Sermon – The Thousandth Generation, Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2024 March 22

The Thousandth Generation
Ana Levy-Lyons
November 19, 2023
First Unitarian, Brooklyn

I was having some back pain a while ago and I was trying to figure out what might have
caused it. Was it when I went for a run the day before? When I carried heavy groceries
home a week ago? Something earlier? I asked my chiropractor how long ago an injury could
have happened to cause a pain I’m feeling today. He replied, “…birth?”

There’s a passage in the Hebrew Bible that sources pain back even further than birth. It
says: “For I, your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the crimes of the parents upon the
children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is one
of the parts of the Bible that makes some of us a little queasy. It seems to say that God will
punish children for the sins of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. It
seems so unfair.

But if we set aside the notion of God as the agent of punishment for a minute, then this
becomes a teaching about the ripple effect of the things we do and the things that happen
to us; how they ripple out to our children and beyond. Nothing stays contained to one
moment or even one lifetime. When seen in this light we recognize it; we know that
referred suffering is real. When someone commits violence, when someone uses force,
dishonesty, tears the fabric of trust, whether the ancestor was perpetrator or victim… the
effects of it reverberate to the third and fourth generations.

I want to share two stories of this tragic truth. They are stories that are hard to hear but
devastatingly familiar these days. The first was shared by a friend of mine, Zvika Krieger,
who used to work for the US State Department supporting efforts on Israeli-Palestinian
peace negotiations. He writes, “Shachar and Shlomi lived in Kibbutz Holit near Israel’s
southern border with Gaza. They met in music school, got married, and had three
children… They founded a bilingual school that taught children in Hebrew and Arabic,
under the slogan: ‘Jewish Arab Education for Equality.’ On October 7 th , Hamas gunmen broke into Shachar and Shlomi’s house. The parents ran into their safe room with their 16-year-old son, Rotem. Shachar directed Rotem to get under a pile of blankets, and she laid on top of them. Moments later, Rotem heard a grenade explode and the sound of gunshots. He heard his parents scream… Rotem laid
under those blankets for over eight hours, soaked in his own blood …as well as his
mother’s blood seeping through the blankets.

Shachar’s brother shared that in 1919, in what is now Ukraine, their great-grandmother
also used her body to shield her child during a pogrom, pushing her under a bed to hide
her while she, the mother, was murdered. That child lived and became Shachar’s

…to the third and fourth generation.

And then there’s a story shared in the publication Jewschool by Ilana Sumka, a peace
activist working to build understanding between Jews and Palestinians. She writes that
she remembers meeting young Palestinian children who lost their parents,
grandparents, sisters, and their homes when Israel bombed Gaza in 2008. They lived to
see more bombings in 2012, 2014, and 2021. A recurring nightmare. Ilana wondered
what would become of these children. Who would they grow up to be? She writes,
“Tragically, we now have a partial answer as to who some of those kids grew up to be.”
Some of those children she met fifteen years ago were among the Hamas attackers on
October 7.

…to the third and fourth generation.

Sometimes the aggressors become the victims in the next generation, sometimes the
victims become the aggressors. Sometimes the roles stay the same and the actors change.
The actors change, but the pain gets transmitted birth to birth. How far back did it start?
Was it birth? Before birth? October 7? The Nakba? The Holocaust? The pogroms? The

This chain of violence and suffering is playing out so tragically right now in the Middle East,
but we see smaller versions of it all the time, even in our own lives. Many of us still
experience pain that came about through our parents’ actions. Or pain from things that
happened to our parents. Some of us can trace the underlying dynamics back to our
grandparents or even great-grandparents. It gets passed down like dominoes. When it’s
profound, originating in abuse, or a loss that came too early in life, dire poverty, hunger,
forced displacement, or a violation of the body, when such a pain is passed down, this is
what’s known as intergenerational trauma. It reverberates and we, the descendants, can
feel like it happened to us.

And in some sense, it did. The field of epigenetics teaches us that our genes are actually
changed by trauma – they encode a kind of embodied memory that can be passed down to
our children. The fears of the parents are visited upon the children, quite literally in our
DNA. And so those who are wealthy can feel like they are always on the edge of poverty;
those who are safe can feel constantly threatened; those who have plenty to eat can feel like they could go hungry tomorrow. The facts don’t matter so much; the received experience is embedded in our hearts. And then we humans sometimes act out of that place of fear, sometimes blindly, sometimes without even knowing we’re doing it.

Intergenerational trauma touches so many of our lineages. It certainly describes what’s
going on in Israel and Palestine. It describes an aspect of the Black experience in this
country. It describes the experience of so many victims of sexual violence and all kinds of
violence who, tragically, constitute a huge percentage of the American people. And poverty
can be another form of trauma, slower and more hidden, but devastating nonetheless. The
list goes on.

So, when this wave of horrific violence exploded in Israel and Gaza last month it hit a raw
nerve. It activated some of those deep fears, not only there, but here. Many of us see the
suffering and injustice and we’re triggered by it. The battles here have mostly been of
words, but they have at times broken into physical violence, most notably when six-year-
old Wadea Al-Fayoume, was murdered because he was Muslim. The rise of antisemitism
and Islamophobia have been terrifying, especially for people who are visibly Jewish or
Muslim. But even others have told me that they feel uncomfortable and wary in New York
City now.

It’s far away but it’s so close. I feel sickened by what’s happening in our world right now.
Some of us are angry. Some of us are scared. All of us are heartbroken. We all want a happy
ending to this story, and we all know it’s way too late for that.

But what we can hope for, what we can work for, is the possibility of transformation – in
the Middle East, in the U.S., and in the circles that we touch. Because just like we can ask
where do you start the story? How far back do you look? We can also ask where do you stop
the story? Since how it ends up, as they say, depends on where you stop the story. And this
story is not over yet.

The Hebrew Bible passage I read to you doesn’t end where I ended it. Here’s the full
passage: “I, your God am an impassioned God, visiting the crimes of the parents upon the
children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who hate me, but
showing loving-kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me.” What saves
the day here, literally the saving news of faith, is that goodness and love also ripple out. Yes,
hate and fear proliferate, but love proliferates exponentially more. Loving-kindness to the
thousandth generation.

This too rings true in our world. When you act out of love, justice, truthfulness, and respect,
that goodness reverberates outward into the world touching everyone and everything. And the corollary to this is that we are the beneficiaries of goodness from long, long ago. We all know people who are very sane, loving people, good partners, or good parents who, themselves, came from an abusive family or just a family that didn’t know how to really see them. And you ask yourself, “How did he turn out to be such a good partner?” “How did she turn out to be such a good mother?” “Where did they get such strength?” And you don’t find the answer when you look at their parents or the community they were raised in. The
thousandth generation principle teaches that they could have been lifted by a powerful love
a hundred years ago that formed a substrate of compassion, kindness, strength, and pride –
recessive genes that transmitted silently through the generations. Love can never really be

How can we break the cycles of intergenerational trauma that are so much bigger than us?
Only by plugging into a love that is also bigger than us. A love that stretches way back – that
finds compassion in the midst of hardship, and understanding in the midst of grief. And a
love that pays it way forward. Call it intergenerational loving-kindness. There are people all
over the world, including many in this room, doing this work right now.

I was especially moved to learn of an organization called Parents’ Circle – Family Forum
jointly run by Palestinians and Israelis. They bring together parents of children who were
killed in the conflict. They meet and talk and cry together. They tell each other their stories
and they listen. One program called Parallel Narratives helps each community listen to the
narratives of the other. Together they visit the village of Lifta whose residents were driven
out in 1948. And they visit the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here is what
Haled Juma, a Palestinian participant, had to say:
“During the encounters I met a group of Israelis and formed ties that last to this day. I
discovered people who have true empathy and who support our right to live free in an
independent state, not under occupation. The visits we group members made together
made me very hopeful that there is a true opportunity for co-existence if only people would
get together, face to face, and speak from the heart.”

I know it’s tempting at times like this to be cynical about these kinds of efforts. We can look
at what’s happening right now and say, well, obviously it doesn’t work. But the participants
themselves, who have experienced the grief and the devastation firsthand, believe that in
fact it is violence that doesn’t work. They believe in the peace process and believe that it is
the only way forward.

Meytal Ofer, whose father was killed by Hamas says: “I think there is no other choice. This
is my home. I don’t want to give up my home. I don’t want to go, and Palestinians will not go anywhere either. So, we have to do something. You cannot stop violence with violence. We tried it for 100 years, and it’s not working.” Bassam Aramin, whose daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier, said, “The arc of history is long. Germany once tried to wipe out Jews and now exchanges ambassadors with Israel.

Someday Israel and Palestine will coexist as states, and the question is simply how many
corpses will pile up before that happens. We must share this land as one state or two states
or five states. Otherwise, we will share this same piece of land as the graveyards of our

This is the work. It’s the work of beginning to heal intergenerational trauma with
intergenerational loving-kindness.

We can’t possibly know the effects of our actions or exactly how they will reverberate
through time and space. But what we can do is ask ourselves: what kind of seed do we have
in our hand? What is the nature of the thing we are planting and putting out into the world?
What are we participating in? What about the words we’re about to speak? What about the
words we’re about to withhold? What about the quality of the attention we pay to someone
who needs to express themselves? Are we really listening? What about the way we touch
someone? How do we use our power? How do we behave with those who have no power –
children or non-human animals? How do we behave with those who can’t hold us
accountable – strangers on the subway, strangers online? What are we passing on to the
next generation?
The striking thing about the “thousandth generation” teaching is that from the viewpoint of
the Bible, there haven’t even been a thousand generations yet. So, it’s not only about
receiving love from our ancestors, but that love is our natural inheritance from before the
world was formed. The genealogy of evil stems back only three or four generations, but
love was born in the dawn of time. This is our true inheritance. When we transmit that love,
when we express and manifest that love, it will live and breathe and ripple outward for a
thousand generations into a future world that we can not even begin to fathom.

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