Sermon-2005.10 Traditional-YomKippur-Mitchell Harris

Yom Kippur 2005 Drash for Traditional Minyan, Sinai Temple

Mitchell Harris


I have been thinking about the choices that we make during our lives. Today I would like to discuss four journeys. The first is that of my great-grandmother who left Russia because evil stepmother—just like in the fairy tales. Then I will speak about my personal journey—how I arrived in Urbana- Champaign, and how I have wrestled with Judaism and what always brings me back. Along the way I will use the journeys of Jonah and of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate some points. I invite you to join me on short, ramble through my thoughts.

     The choices our ancestors had certainly were different than the choices we have today. My great-grandmother, for example, was from Russia, where she was born in 1895.  In the words of my great-grandmother, Minna (please listen with a Russian accent):

Well, we had very little in Russia. We had a horse and … one cow… We had one big room and a stove. …. And the chickens were in the room, too. We didn’t have a warm chicken coop so they used to lay their eggs there in the room. We used to take various things to the market to sell and to buy other things because we didn’t have what to eat. So what did we buy? We used to buy potatoes and cabbage. In the summer we had a garden, but in the wintertime we didn’t have what to eat.

     The fact that Minna was living on the land is somewhat unusual because it was against the law for Jews to own land in Czarist Russia. Apparently Minna’s Great -grandfather was a cantonist—one of many Jewish children who were forcibly conscripted into the Russian army for 25 or 33 years. All the Jewish cantonists were formally baptized and at least nominally became Christians, and therefore were given a plot of land when they were released.

     Incidentally, Dostoievsky in his House of the Dead, the memoir of his prison years, in which he gives a portrait of a Jewish Cantonist. There is also there is a 2004 book, called The Cantonists: The Jewish Children’s Army of the Tsar (by Larry Domnitch).

     Back Minna’s story. Minna’s mother died a few hours after Minna was born, and Minna’s father married again sometime later. To make a long story short, Minna’s brother, Schmoyl, ran away from home because the stepmother was beating him.

     Schmoyl was adopted by a couple from Minsk, where he became a shoemaker. The couple happened to be revolutionaries who escaped to Paris. From Paris they sent for Schmoyl, who in turn sent for Minna and another brother. Minna was thirteen and her aunt in Minsk was putting her on a train to Paris via BerlinShe said to Minna: “There’s going to come a big horse with two big eyes. And you shouldn’t be scared. And the horse is going to make a ‘Pfft, Pfft, Pfft.’”

     Minna lived as an orphan in Paris and eventually journeyed  to America. During this trip she was robbed of her luggage in Paris and robbed of her money in Philadelphia. So, my heritage is an American of Jewish East-European descent.

     Unfortunately, during the early and middle 20th century it was important assimilate into American society and much of the Yiddish culture of the old country was forgotten. Also with the creation of the State of Israel, there was a further strive toward modernity—the re-emergence of Hebrew as a spoken language (The Jews have a funny way of becoming modern—by speaking a thousands of years old language!).  This was a choice that probably had to be made, but in this process aren’t we losing a wonderful body of Yiddish literature, music and theater? My more immediate ancestors settled in the “Promised Land”—New York City…..Well that is the way a true New Yorker may look at it.

     Most of my growing up took place in Newton, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. Try as I may, I cannot help but chant the Chanukah brachot off-key, just like my father. I also remember that the mid-1970s were an unfortunate time for fashion and I will NOT be showing pictures of my Bar Mitzvah when I stood on the bima in a plaid, red, white and blue jacket. I spent much time during high school years with the Young Judaea Youth Group reading about Zionist thinkers. Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea was a favorite book of mine.  

     Since I was in high school I have lived in Iowa; South Carolina; Northern California; Marin County, California; Corvallis, Oregon; and Fort Collins, Colorado.  I am not sure what I was searching for when I made the choice to leave the Northeast. There, many neighbors knew when the Jewish holidays were. As far as worshipping in a minyan, in many places the problem was to decide which congregation to belong to, rather than trying to figure out where there even was a congregation. Maybe I watched too much Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins on TV while I was growing up and wanted to hike around and see the world?

     Just about everywhere I went there were members of a local congregation who would take me in (at least for the High Holidays). I discovered that there were Jews in the South. In Aiken, South Carolina there is a 100-year old synagogue. In California I found out that salsa and guacamole could grace the Oneg Shabbat table.

     I admit that over the years I would sometimes wonder what I would be if I hadn’t been born Jewish. Then, I think that I cannot imagine being anything else. I don’t know what keeps drawing me back. I confess that I have never really figured out what it means to be “spiritual.” What am I supposed to be feeling inside?

     Instead my attraction for Judaism is perhaps more about, not sure what to call it, ideas? Its logic, how things are put together…How service is crafted—the “warm up” leading to the Barchu; each section of the service punctuated with the Kaddish; the loving rituals surrounding the reading of the Torah. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people, who chant the same Hebrew prayers the world over. I also love the prayer chants, those minor chords resonate inside me, and the familiar sounds of a Klezmer tune. Also there is the fact that we are all part of history, all having received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

     But, it seems to me it is the wisdom of Judaism that I hold dearest. Judaism is grounded in Life, in this world, not some “better world” to come.

     I love to read the sayings, the tidbits of Jewish thoughts, like this from Micah 6:8:

He has told you, O man, what is good,

And what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justice

and to love goodness,

And to walk modestly with your God;

then will your name achieve wisdom.

And the Rambam and his Eight Degrees of Charity, the highest being helping someone become self-sufficient. And of course Hillel’s famous saying—If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

     The creators of our traditions understood what it means to be human. They gave us the rituals of death and mourning which allow us to grieve.  On Yom Kippur when I read the Al Chet (for the sin we sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you by acting callously . . .), I wonder if there is anything the authors left out? Is there some other way to sin against G-d? The authors did know something about human nature.

     The discussions that are an integral part of Judaism make me cringe when I hear politicians and would-be educators crowing about displaying the Ten Commandments, or telling people to “just go read the Bible.” Although, it may be a little strong to say, but I think that it is an affront to the Bible to think that you can just read and understand it. Jews know this; we are a people of not just the Torah, but also of the Talmud, the Mishnah, and of Midrash. It is the Midrash that brings our biblical ancestors to life. And makes them human.

     Which, finally, brings me back to the High Holy Days, and my theme of our Journeys.

     This afternoon we read of the journey of Jonah and the Big Fish. To me Jonah’s flight to Tarshish makes a great deal of sense. Jonah knew that the people of Nineveh would repent and he didn’t want to be made a liar in front of more than 120,000 persons (and many beasts as well). Besides, according to the Midrash, the crew upon the ship which Jonah fled, subsequently abandoned idolatry and became pious men. I think that I, too, would be greatly grieved about the death of a plant that provided me shade. Especially, since according to the Mishnah the intense heat in the belly of the fish consumed Jonah’s garments and made his hair fall out.

     The other journey we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the journey of Abraham and Isaac, the Akeda. As Elie Wiesel put it:

“Terrifying in content, it has become a source of consolation to those who, in retelling it, make it part of their own experience. Here is the story that contains Jewish destiny in its totality, just as the flame contained in the single spark by which it comes to life. Every major theme, every passion and obsession that makes Judaism the adventure that it is, can be traced back to it: man’s anguish when he finds himself face-to-face with God, his quest for purity and purpose, the conflict of having to choose between dreams of the past and dreams of the future, between absolute faith and absolute justice, between the need to obey God’s will and to rebel against it; between his yearnings for freedom and for sacrifice, his desire to justify hope and despair with words and silence—the same words and the same silence. It is all there.“

[Wiesel, Elie. 1976. Messengers of God. Random House, New York. ]


Unlike Jonah, when God called, Abraham said. “Hineni,” here I am.


Although there is at least one poet who thought it might have gone differently:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

[Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, from]


     Nevertheless, I do think, that at a first glance we can relate to Isaac more than Abraham. It is the Midrash which explains, that when Isaac grasped the magnitude and horror of what was to come he asked “As soon as you have slaughtered me, and have separated yourself from me, and returned to Mother and she asks you, ‘Where is my son Isaac? ‘ What will you answer her, and what will you do afterward?” The Mishnah brings humanity to our stories and our history.

     For me one important meaning of the Akeda (again a thought from Elie Weisel), is “In the end, the act was not consummated….In Jewish tradition man cannot use death as a means of glorifying God.”

     And so the last stop in my journey, so far is Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Fourteen years ago, I got a job here and I was only going to stay a year or two.

  • Maybe I was just looking for the world’s greatest shofar blower? Found it.
  • Maybe I was looking for a congregation with amazing people and amazing stories to tell. Found it.

     Happily, I share my life now with my wonderful wife, Frances. When I met Frances, she liked to refer to me as my “value-added boyfriend” because I had a truck to haul things around with. It turns out that Frances was also “value-added.” I got two teenage boys Daniel and Simon with whom so far, I have shared high school and college years, first apartments, first jobs. There will be much more to come.

     With that, I thank you for indulging me a journey through my thoughts and my struggle with modernity and becoming who I am. I wish you all L’Shana Tova tikateivu v’teichateimu.