September 1, 2010
Stories bring a life full circle
Elie Wiesel often recounts the tale of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, who needed a miracle. His predecessors had gone to a particular spot in the forest, lit a special candle, said a certain blessing and were able to evoke a miracle. Throughout the generations, much had been lost. Now the poor rabbi no longer knew where in the forest one should pray, no longer possessed the special candle, did not even know the secret blessing. What he knew was the story. Dear God, he prayed, the story must be sufficient. And it was.
We are born through stories. The Torah is a tale. Each human life is a selection of anecdotes and incidents that together weave a story. If I ask about you, you cannot possibly tell me everything. Your choices will reflect the story you wish to tell. And the story will enable me to understand who you are.
Why do we tell stories? They make sense of our lives. They carry us on a current of enchantment. They remind us of other possibilities: lives we could have lived, lands unseen, miracles that might yet come to pass. Others, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, tell stories to put people to sleep, but I tell my stories to wake people up.
In telling your story you realize for the first time how many twists and bends and possibilities are in each tale. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God speaks slowly in our lives, a syllable at a time, and only when we reach old age can we read the sentence backward. That is the sentiment of the storyteller. You cannot know the tale in its entirety until the end.
In each generation, there is a hunger for our own stories and for the story that preceded ours. Sometimes the story is simple: the sudden, evocative flash of seeing a child gesture with his thumb and forefinger the way you remember from your grandfather. The story has now looped around and touches its own tail. Memories are part of the child’s story.
When we see that child’s gesture, we realize that the past is recast in light of our own lives. When my grandfather acted and sang in vaudeville, he could not know that his son and grandsons would be rabbis. But somehow it puts his performance in a different light; he is now not only the performer he was in his life, but the forebear of rabbis. What went before is changed by our choices. The tale moves not only forward to the future, but also back into the past.
Judaism is a portable culture. We did not expend our energy on great cathedrals; we might be gone in the next month, or year. Instead we conjured vast story-structures. For thousands of years, we walked up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac, gleaned in the fields with Ruth, saw Hillel stand on one foot, watched the boats leave Spain in exile. These stories were ours. And we added to them with the stories of our own lives.
When a child lies in bed and says “Daddy, tell me a story,” she is beginning the process that will culminate one day in a funeral: “Rabbi, this is the story of my mother’s life.”
Tell your story. In its lines will be the people you remember, incidents that would otherwise be forgotten. The story is the summing up. In the eyes of those who have not heard it, you will see that Rabbi Moshe Leib was right. The story is sufficient; it will work the miracle.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.