Three years ago, I delivered a sermon on Kol Nidre night on the subject of compassion.
I was in favor of it.
In the course of that sermon, I referred to a perspective on human evolution presented by the author Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Before I shared the theory, I issued a disclaimer. I said that it didn’t matter to me whether the theory was universally accepted as plausible. I stressed that even as a myth it was valuable.
The theory was that “in the deepest recess of their minds, men and women are indeed ruthlessly selfish. The egotism is rooted in the “old brain” which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago, creatures which were motivated by feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproduction.” Armstrong claimed that “over the millennia, human beings also evolved a new brain, the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and on ourselves and to stand back from instinctive, primitive, passions.”
I embrace that theory, scientifically defensible or not, because it speaks to me of the development of the human being. I love the idea that over time, perhaps we might say, inspired by the giving of the Torah, we learned how critical it is for us to reach out to our fellow human being with compassion and kindness. I love the theory because it teaches us that despite what we see around us in terribly troubled times, there is part of the human brain, which if allowed to be in control, can help us all survive together.
This morning, I want to share with you another theory which I will be careful to frame in the same way. Even if it is viewed only a myth, it is so valuable in helping us understand something critical about ourselves as human beings, and specifically as Jews.
For many years, I participated in a dialogue group of faith leaders and life scientists at the University of Michigan. During the last year, the group focused largely on issues of genetics. Of the many issues that were raised, the one that was most fascinating to me was the area entitled epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. This process allows for inherited characteristics which are not reflected in the human genome itself but rather in the processes surrounding the genes that can “turn on or turn off” a gene.
This is very intriguing and the aspect of this field of study that fascinates me and is in fact the subject of debate is the question of whether certain emotional aspects of our lives can be passed down in this way. Specifically of interest to me is the question of whether forms of trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next. Independent of education, environment or any other identifiable factors, can a person’s emotional or psychological makeup be affected internally by traumatic experiences of ancestors? Is a person, in a way, programmed to respond to certain situations by the experiences of ancestors?
I find this theory completely plausible but do not have the expertise to claim it is absolutely true from a scientific standpoint. But, I would argue that if only as myth, it is absolutely true for us as Jews.
There is a Talmudic expression Ma’aseh Avot Siman L’banim,“the actions of our ancestors are a sign for the descendants”. This can be understood in so many ways but certainly one way is the idea that we are imprinted with the experiences of our ancestors.
While we teach our children about the traumas of the past, perhaps as Jews, we would feel them internally without the teaching. Metaphorically, they are part of our DNA.
There can be no question that we are feeling the trauma of the past more directly with the increase of anti-Semitism in recent months and years. There can be no question that reading and hearing about hatred directed at Jews is awakening or re-awakening in all of us fear and dread that comes from a place deep within us. Even those of us who have never experienced anti-Semitism directly instinctively feel as if we have been here before as we have internalized the stories we have heard from slavery in Egypt to the inquisition to pogroms and to the Shoah. But, we don’t have to have heard those stories to feel this. There is something in our kishkes as Jews which relate to this reality as it is so much a part of who we have been and who we are. It is that deeply ingrained within us.
This morning, as we prepare for the holiday of Pesach, I want to share one thought with you. In the Torah we read that a person was obligated to say to his child: “I am observing these rituals because of what God did for me when I left Egypt”. Whether these words were intended to be said by every later generation of Jews or not, we do say them at the Seder as the rebuttal to the rebellious child. We claim that we were personally freed from Egypt.
And, the Haggadah teaches that b’chal dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzraim: in every generation a person must look at him or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt.
While we do also say avadim hayyinu, we were slaves; the most dramatic sentences in the Seder to connect us with the past do not connect us with the experience of having been slaves but rather with the experience of redemption. This is what we are to remember. We left Egypt. We were redeemed.
And so, I would argue that if there is something in our gut which tells us that Jews have always been persecuted and hated, the Haggadah commands us to remember that we have also been imprinted with the hope for redemption.
While it may be in our genes as Jews to know that we will suffer from persecution, it is also in our DNA to believe in compassion, to hope for redemption and not to give in to the desperation and certainty that it will always be like this.
There will no doubt be much talk at Seder tables around the world this year about the dangers that confront us as Jews. This is an undeniable reflection of our history and where we see ourselves today.
But, we must remember that the purpose of the Seder and our ultimate purpose as Jews is to remember that redemption, salvation, is part of our history as well and when we seek to respond from our hearts and souls as Jews, we must always believe that the future will be better.
We can’t ignore what is happening around us.
But, our tradition has obligated us also to commit ourselves to looking beyond those troubles and recognizing in our past history the reality of redemption.
For eternal hope, tikva, is part of our DNA as well.