It is so good to be with you once again as we observe our eighteenth Yom Kippur together. As I look out among you I see new friends and old, a community in the making, one in which we care for and are supportive of one another. Sally and I have shared so much with you over the years. Sad and joyous times blend together in the course of life. As we look back, the years become a blur. Talking about looking back, you will be interested to know that both Sally and I had our DNA tested this summer to discover our ethnic makeup. Why did we do it now? The truth is that Ancestry.com had a 20% off sale so we decided to take advantage of it.
You will be glad to know that both your rabbi and his wife are Jewish, 95% European Jewish to be specific. The designation “European Jewish” means that our ancestors came from Germany in the west to Russia in the east, Lithuania to the north and Greece to the south. That is not surprising since that was the heartland of Jewish life until the Shoah. Sally and I also know the names of the towns from which our grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to America. They are all in what is today Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. What about, you ask, the other 5% of our genetic composition? Well, I am 1% Irish, 1% Italian, 1% Greek and 2% East Asian. We know that several Jewish families sailed from Israel to Italy in the eight century and made their homes there. Their descendants moved north and settled the Rhineland in France and Germany and then eventually moved eastwards. It is not surprising that there was some intermarriage along the way. What about our East Asian genetic component? Isn’t that curious? The Jewish journey is reflected in our genes. One of the most terrible times in Jewish history occurred in mid-17th century Poland when the Ukrainian Cossacks, joined by the Crimean Tatars (descendants of the Mongol Horde) rebelled against their Polish overlords. Our ancestors were the most vulnerable, as we often managed estates in the Ukraine on behalf of the Polish nobility and settled in small towns throughout the area. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were brutally murdered and thousands of others were sold into slavery. I do not need to spell out what happened to the Jewish women captured by the Tatars. The Jewish communities of Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire paid ransom for the captives but not before Mongolian genes became part and parcel of our gene pool. If you ever see a Jew with high cheekbones and narrow eyes, you can surmise where his or her ancestors came from. Before I go on, allow me to add a bit of levity to this sermon.
“Opening the front door, the rabbi found himself face to face with the local priest. He said, “Rabbi, may I have a few words with you?” “Of course, Father,” the rabbi replied. “Rabbi,” began the priest, “It must be evident to you that this town is plagued by thieves. Scarcely a day passes without one of my flock bemoaning to me that his house has been broken into. On the other hand, I have noticed that thieves do not bother you Jews very much.” “That’s true, Father,” said the rabbi. “Why is that?” asked the priest. The rabbi pointed to the doorpost and said, “Do you see this little box right here? It’s called a mezuzah. We Jews believe that when we put a mezuzah on the entrances to our houses God will protect us and our property.” “In that case,” said the priest, “I must have one!” Not wanting to cause hard feelings, the rabbi handed him a mezuzah.
Two weeks later, the rabbi was awakened by pounding on his front door. “Open the door! Open the door!” shouted the priest. The rabbi opened the door and saw that the priest was quite distraught. “What happened? Was the rectory robbed?” The priest screamed back in return, “Of course not! But these people were worse than robbers!” “Who were they?” asked the rabbi. “Fundraisers!” screamed the priest.
There is more to our genetic makeup than eye color and height. From time immemorial, we Jews have been philanthropic. Giving tsedakah is simply part have of who we are as Jewish human beings. Fundraisers for every imaginable cause target us because of our generosity. Just take a moment and think of the great institutions in Baltimore. So many of them are named for the Jewish families which bequeathed them. Of course, you cannot go to any Jewish community in the world without seeing the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg name affixed to a building. You can only imagine our surprise the first time we visited the synagogue in Havana and noticed that it was donated by the Weinberg Foundation in 1958! Giving to others and helping the less fortunate is, indeed, part of our Jewish genes. We all know so many Jews, most of whom are not here this morning, who are good people and who work for a better world. It upsets me to meet these Jews who are so concerned with helping the poor and oppressed, here and around the world, and “who see no connection between that universal interest and their Jewish roots. While never denying their Jewish ancestry, they find it difficult to articulate their Jewish identity…It is as if they hear the question of their Jewishness framed as a hard disjunctive: ‘Are you a Jew or a human being? Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity?”[i]
I have had the privilege of meeting the Russian Jewish Refusenik Natan Sharansky many times. Since he arrived in Israel decades ago, he has been a minister in Israeli governments and is now the leader of the Jewish Agency. Sharansky “Understood the moral interdependence between Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism. While active on behalf of Jewish immigration, Sharansky struggled as well for the rights of Pentecostals, Catholics, Ukrainians, Crimeans, and Tatars. In the gulag of the Soviet Union, he came to realize that ‘Only he who understands his own identity and already has become a free person can work effectively for the rights of others.’ In retrospect, he observed that helping other persecuted people became part of his own freedom only after he had returned to his Jewish roots.”[ii] “Like charity, compassion begins at home, but does not end there.
The Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah and the Haftarah for Yom Kippur Afternoon reflect the rabbis’ concerns for non-Jewish human beings. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael, the progenitors of Islam, and that God will protect them and make of them a great nation. This afternoon we will read from the Book of Jonah, whom God sent to tell the people of Nineveh to repent. The people of Nineveh heed his call and God renounces their destruction. “God’s compassion is not restricted to one people. The Jewish tradition, properly understood, will not allow God to be segregated.”[iii] As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I live only for myself, of what good am I?”
Last March, I had the privilege of being one of nine clergy on a mission to Rome led by Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori. I was the only rabbi in the group. We were presented to Pope Francis following the public service in St. Peter’s Square. Each of us presented gifts to Pope Francis as we were introduced to him. I think I presented him with the delegation’s best gifts. I gave Pope Francis Berger cookies, Old Bay seasoning, my mother’s recently baked chocolate chip cookies and a copy of this new Machzor. (Just an aside- when I called my mother upon returning, the first thing she wanted to know about the trip was if the Pope liked her cookies!) I felt weighted down that day by the burden of being the sole representative of the Jewish people. But I stood tall, at least as tall as I can, and was able to stand before Pope Francis with some integrity. I have devoted my life to the service of the Jewish people. I am also committed to building bridges between all the various faith communities in Baltimore. One is an extension of the other; there is no contradiction between the two.
I greatly respect Terrill Williams who is an organizer with BUILD in East Baltimore. He is a forceful advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Until recently, Terrill viewed religion as being a divisive force. Then he started attending a year long conversation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the ICJS, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, one of our city’s treasures. He recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “In the Jewish Tradition, love forces us to cross boundaries and get to know the other, ultimately taking us to the highest form of love, love of the stranger.” He goes on to say that “God and social justice, religion and religious practice can be traced and discovered in each of our sacred texts and in each of our lives.”
Working on behalf of social justice is as much a part of our Jewish DNA as is our love for chicken soup and craving for Mandelbrot. I have not yet mentioned that which is at the core of our Jewish DNA, the concept of chosenness. Chosenness is not something we speak of openly. We certainly do not flaunt it. On the eighth day of a boy’s birth, we perform a brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, which brings the boy into the covenant with God which is the cornerstone of our Jewish lives. There is no Jewish people or Judaism without the concept of chosenness. For some, our survival over these millennia is proof of our chosenness. For others, it is the rebirth of the State of Israel. For the ultra-Orthodox, it is the ability to recreate their shtetl way of life. No one explained it better than Baltimore born and raised Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg who said, “The chosenness of the Jews is a mystery. Only God knows the purpose of setting apart an obscure tribe to suffer and to achieve more than could be expected from so small a band on so stormy a journey. All that we Jews can know about ourselves is that after every tragedy we have always made new beginnings…There is no quiet life for Jews anywhere, at least not for long. The only question is whether one lives among the tempests with purpose and dignity. We Jews know why we suffer. Society resents anyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior and prejudices…the claim to chosenness guarantees that Jews will live unquiet lives. I say it is far better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity, than to live timidly and fearfully. We cannot hide from the task of making the world more just and decent.”[iv]
Whether we believe God chose us or that we choose God, our holy task as Jews is to interact with the world and to make it better than we left it. This, too, is part of our Jewish DNA. My friends, members of our dear Oheb Shalom family, today we have the sacred opportunity to re-orient our lives and make ourselves better, more Godly, human beings. Let us today embrace all the strands of our Jewish DNA. Let us study, argue, eat, reflect, and work for the good of the Jewish people. Let us also advocate for and struggle on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. That, too, is part of our Jewish DNA.
In this New Year of 5777, may God move you and yours to work for the benefit of the Jewish people and the good of all humanity.
[i] Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “Judaism is the Particular Language through which Jews address humanity.”
[iv] Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, page 231.