Leaving Behind Our Spiritual DNA

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I’m hesitant to springboard an article using something I read in Reader’s Digest but I always like to start at the beginning. My hesitancy to cite Reader’s Digest comes from my own prejudices about the magazine, based on the assumption that its readership is primarily women of a certain age, which I am not. (My wife has a subscription, so you can draw your own conclusions about her.) But it’s in the house and it has its uses, so here we are.

In the March 2019 issue, there’s an article entitled, “I Think I’m Innocent” by Katie Worth. In it, a man named Lukis Anderson was accused of a murder because his DNA was found at the scene. (He wasn’t 100% sure that he hadn’t done it because his substance-abuse problems cause him to experience blackouts.) It turned out to be a case of DNA transference. Two paramedics had picked up a drunken Anderson and then, three hours later, responded to the call at the crime scene, carrying Anderson’s DNA with them. The cause of the DNA transference was a fingertip oximeter that had been used on both patients. The presence of Anderson’s DNA under the victim’s fingernail certainly suggested a struggle but keen-eyed investigators determined that this was not in fact the case. (And yes, the actual guilty parties were ultimately apprehended.)

This sounds like a wild, one-in-a-million kind of occurrence but studies suggest that it may be quite common. A 1997 study by Australian scientist Roland van Oorschot determined that people’s DNA can frequently be found on things they never touched. In 20-minute sessions involving three subjects at a time, participants’ DNA turned up on one another’s drinking glasses – as well as on their persons – even though they had never touched. Perhaps more disturbing, DNA from people who were not even present was transferred. Anyone with whom you interact during the day can potentially drop your DNA anywhere!

The premise of this article this resonated with me in a spiritual context. The idea that we have an influence beyond our immediate circles is not novel. The Talmud in Kiddushin (30a) tells us that “whoever teaches his son Torah is considered as if he taught his son, his grandson, his great-grandson, through all the generations.”

What we pay forward through the generations by way of our examples can be good (such as when we teach our children Torah), bad (such as when we reinforce bad habits within them) or overtly silly, as I’ll illustrate with a joke (It’s an old joke, and not particularly funny, so you can always just groan now and skip ahead):

A newlywed bride was fixing dinner. She took a roast, cut off the ends, threw them away, and put the roast into the pan.

“Why did you throw away the ends of the roast?” her husband asked.

“That’s the halacha!” she replied.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing in my life,” he said.

“That’s how my mother taught me to do it. I’ll call her and she’ll tell you.”

So they called the bride’s mother, who said, “That’s the way my mother taught me, so I’m sure it’s our minhag!”

So the couple called Bubbie, who said, “My roasting pan was only ten inches long – that’s the only way I could get it to fit!”

This joke illustrates a universal truth: children internalize what they’re raised with. In real life, newlywed couples have had major problems over silly things like whether peanut butter belongs in the cabinet or the fridge, or how to hang the bathroom tissue. You can bet it’s an issue in religious matters as well, whether or not our differences actually affect halacha.

But our influence isn’t confined to paying it forward through our own descendants. We also have a ripple effect on the world in general. Obviously, this is the case with a teacher of Torah but it is also true of just us regular folk. This is the power of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem (respectively, a sanctification of God’s Name and a desecration of His Name, God forbid). Each of these is a bona fide mitzvah in the Torah and each of them can potentially reverberate forever.

The Rambam defines chillul Hashem as when someone who should know better acts in a fashion that others would consider inappropriate for him. In a Talmudic discussion of what constitutes a chillul Hashem, Rav said it would be a chillul Hashem if he didn’t pay his butcher on time (Yoma 86a). That might not be so terrible coming from you or me but Rav had higher expectations placed upon him. The greater one is, the bigger shoes he has to fill.

The reason for this mitzvah is to show our gratitude to God, Who created us and gives us everything. How horrible would one be to act in a fashion that makes Him look bad and causes people to say, “That’s how Jews act?” or “That’s how religious people behave?” The attitude one creates through chillul Hashem persists beyond the initial incident. If an Orthodox Jew makes a nuisance of himself in public – congratulations, you may have just helped to drive someone “off the derech” or contributed to worldwide anti-Semitism. It’s serious stuff. So serious, in fact, that the Talmud in Yoma (86a again) says that neither teshuvah (repentance), Yom Kippur nor suffering can fully effect atonement for chillul Hashem. One cannot completely atone for a chillul Hashem until one passes away.

Happily, we have the contextual opposite in the form of kiddush Hashem. This is when we act in a way that makes people say, “You know what? Those Jews are okay!” This reflects well on God, on Torah and on klal Yisroel. Acting honestly in business, being kind to others, acting charitably and hospitably – these are all great ways to make a kiddush Hashem.

A woman I know wrote a book when she was in her twenties and a little cynical. A few years later, with a little more life experience, she regretted some of the things she had said. She asked me how to rectify this since recalling all existing copies of her book wasn’t really an option. I put her in touch with a rav who told her that since she had put negativity out there in the world, the way to mitigate it was to start putting out positivity. Maybe she can’t fully retract everything she said but she could certainly update her thoughts as widely as possible.

Every person is made of both a body and a soul, each of which is going to leave traces of DNA wherever we go. This DNA can potentially be picked up by another person and carried beyond our reach. We can’t help it. But while we can’t control the physical DNA that a third party might leave at a crime scene, we can control the nature of the spiritual DNA that we put out there. What we teach our children, how we treat others, whether we make a kiddush Hashem or a chillul Hashem – that’s all up to us. We may not be able to retrieve all the bad spiritual DNA that we’ve already put out there but it’s never too to start spreading the good kind.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.