Yom Kippur Day 5780.
So, according to my watch, we’re just about mid-Al-Chet. By that I mean – starting last night, we have recited the great alphabetical list of sins which we have sinned a few times. And depending on how long you intend to be here today, we have a few more to go.
If you’re like me, you might have started to categorize the sins into groups – such as “yes,” “no” and “maybe.” As in, “Yes, I did that one,” “No, I didn’t do that one,” and “Well, maybe, I could have done that one.” And once you’ve split them up that way, you might have started wondering why you still have to recite the ones in the “no” column. In the Jewish tradition, there are two basic answers to that question.
Answer #1: Our memories may not be so accurate. Either consciously or subconsciously, we
forget some of the things we have done.
So, it’s better to be thorough in our atonement and list all the
Answer #2: The prayer is written in the 1st
person PLURAL – i.e., “the sins that WE have sinned.” So, we’re not just praying for
ourselves. We’re also praying for
members of the community whose actions have an impact on us.
In order to better understand Answer #2, please allow me to introduce – or re-introduce – you to the Yiddish word “shanda.” Yiddish is the folk language of Eastern European Jews. It is largely a fusion of medieval German and Hebrew, but has vocabulary imported from just about every other Central and Eastern European language. Shanda is usually translated as a disgrace, an embarrassment or a shame. It likely comes from an old Germanic root which also gives us the English word “scandal.”
Let me use it for you in a Yiddish sentence: “Oy! A shanda!” – I don’t think I need to translate that.
It can be used in a lighthearted way – such as the time that New York Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon went into Zabar’s and ordered lox on a cinnamon raisin bagel. Every self-respecting Ashkenazi Jew responded by saying: Oy! A shanda!
But, it can also be used in a very serious way to discuss a
Jewish person whose actions shed a negative light on the entire community. It is usually accompanied by a sigh, as in: Oy – a Shanda.
For many years, the best – or worst – modern example of a shanda was Bernie Madoff. When it came out that among the victims of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme were Jewish schools, universities, charities and pension funds, he went from being just another criminal to being a shanda.
I think that if you were to ask most Jewish people what
makes them proudest of their Judaism, one of the top answers you would get is ‘tzedakah’ – which we often translate as
charity, but really means righteousness or justice. We need only look at the Haftarah – the prophetic selection – for this Yom Kippur day in
which the prophet Isaiah explains – on God’s behalf – why we fast: “This is the
fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of
wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to
break off every yoke. It is to share
your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when
you see the naked to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin (Isaiah 58).”
So, when a member of our tribe goes out in public and does
the very opposite of the value that we hold dear, all we can say is, “Oy, a shanda!”
Then in recent years, we’ve gotten to know Stephen Miller –
a special advisor to President Trump. If
there is one issue upon which I vociferously disagree with this administration,
it’s immigration. And Stephen Miller
seems to be one of the architects of this administration’s most inhumane
policies. From separating families to
lowering the number of refugees and asylum seekers allowed into the country,
one can usually trace these policy decisions back to Miller.
And, of course, he’s Jewish.
Not only is he Jewish, but thanks to an
essay published by his maternal uncle, we know that his family came to this
country about a century ago virtually penniless in order to escape violence and
conscription in the Tsar’s army. Back
then, anti-immigration groups were much more concerned with Asians, so Stephen
Miller’s great-grandfather was able to enter this country with about $8 in his
pocket and eventually he was able to send for the rest of his family –
including Stephen’s grandfather.
Now, Stephen Miller is helping to slam the door behind him
so that other families will be unable to enjoy the blessings of this country as
his family has.
As I mentioned last week, the Torah mentions caring for the
stranger no fewer than 36 times. Here’s
just one of them: “Now when there sojourns with you a sojourner in your land,
you are not to maltreat him; like the native-born among you shall he be to you,
the sojourner that sojourns with you; be-loving to him (as one) like yourself,
for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God!” (Lev. 19)
It is a core value of Judaism that we remember the ways in
which we’ve been mistreated in countries around the world and, therefore, we
don’t mistreat others the same way. So,
when a member of our tribe goes out in public and does the very opposite of a
value that our tradition has historically held dear, all we can say is, “Oy, a shanda!”
And then, of course there’s Jeffrey Epstein. I don’t think we have scratched the surface
of this man’s depravity. However, we do
know that he used his tremendous wealth not to help vulnerable children, but to
abuse them. He transported them across
state lines and international borders.
He allowed friends and acquaintances to abuse the girls under his
He used his wealth, connections and resources to escape the
consequences of his actions. And even in
death, he may ultimately prevent victims from receiving some compensation for
the dehumanizing way they were treated.
It is the very opposite of the way in which our tradition
expects us to use our wealth; it is the very opposite of the way our tradition
expects us to treat children. The Book
of Psalms teaches us that “children are an inheritance from the Lord, a reward
(Ps. 127:3).” And that doesn’t just
apply to our own kids – because we don’t
all have kids. Our tradition teaches: “One
who brings up a child is to be called a parent, not the one who gave birth (Shemot
Rabbah 46:5).” When a child is
parentless or when those parents are not doing the job sufficiently for
whatever reason, we have an obligation to raise that child like our own.
So, when a member of our tribe goes out in public and does
the very opposite of a value that our tradition has historically held dear, all
we can say is, “Oy, a shanda!”
But, let’s not forget that the opposite can be true is
well. Unfortunately, we know that a
person can be a shanda, bringing shame to the entire Jewish community. However, it must also be true, then, that a
person can bring incredible pride to the Jewish community as well. And that pride is called “nachas” – the very opposite of the
feeling one gets as a result of a shanda.
What’s nachas? The
word itself comes from a Biblical Hebrew word that means contentment or
satisfaction. It’s the pride and joy one
feels in response to someone else’s accomplishment. That someone else is often a child or
grandchild, but that need not be the case.
So, for example, when you found out that Ben Platt performed
in an all-Hebrew version of ‘Guys and Dolls’ at a Jewish summer camp long
before he won the Tony Award for portraying a teenager with social anxiety in
“Dear Evan Hansen,” it’s okay if you felt a little nachas – even if you’re not related. After all, we all WANT to claim him as ours.
As we are here on Yom Kippur, the obvious person to mention
is Sandy Koufax, who sat out a World Series Game in 1965 even though it was his
turn in the rotation to pitch. Jewish
sports fans who never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn and Jewish sports
fans who were not even alive when it happened have all held Sandy Koufax up as
a hero ever since. As a Detroiter, I
feel compelled to bring up that Detroit Tiger hero Hank Greenberg sat out a
game for the same reason in 1934, when it was much more difficult for Jews to
make such a stand. Both players gave a
lot of Jewish baseball fans – and even non-fans – a lot of nachas.
Or, how about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader
Ginsburg? She fought through her fourth
bout of cancer this past year to return to the bench with no apparent change in
her courtroom demeanor. Not only that,
but her personal trainer published a book called “The RBG Workout: How She
Stays Strong … and You Can Too!” And
in case you think it’s one of those sit-behind-your-desk exercise routines, the
regimen includes pushups, planks and squats.
Usually, it’s the older generation that feels nachas looking at the younger generation. But, thanks to the documentary about her,
multiple books about her, an opera about her friendship with Justice Antonin
Scalia not to mention her legal mind, I think it’s fair to say she’s given the Jews
of all ages quite a bit of nachas.
Or how about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg? Beyond his accomplishments in the business
world and in politics, this past year, he gave a record-breaking $1.8 Billion
(with a B) gift to his alma mater Johns Hopkins so that no undergraduate
student will have to take a student loan.
That’s right, all the students who entered this fall received sufficient
scholarships and grants so that none of them had to take out loans, and that
will be the policy going forward. Whether
your child goes there or not, whether you’re a Hopkins alum or not, you can
feel nachas after hearing about a
generous act of tzedakah like that.
Pirkei Avot – the
wonderful, nearly 2,000-year-old collection of rabbinic wisdom – preserves a
teaching by Rabbi Shimon who lived in Tiberias after the destruction of the
Temple: “Rabbi Shimon used to say: There
are three crowns–the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the
crown of kingship, but the crown of a [SHEM
TOV] good name surpasses them all (Avot 4:17).”
The priesthood and the kingship were inherited. Either you were born into them or not. The study of Torah is a personal decision
that affects only us. But, whether or
not we have a good name is something that others determine about us based on
So, as we head into the final hours of this Yom Kippur Day,
let us read through the Al Chet
prayer and atone for the sins that are in our “yes” column and let’s atone for
the sins in the “maybe” column. But,
then let’s look at the rest of the list more carefully. Let’s think carefully about how to avoid
being a shanda, while instead bringing
great deal of nachas to our people in
the coming year.