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We Shall Overcome (Kol Nidre 5781 – 09/27/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

We Shall Overcome
Good Yom Tov, Shana Tova, thank you for joining us today.
Some years ago, I had a congregant named Moshe.
Feeling very repentant, he came to me, “Rabbi, last week, I missed saying grace after meals.”
I asked him, “Why?”
“Because I forgot to wash my hands on the bread before the meal.”
“That’s twice you’ve broken the law, but you still haven’t told me why.”
“The food wasn’t kosher.”
“You ate non-kosher food?”
“It wasn’t a Jewish restaurant.”
“That makes it even worse, couldn’t you have eaten in a kosher one?”
“What, on Yom Kippur?”
Yom Kippur is a sacred day to most Jews.
The people who rarely come to services (and you know who you are!) attend on this day.
Even in Israel, with its sizable secular population, cars are not found on the roads. The whole country is quiet, and the secular and the religious observe this day together.
But why?
Is it learned behavior, or is it possibly something even deeper, something inborn, something in our genes?
In the last two centuries, there’s been a great deal of research on heredity and what can and cannot pass down from generation to generation.
In 2013, Brian Dias, a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University, wondered if mice might pass down memories.
Each day, Dias put young male mice in a chamber into which he periodically pumped a chemical called acetophenone. It has an aroma that reminds some people of almonds.
The mice sniffed the acetophenone for ten seconds, upon which Dias jolted their feet with a mild electric shock. Probably not PETA approved!
Five training sessions a day for three days was enough for the mice to associate the almond smell with the shock.
When Dias gave the trained mice a whiff of acetophenone, they tended to freeze in their tracks. Dias also found that acetophenone’s smell made the mice more prone to startle at a loud noise.
Ten days after the training ended, they collected sperm from the mice and inseminated female mice.
Surprisingly, like their fathers, the new generation of mice was sensitive to acetophenone. Smelling it made them more likely to get startled by a loud sound, even though Dias had not trained the mice to make that association.
When Dias allowed this new generation of mice to mate, the grandchildren of the original frightened males also became sensitive to acetophenone.[1]
If learned behavior can pass down genetically, then generations of Jews, honoring the High Holidays by feasting and fasting, repenting, and coming to synagogue, have passed their reverence for these days onto us. I was always wondering why I have a yen for brisket at this time of year, now I know!
What other behaviors and characteristics have been passed down to us through the generations?
There are those that say Jews are a smarter “race” than others.
Some South Koreans think so, for, across their country, there’s an interest in Talmudic learning. Wanting to imitate our venerated educational model, South Koreans are learning chavruta style, which is one-on-one, out-loud partner learning as is done in the yeshivot.
In an article in the Times of Israel entitled, “Talmud inspired-learning craze sweeps South Korea,” Seoul-based student Choi Jae-young related, “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.”
It’s strange because, at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Israel earned 0 medals, and I was jealous of South Korea, as they won 30!
Just shows what my priorities are!
Getting back to Talmudic study, “The result is dozens of private chavruta-themed academies throughout the country, catering to everyone from toddlers to adults. Some make use of Korean-language Talmudic texts, while others follow entirely secular curricula.”[2]
I’m a bit skeptical, though. I doubt learning the Talmud is going to help the Koreans earn a Nobel prize. I know a lot of Talmudic scholars; most of them didn’t even go to college. Elie Wiesel certainly learned Talmud as a child in Hungary, but I’m not sure if it helped him earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
Jews aren’t even the group in America with the highest college graduation rates. That prize goes to Hindus and Universalist Unitarians. We’re tied for third with Anglicans.
Let’s take another area where Jews have made their mark: social justice. We could name numerous organizations like the ADL and the American Jewish World Service, or famous influencers such as Gloria Steinem, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Nathan Sharansky, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Still, these are just a drop in the bucket!
We could ask, though, “where did our activism come from?” Yes, our ancestor Abraham was an iconoclast, and the Torah itself is very progressive for its time. Still, if we look through the annals of Jewish history, we don’t find so many Jewish social activists before 1850. Living in the diaspora for eighteen hundred years, be it ghetto or shtetl, our life was focused upon our survival, not broader humanitarian needs. I don’t see social activism as a trait inherited from generation to generation.
Mark Twain, though, thought there was something unique about the Jewish people. 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?”[3]
What is the secret of our immortality? I think Twain mentioned it: we’re survivors.
Not just of the Holocaust but from domination by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persian, Greece, and Rome. In medieval Europe, we persevered through Crusades, Inquisitions, and Expulsions.
We suffered yearly from blood libels and pogroms, and the modern State of Israel has faced constant attacks from its surrounding neighbors in its 72-year history.
We are a people whose very formation was under pressure and duress. As it says in Deuteronomy 4:20
כ) וְאֶתְכֶם לָקַח יְדֹוָד וַיּוֹצִא אֶתְכֶם מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל מִמִּצְרָיִם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם נַחֲלָה כַּיּוֹם הַזה
“And God took you from the Iron furnace, from Egypt, to be to God an inheritance as of this day.”
Like metal that’s placed in the furnace to be purified, we were strengthened. And for good or for bad, that pressure has persisted for 3000 years.
What’s the secret to our strength? It’s our fortitude that has either been learned or naturally selected into us over the years. Our convictions, chutzpah, and stubbornness have enabled us to survive and thrive.
This last trait, stubbornness, was even pointed out by Moses:
After the Sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 34:9), He petitions God, “You need to forgive these people and restore your presence among them for they are a stiff-necked people.”
ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנָי יֵלֶךְ נָא אֲדֹנָי בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנו
Moses says, yes, they sin, but stick with these people, for they are stubborn and will use that trait to remain loyal to you through thick and thin.
We excel beyond our numbers because overcoming daunting odds has been bred into us from the very beginning; that’s our pedigree.
And I want to note, if you married a Jew or converted to Judaism, then these are some of the qualities you either have or admire, so count yourself included.
There are intelligent, ethical, funny, musical, and artistic people everywhere. Based on our numbers, our global impact should be negligible. We’re just 2% of the American population and 0.2% of the world population. Our resilience and “aggressive mind,” as Twain said, causes us to stand out.
We are here together, some physically, some gathered around a screen, carrying out our learned or inherited behaviors. It’s on this day, every year, that we come together to purify and renew ourselves.
We’re in a 25-hour bubble of purity and holiness. However, once the Shofar blows after Neilah, our challenges resume.
How intimidating the future is. We face Racism, Law Enforcement Reform, Massive Forest Fires and Global Warming, Unemployment, Coronavirus, Hurricanes with Greek letter names, and so much more.
We should take some comfort that it’s in our genes to overcome; we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again. We are a people that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to build the most sophisticated and successful country in the Middle East.
On Rosh Hashanah, we closed the service with the song “We Shall Overcome,” initially an African American gospel which became a vital anthem of the civil rights movement.
During the Holocaust, the Jews resisting the Nazis had a rallying cry, a song in Yiddish called “Zog Nit Keynmol.”
As reports of a Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto reached the partisan fighter and Yiddish poet Hirsh Glik, he was moved to write the song which would soon spread to ghettos, camps, and fighting groups in the forests. It became the anthem of Jewish resistance, resilience, and hope during the Holocaust. Its final words mir zaynen du – we are here – signify the victory of the Jews and all humanity over the forces of hate and evil.
The lyrics in English are:
Never Say this is the final road for you,
Though leaded 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 leaded skies, may cover over days of blue,
As the hour that we longed for is so near –
Our step beats out the message – we are here! Mir zaynen du!
Our aggressive mind, our perseverance is our pedigree. We will use our gifts to overcome these issues, striving for Tikkun Olam, a healing of the world. And even if “the sun stays in the east,” we will persevere, for we are here.
Shana Tova.
[1] Zimmer, Carl. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh (p. 429). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[3] Quoted in The National Jewish Post & Observer, June 6, 1984

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