindus and Universalist Unitarians. Jews are tied for third with Anglicans.
One area where Jews have made their mark is social justice. We could name numerous organizations like the ADL and the American Jewish World Service. There are also famous influencers like Saul Alinsky, Gloria Allred, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Rob Reiner, Mark Levin, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Natan Sharansky, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is an amazing list, but it is just a mere drop in the bucket!
Perhaps it is not so much our intelligence, but the fact that we are a very, very noisy bunch. Perhaps that is why we are so driven to do things and to stimulate others along the way. Yes, as I said on Rosh Hashana, our ancestor Avraham was a revolutionary. He had the unmitigated gall to argue with and challenge G*d. Considering the origin of the TaNaCh, it is amazing how very progressive it was when it was first appeared. Even so, the records of Jewish history are relatively silent about Jewish social activists before 1850. Living in the diaspora for 1,800 years, be it in ghettos or shtetls, our lives were focused upon personal survival. It is not that we were not interested in larger humanitarian needs, we each had the existential need to focus on how we would survive another day. Does anyone see how social activism became a genetic trait inherited from generations that did not even know what it was?
Ironically, it was Mark Twain who thought we Jews were genetically coded to be unique among all the people on the earth. In 1897, he wrote:
“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one-quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.
He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.
The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
To Mark Twain, the Jewish secret of success is that we are, more than any other nation, survivors. Not just of the Holocaust, but from domination by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. In medieval Europe, we persecuted through the Crusades, Inquisitions, and Expulsions. We historically suffered from blood libels and pogroms, and the modern State of Israel has been under constant attack since its declaration of independence 73-years ago. We are definitely a people whose very formation was under pressure and duress for millennia.
Just as metal is placed in the furnace to be hardened, our fiery history has served to strengthen us. For good or for bad, our nation has been challenged, not just longer, but more brutally than any other nation. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Perhaps that is why we are still here. It is our fortitude that has either been learned or genetically passed onto us over the millennia. Our convictions, our chutzpah, our steadfastness, and our stubbornness are traits that have served us Jews by enabling us to survive and thrive as a People.
This last trait, stubbornness, was even highlighted by Moshe. After the Sin of the Golden Calf (Shemot 34:9), Moshe begs G*d. “You need to forgive these people and restore your presence among them for they are a stiff-necked people.”
Moshe was not trying to let us off the hook for our sins but demanded that G*d stick with us because we are stubborn. Moshe insisted that we will use this trait from generation to generation to remain loyal to G*d through thick and thin.
Is this a trait that is embedded in the Jewish genetic makeup? How else can we explain it? We excel beyond our numbers because we live by stubbornly overcoming the most challenging of odds. This has been bred into us from our very beginning. It is our pedigree.
This is the second year of our pandemic-challenged High Holy Days. Some of us came together to be with each other physically. The rest are participating by gathering around a screen. Whichever way we are attending, we are doing so because our genetically inborn stiff-neckedness will not allow us to ignore these High Holy Days. It has been on this day, every single year for millennia, that we Jews have come together to purify and renew ourselves and right now, we are in that genetically familiar 25-hour bubble of purity and Holiness. Then tomorrow at the end of Neila, when we hear that long Shofar blast that signals the conclusion of the High Holy Days, the unknown, but fully expected challenges of our daily lives will resume.
Yes, we will all face a most intimidating future. Anti-Semitism and other forms of Racism, Forest Fires, and environmental challenges of all kinds. Unemployment, more Greek letters being assigned to the ever-new pandemic mutations, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and who knows what else!
As difficult as those things will be, we Jews take some comfort knowing that it is in our genes to overcome; to survive. Yes, we have done it before, and we will continue to survive. We are a people that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to build the most sophisticated and successful country in the Middle East and we are a people who are among the first on the scene to help others, even to help our enemies, when disaster strikes.
When reports of a Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto reached the partisan fighter and poet Hirsh Glik; he was so moved, he wrote a song that quickly spread to ghettos, camps, and fighting groups in the forests. It became the anthem of Jewish resistance. It offered resilience and hope during the Holocaust. It ends with the words, “Mir zaynen du! We are here!” to let everyone know that the Jews will ultimately be victorious and that it is because of genetics that the Jews will lead all humanity over the brutal forces of hate and evil.
Here are the words:
Never Say this is the final road for you,
Though ladened skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message – Mir zaynen du! We are here!!
From lands so green with palms, to lands all white with snow,
We shall be coming with our anguish and our woe,
And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth.
The early morning sun will brighten our day,
And yesterday with our foe, will fade away.
But if the sun delays and in the east remains –
This song as password, generations must maintain.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
It’s not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,
With grenades in hands they heeded to the call.
Therefore, never say the road now ends for you,
Though ladened skies, may cover over days of blue,
As the hour that we longed for is so near –
Our step beats out the message – Mir zaynen du! We are here!
Yes, our genetically Jewish aggressive minds and our genetically driven perseverance is the Jewish pedigree. We will always use our gifts to overcome our challenges. We are the People who are genetically driven to work for Tikkun Olam, to work to heal the world. Even if “the sun stays in the east,” we will persevere, for Mir zaynen du! – We are here!