Rosh Hashanah, 5780
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
On Wednesday morning, July 10 of this past summer, I came face to face with Lucy.
I was all alone on the bottom floor of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, during a long layover in transit from our trip to Uganda. Despite its title, the Museum in a very modest affair, with the exception of that bottom floor. It must have been a slow day.
There she was. Lucy, perhaps the most famous hominid fossilized skeleton of all time. Lucy, the so called “missing link” in the evolutionary chain from primate to human. Lucy, 3½ feet tall, 3.2 million years old. The first species to walk upright. Small brain: about 65 pounds, with a remarkable 40% of her bones still intact. Discovered in northern Ethiopia in 1974 by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson. Donald celebrated with his team the night of the discovery by playing, loudly and repeatedly, the Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Donald became famous; Lucy became world famous.
It was a bit surreal, just Lucy (in a protective glass case of course) and me—but it was awesome. I doubt Lucy had ever met a rabbi. She didn’t know that as a kid I remember her discovery and loved reading all about human origins. And she didn’t know what would happen just two years after her discovery.
In nearby Tanzania Andrew Hill was clowning around with his colleagues when he slipped and fell into a pile of… elephant dung. As he got up he thought he saw something. Right away he went to get Mary, his boss. That would be Mary Leakey, wife of famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, and an expert in her own right. What they were looking at was not bones, but what appeared to be a fossilized footprint in the volcanic ash.
Then they saw another one, by its side. Two sets of footprints. One bigger than the other, from a considerably taller and heavier upright walking individual. Possibly, a male and female walking side by side.
Then Mary Leakey noticed something else. There were not two sets of prints, but three. She had initially missed that fact for a very good reason. The third set of footprints was actually within the largest. They were very small and feint. Yes, quite possibly a child, literally walking in its father’s footsteps. Quite possibly a young child “trying on” their parent’s footprints, as children are still want to do on a walk along the beach. In sum, quite possible a family walking together.
Tests later revealed that the footprints found by Hill and Leakey were 3.7 million years old—from the dawn of near human existence. In fact, from the age of Lucy. The footprints became known to the world as the Laetoli footprints, after the nearby gorge. Lucy and the Laetoli footprints rewrote the book on human origins. Now we had the evidence. First our ancient ancestors walked on two feet. Then their brains expanded. Then we became recognizably human.
But what still gets me after all these years is this—a family walking together.
The notion that families belong together is not a uniquely human idea; after all, it is widely observed in the animal kingdom. But it is a quintessentially human idea, because human children need parents for such a long time.
You may have observed that human children mature slowly. Very slowly. They do not generally leave the nest for some 18 years. Or more… Sometimes they come back to the nest. They often ask for money. They ask to remain on your cell phone plan. And on your EZ-Pass. And of course, they make regular visits, so you can do their laundry.
All kidding aside, it is as a family that we live together and walk together and face life together. Literally and figuratively we walk together. Often side by side. Sometimes in each other’s steps. But hopefully, together, in mutual support.
This very idea is indeed embedded in the portion of Torah we read this morning. You might have missed it in the harrowing story of the binding of Isaac. But when Isaac asks, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” and Abraham replies, “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son,” the Torah then says, va’yelchu shnaihem yachdav—“And the two of them walked on together” (Gen.22:8).
A father and son are in a fraught relationship. They face an uncertain future. But at least for this moment they are walking together.
I think this is why so many of us were so disturbed at the images of parents being separated from their children at the southern border of our country this past year. It just goes against something so deep; so primal in our humanity. It is not who we are as a country. It is not who we are as human beings with some sense of compassion.
I don’t have to tell you that as Jews what we witnessed was all the more anguishing. We shudder when we see families separated. When we see crying children and despondent parents. We have been migrants more times in our collective history than we can remember. We have been refugees at “Do Not Enter” crossings time and again. Jewish refugee children were blocked from entering this country in the lifetime of some of our members here today.
Though our government’s policy of family separation officially ended the summer before last… that is not the end of the story. Not all of the separated children been reunited with their parents. This past June the situation entered the news again when a group of lawyers who visited a Texas detention center housing migrant youth were so appalled by what they saw—toddlers without diapers, children sleeping on the floor, older children in charge of younger ones, flu outbreaks, that they alerted the media. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights said on July 8 that she was “deeply shocked” by the conditions facing these children.
Whatever your political affiliation, is this acceptable? Whatever your take on immigration reform, is this who we are? We want to avert our eyes. That’s what was once done to us.
I can imagine that our African American neighbors also understand this. Part of what slavery meant in this country is that children belonged to their masters, not their parents. In 1860, one out of every ten children in America fit that category.
I can imagine that our Native American neighbors also understand this. For decades Native American children were routinely separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they were supposed to learn how to become “Americans”.
I can imagine that immigrant children of every race and ethnic group also understand this. If they were suspected of having tuberculosis or eye disease or even mental retardation they were often separated right at Ellis Island.
We have averted our eyes too many times. Isaiah reminds us: Don’t look away! Raise your voice, like a shofar!
On this High Holy Day, I’d like to make a final point about families walking together. Tolstoy famously said that while happy families are alike, unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way. The egregious violation of family unity by our own government calls for condemnation, but on this day let us also think about what is causing stress and separation in our own families? What is driving us apart? How can we pull together?
In that list of personal failures that we recite on Yom Kippur in the Al Het prayer we say:
We sin against You, O god, when we sin against ourselves.
For condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves,
And for condemning in our parents the faults we tolerate in ourselves.
And later we say:
For withholding love to control those we claim to love,
And shunting aside those whose youth or age disturbs us.
How can we be more forgiving of our children and our parents?
How can we be more unconditionally loving?
I’ll always remember a trip that we took to Cape May when our eldest, Nadav, now all grown up and married, was just a little boy. We were on the beach, with Nadav and Talia in tow. Noam had not even been born yet. We’re walking along when Nadav calls out, “Look, Abba, I’m walking in your steps.” Debby saw me turn around and then get teary eyed. “What’s the matter,” she said. “Let me tell you a story about the Laetoli footprints,” I said.
As parents we know that our children are always watching us, learning from us, and walking with us. We would do well to remember that. Horah (parent), morah (teacher), and Torah are all from the same root in Hebrew. We parents are all teachers, role models whether we like it or not, the link between the generations past and the future whether we know it or not.
The prophet Malachi said that the great day of Elijah, the herald of the messiah, will come when the hearts of children and turned to parents, and the hearts of parents are turned to children.
May that great day of Elijah come.
May it come at least a little closer speedily and in our day.
May we walk together, arm in arm, toward a brighter future.