This is My Story
Yom Kippur, 5781
I had never been quarantined before.
And yet, that is where we found ourselves last spring when the Coronavirus completely shut us down. It was quite a remarkable experience. And here we are in the fall, and life is still far from normal. Can’t let our guard down yet.
Our brothers and sisters in Israel, who were doing so well in getting on top of this terrible disease – have had to completely shut down again. Some of you have questioned why we have not opened up our sanctuary again and permitted everyone to come back to pray – after all the infection rate here on Long Island is still, thank God, very low. I merely point to Israel and say – that is what they thought as well.
Nobody wants to get back to business as usual, more than me- but it is not time yet. We need to take care of ourselves and each other. To gather in large numbers, in our sanctuary, sitting together for hours singing and davening when we do have this option of a virtual Service – well it just does not seem like the responsible thing to do – as most synagogues came to realize and Israel made it into law.
These last few months have been filled with a lot of family time. The early part of this terrible coronavirus ordeal March, April, May when we were limited to our own houses except for essential outings – for Edy and me it was just the two of us. What is that joke that was going around — “When our kids were young, we, their parents, used to yell at them for trying to sneak out of the house. Now the tables have turned and our kids are yelling at us for trying to sneak out of the house.” In time, here in NY – as the warm weather took hold and the infection rate came under control – we allowed ourselves the luxury of backyard get togethers with children and grandchildren – with school out – they permitted us in their “bubble” and over the last few months we spent a lot of time with our children and grandchildren. Not a bad way to get through a pandemic.
One of my favorite memories of these last few months was bedtime -or more accurately story time. I remember these moments fondly with my own children and now I was able to re-experience them with my grandchildren. First comes the negotiation regarding how many books we will read – and then having agreed upon a number – they got to choose which ones. (I always dreaded when they chose Berenstein Bears – those books are so long!) But we would sit down on their bed or on the front porch – they would snuggle up close, Edy or I – whoever was the designated storyteller for that evening – would open the book and begin with a version of “Once upon a time, in a land far far away…”
Little did I realize that not only was I participating in a “sweet” moment, but a critically important one for human survival.
Yuval Harari in his remarkable book “Sapiens: A Brief history of mankind” – poses a question: Why do we humans rule the world? It was not always this way. There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms that populated the planet.
Most scholars seem to agree that something happened between 30,000 and 70,000 years ago. What caused it — we are not sure. Scientists will tell you it was an accidental genetic mutation – I might imagine that it was God – but happen it did. Something changed the inner wiring of our brains enabling us to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. Harari calls it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. The story in our bible just calls it the tree of knowledge.
What was so special about this new development in language that enabled us to conquer the world? Ours was not the first language – every animal knew some kind of language. Even insects such as bees know how to communicate in fairly sophisticated ways. Neither was it the first vocal language – many animals like apes and monkeys communicate vocally. Zoologists have demonstrated that a monkey’s call that says ‘Careful an eagle’ is very different from ‘careful a lion! When researchers played a recording of the first one, a group of monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard the second one – the “careful a lion” one, they scrambled up a tree. No, vocal language was not what made us so special – a parrot can say anything Albert Einstein said.
Harari argues that what was and is unique amongst sapiens is our ability – to tell stories. Only homosapiens can tell stories about things that don’t exist. “Once upon a time, in a land far far away…” those stories I was reading to my grandchildren? They are at the very heart of what makes us human.
Stories enable us to imagine – and imagining things that do not exist is what makes us human.
Most of you probably think of the bible when you think of stories we tell each other that probably aren’t true. God created the world in seven days? A serpent that seduced Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden? A flood that covered the face of the earth…
But Harari suggests that these “not true” stories are the most important of all. And by the way, we Jews aren’t the only ones who tell tall tales.
You business people and lawyers who are here today – according to Harari you are powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between a lawyer and a tribal shaman is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.
Of course you lawyers and accountants and business people don’t call what you do – telling stories – but you tell me what an LLC – a Limited Liability Corporation is? Where would I go to see one in its natural habitat? Where does it exist in reality? It does not, an LLC is a legal fiction – it is… a story. But as long as we all take that story seriously – the courts, the government, the employees, the competitors – it is real, at least in our minds. Most of you listening to me today have no trouble understanding that our “primitive” ancestors believed in ghosts and spirits and gathering each full moon to dance around a campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Lawyers and business people – hey – you didn’t know you were in the same line of work as I am – did you? We tell stories about things we can and need other people to imagine.
An imagined reality is not a lie. I lie when I say there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well that there is no lion there. Monkeys can lie – they can call out the sound that says “Careful lion!” and all the other monkeys flee – and the monkey knows full well there is no lion there but merely wants to enjoy the banana he found. No, an imagined reality is not a lie – it is something that everyone believes in (like corporations – or paper money) and as long as the communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts power in the world.
The reason the Bible does not resonate with many of you here today – is not because all of a sudden you think you discovered that it is a lie! It is not a lie – it is absolutely true – but it is a truth that you no longer subscribe to, a story that no longer moves you – and when that happens it ceases to have power. I saw a picture of children playing with stacks of hyperinflated currency during the Weimar Republic in 1922. The money hadn’t changed – those German marks were the exact same ones from the year before – but people no longer believed in their power – and they lost their value.
There was an article in this June’s New Yorker Magazine written by Ruth Margalit titled: “In search of David’s Lost Empire.” How many of you have toured the ruins of the City of David – just outside the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem – where some remarkable excavations are underway. Your guide probably told you that this was believed to be the ancient city of David and that they may have even discovered David’s royal palace. Of course the truth is much more complicated. The article in the New Yorker, details the debates between the archeologists at Tel Aviv University and the ones at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem over the historicity of King David. Some scholars argue that David did not exist at all but was a story invented some 300 years later by King Josiah or his followers. Josiah ruled over Judah in the 7th century (of this we have certain archeological proof) – and the story, they argue, was an attempt to legitimize their king as a descendant of an imagined golden age ruled over by one King Daivd. To these scholars, David never existed, it is and was, just a story.
Those who disagree and insist that there was a historical King David, well they acknowledge that although his story has its basis in historical fact it might not have been as grand as the one imagined in the Bible. That essentially the historical David was a tribal chieftain – a nomadic bedouin who set up home on a Jerusalem hilltop. Maybe there was a “palace” – but there was certainly nothing extravagant about it and rather than an empire, he mostly ruled over a neglected chiefdom of pastoralists and outlaws.
Personally – I like the bible’s story better. The image of David, who as a child slew giant Goliath. The young man fierce in battle yet gentle enough to soothe King Saul with the playing of his lyre. David, the author of Psalms, the flawed king who ruled over a vast kingdom and fell for the beauty of Batsheva, another man’s wife.
We are all defined by the stories we tell. We are our stories. One of my favorite movies is Big Fish starring Albert Finney – if you haven’t seen it – watch it after hearing my sermon and you will understand why. To know me, to know anyone is not necessarily to know the facts of their life but the stories they tell about their life.
Anyone who has ever conducted a job interview knows exactly what I mean. The job applicant hands you a resume that lists all the relevant facts of his or her life – date of birth, education, jobs held, and on and on, and after reading his or her resume you then turn to the applicant and you say, “tell me about yourself…”
What do you mean, “tell me about yourself?” Isn’t it all there in black in white – the details are in the resume? Well the facts are important – they do tell us something, but until we hear from the person himself or herself, until we hear the stories they tell of themselves we do not really know them, we cannot begin to know them.
The NY Times columnist David Brooks speaks of resume virtues and eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about in your eulogy – whether you were kind, brave or honest; were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character. I am astounded by those of you who tell me that character is not even a factor in your choice of a president
And closer to home I get comments like this: “Rabbi I don’t know if my son can come back to Religious School this year – he has to build up his resume to get into a good college – and well there are only so many hours of the day.”
But if you live only for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.
It is important that you know the stories we tell here — in our sanctuary when we read torah, in our Religious School when we teach torah, the stories we have told ourselves for thousands of years – the way we have imagined that the world was and more importantly the way we have imagined that the world could be.
As a rabbi, I spend a good deal of my time listening to your stories. As I prepare eulogies for loved ones who have passed away, I ask children to tell me about their parents, their husbands or wives, who were they? What mattered to them, what were their stories? These conversations usually begin by telling me their resume story -he went to City College, she was born in Brooklyn, he spent 45 years as a doctor. But soon the conversation transitions and we begin to speak about eulogy virtues – that is when you notice me feverishly scribbling down my notes – trying to capture everything you are saying.
The reason that stories are so important is that they reveal what we choose to remember about our loved ones and frequently tell me more about you than it even does about them. When I ask you to tell me about your loved one – I am asking you to tell me a story, their story – or maybe more accurately, your story. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All history is subjective, in other words, there is properly no history, there is only biography.” Of the myriad of facts and details that make up our lives, what we choose to remember is therefore critical, since the narratives that play in our heads shape everything.
So, what is your story?
Consider as if this was not a sermon – but rather a conversation you and I are having. Imagine that we were getting to know each other – you prepared a resume for my edification and I just finished reading it, I put it aside and I say to you, “Now, tell me a little about yourself…”
Where would your story begin?
“Well rabbi, I moved here to Roslyn with my family about 10 years ago and we joined Beth Sholom shortly thereafter…”
Really, so your story begins here in Roslyn?
“Well we moved from Queens and actually I was born and raised in Brooklyn.”
Oh, so your story begins in Brooklyn?
“Well my mom was born there but her grandparents came from Russia in the late 1800’s, my father is a survivor of the holocaust and came here after the war from Poland.”
I see, so your story begins in Poland and Russia…
“Rabbi, I am not sure what you are driving at? What do you want me to say?”
I don’t want you to say anything, it’s your story – I am just trying to understand it.
What a strange Passover we had this past year. How many of you had some version of a Zoom Seder? The central aspect of any Passover Seder – even one on Zoom, is the recitation of the Haggadah – which roughly means stories. Passover is a night where we sit around and tell our stories. I happen to have here a haggadah – let’s take a look at some of the stories you recited around your Passover table: avadim hayinu l’pharoah b’mitzrayimi – we were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt…” Really, now that is an interesting part of your story, I am surprised you neglected to share that with me…
Oh look here is another thing you recited at your table…”arami oveyd avi – “My father was a wandering Aramean… really – now that too is a fascinating tidbit you withheld from me.
Now should you say – “look, Rabbi, Passover was awhile ago, I forgot what I said then” – fair enough – let’s see what you have been busy saying during these last few days as part of these High Holy Days –
Wow look at all these stories we have been telling. Stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Yishmael –stories of a father who is willing to sacrifice his son, of a mother who is grief stricken.
In a very moving part of the Rosh Hashanah davening the Cantor sang: Haveyn yakir li efrayim im yeled sha-a-shuim…
Is Efrayim My dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For though I spoke against him, I earnestly remember him still; therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.
Wow – now we are talking stories.
Allow me to tell you one of my favorite stories – yes, it will tell you a lot about me – that’s ok – we are trying to get to know each other better aren’t we?
Have you ever had the experience where you meet someone – they look familiar but you just can’t place them – the name the face – it is all familiar but I just don’t know where I know you from – well there is a simple response that we Jews have when we are confronted with such a situation – after all efforts at trying to figure out where you met have failed, when there is nothing left to say, we say: “Well I guess it must have been at Sinai?” What kind of comment is that? What kind of an answer is that? I said that once and the person responded to me: Rabbi I haven’t been to Sinai, I haven’t even been to Israel – what are you talking about?”
Well, it is a strange reply unless you know the following story. According to Jewish tradition – we all stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai when the torah was given. How do I know? The Bible tells me so: “And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath. But with the one who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with the one who is not here with us this day.” (Deut. 29:9-14) The rabbis told a story based on this verse – how could our ancestors bind us to something we were not a party to? I am obligated to keep kosher because my great great great great grandfather agreed to it? No, says this midrash, you are obligated because you were there – every Jew that ever was or ever would be – we were called to be present at the foot of Mt Sinai – we were there – we saw it, we were amazed by it we accepted it and we are bound by it – therefore our telling is a retelling, our amazement is a re-amazement because we – you and I and all the generations before and after us – we were all there. And that story gave rise to the expression – it must have been at Sinai – if after exhausting all possible places where you and I have met we still have a nagging sense of familiarity – well perhaps we stood next to each other back at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
I love that story – and one of the reasons I like it – is that it means that you and I are not strangers. By the way – this includes those who converted to Judaism as well – you were there, the story includes you as well as the rabbis insist your neshamas, your souls were destined for this place therefore they were included in that place – no, we are not strangers – we go back before Beth Sholom, before Roslyn, before America – we stood together on those desert plains and we heard God speak and we accepted His torah – but more importantly we share a story – you and I – and that makes you very special to me.
For more than 26 years now – I have been your story teller. You have come to shul cuddled up close to me – and I would weave my tales. Oh, I have so many stories. After 26 years – I still have only begun to share these stories with you. But, don’t worry if we don’t get a chance to finish everything I have to tell you. Because the rabbi who comes after me – he or she knows these stories as well – and what is most important are the stories – not the storyteller.
It would make it a little easier if you would pay a bit more attention. All these holidays and customs – they are part of the story. You could help by doing a little more, studying. A little more Hebrew would be a big help. For thousands of years no matter where Jews lived – we spoke the language of the land we lived in, but we always spoke Hebrew as well – because our stories were written in Hebrew and it is so much better to hear a story in the original – when a Jew dreams, he dreams in Hebrew.
And if you haven’t been to Israel – you really have to go. As anyone who has traveled there knows – the story comes alive when you step off that plane and walk that sacred land. No, Israel is such an important part of our story.
For 26 years I have tried to make my story, our story – your story.
So since I have the podium, allow me to begin – and then soon I hope to hear from you…
My name is Avraham – they call me Alan and 4000 years ago *I stood with the first Abraham in his lonely vigil when he read the destiny of our people in the stars.
I was with Isaac when he built the altar where his faith and devotion were put to the test.
I stood with Jacob when he wrestled through the night with the angel of despair and won a blessing at the break of dawn. With Joseph I dreamed of sheaves and stars and climbed the steps from the pit to a prince’s throne.
I was with Moses, an alien prince among an alien people. Unshod, I stood with him before the vision in the wilderness and from the fire I heard the Voice summoning him to service.
I was at Sinai and entered there the everlasting covenant between our people and our God. I suffered and I hungered with them all the way across the wilderness to the Promised Land.
I was with Joshua at Jericho and with Deborah by the waters of Megiddo. I stood with the blind Samson in his agony and I heard the wild cry of his desperate courage as he pulled the pillars over the Philistines.
I heard Samuel admonish his people to remain free, I listened to the harp of David, I heard Solomon in the Temple on the day he dedicated it as a House of Prayer for all people. And I learned from him of a God whom heaven and the hosts of heaven cannot contain. I was with the prophets who came to destroy old worlds and to build new ones. I heard them lash out against injustice. I warmed at their compassion for the weak. From them I learned what a raging fire within one’s soul an unfulfilled mandate from God can be.
I sat with my people by the waters of Babylon as we wept and vowed – never to forget Jerusalem.
I entered the makeshift synagogues in Babylon and learned there that prayer and study can be as beloved to God as the sacrifices in the Temple or the songs of the Levites.
I returned with them from their captivity and saw how a people can rebuild upon ruins.
I sat with the sages and scribes who patiently interpreted the word of God and slowly formed the Oral Law.
I moved among the mountains of Judea with the lionhearted sons of Mattathias.
I saw the miracle of the single cruse of oil that illuminated the Temple of the Lord.
I was with Hillel when he summarized the whole torah in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
I was with Akiba when he inspired a revolution, defied an empire and I wept when he died a martyr.
I wandered with my people into many lands, where the cross and the crescent reigned. I walked with them over all the highways of the world and we spoke in Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Yiddish, Ladino, Farsi, and now English and Hebrew – always Hebrew.
I was with them when they drank out of the bitter chalices of pain humiliation, cruelty and hatred.
I saw them stay sane, in the midst of madness.
I saw them stay civilized in the midst of brutality.
I saw them lighting candles in the midst of darkness.
Then I saw the night lift and the dawn break;
And into a new world, blessed with liberty and freedom, I marched with them exultingly.
I saw the shackles fall from off their limbs,
I saw the radiance of their emancipated minds and hearts.
I saw them enrich every land that gave them opportunity.
I was with them when they landed at Ellis Island
And fell in love with the land that stood for liberty.
Then I saw the night descend again.
I saw them suffer as no people have ever suffered before.
I saw them burned and gassed and tortured.
Then like a Phoenix, I saw them rise again in the old land.
I saw them begin a new life there,
Based on ancient teachings of justice and mercy.
I watched them make the desert bloom.
I was with them in ’48, in the Six Day War
I stood with them when their hard earned state was in danger on Yom Kippur
I trembled with them when every bomb exploded and every bus was attacked
I yearn for the same peace and security they yearn for today.
These are my people
This is my story
Shall I leave them now?
Can I part company with this immortal band whom I love?
They are too dear and too precious to me.
They are bone of my bone,
Flesh of my flesh,
Soul of my soul
They are my people
Their quest is mine
They live within me and I will live within them, forever.
This is my story – I hope and pray it is your story too.
(I was with Abraham,,,Adapted from the writings of Abba Hillel Silver)