Delivered on Rosh Hashanah Morning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, the Baal Shem-Tov, would go to a certain part of a certain forest to meditate, when he saw a threat of misfortune for the people. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune was averted.
Later, when his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, also faced a threat, he too wished to intercede with heaven. So he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still a generation later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save the people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then, in the next generation, it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
Elie Wiesel, in his telling of this story, adds a profound postscript: God made man because he loves stories.
Despite the gender-non-neutrality of the statement, it is a brilliant comment. In fact, because of the non-neutral, “he,” which could be modifying either God or man. Its ambiguity offers 2 equally true concepts, that God loves stories and that we love stories.
On the one hand, he offers this idea that God loves stories and so created humans so that we will provide them through our living.
Dr Stephen Crites, the late religious scholar and teacher of moral science, wrote in an article titled, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” that “the formal quality of experience through time is inherently narrative.” The idea that humanity exists in order to live and so tell the story of humanity is compelling. That there is a sense of cosmic joy because of by simply living, we become a story. We are the story of the universe.
And, on the other hand, this equally compelling idea: that God created humans because of our own love for stories. And, truly, we love stories. I saw how you all sat up a little straighter, moved forward in your seats, cocked your heads up slightly at the words, “once upon a time.” Those words mean that there is a story coming. And we, naturally, want to hear it. It is a vital aspect of human nature—this desire to hear stories and to tell them. And, truly, people are the only ones who can tell stories. Perhaps, because of that, God created us—and, perhaps, the ability to tell and retell and enjoy stories is not just a human desire, but is our purpose. Our mandate.
It is not only what we always have done, but also what we must do. And perhaps the joy of stories, the love of stories, between God and humanity is symbiotic. The universe maybe needs stories as much as we do.
We need stories because they teach us. They inform us. They provide a lens through which to see and understand the world—and a way through which we can offer new ideas to others. They have real power for us and whether they are factual or not, they possess a reality that is beyond fact. Whether or not they accurately describe something that happened—they contain their own truth. In some way, all stories are true. Even the ones born by another’s imagination.
Driving this summer in my move from San Antonio, TX to Wilmington, Delaware, I certainly found myself in need of stories to fill the endless hours in the car. Upon the recommendation of several friends, I found myself listening to “Welcome to Night Vale,” a quirky, independent podcast, which tells the story of the town of Night Vale, somewhere in America, through a fictional community radio broadcast. The town of Night Vale is somewhat akin to Lake Wobegon from Prairie Home Companion meets Sisely, Alaska from Northern Exposure meets Twin Peaks with a dose of the X-Files thrown in. During my drive, part way through Arkansas, I became hooked and listened to the whole thing—the podcast is interesting and entertaining and thought provoking—it is good story telling.
Sermon inspiration, by the way, sometimes comes at unexpected moments and from unlikely sources, as was the case when I listened to a recent episode of the podcast, which articulated this idea of the power of stories and our need for them. Cecil, the narrator of the show, comments:
Before everything, before even humans, there were stories. A creature at a fire conjuring a world with nothing but its voice and a listener’s imagination. And now, me, and thousands like me, in little booths and rooms and mics and screens all over the world, doing the same for a family of listeners, connected as all families are, primarily by the stories we tell each other.
And after, after fire, and death, or whatever happens next, after the wiping clean or the gradual decay, after the after…when there are only a few creatures left, there will be one at a fire, telling a story to what family it has left. It was the first thing, and it will be the last.
Stay tuned next for more stories being told to you all of the time – whether you are aware of them or not. And from whatever fiction it is that we happen to be living together tonight, goodnight.
Life is full of stories—whether we recognize them or not. They are all around us and we take them in. And we share them. And we tell them. And they become truths that belong to all of us.
And stories exist in a timeless, almost eternal way. I remember when my high school English teacher taught us that we should always write about fiction in the present tense—because in reality, all parts of of a work of fiction exist as present. We cannot say that a character died—because if we start the story over at the beginning, that character is still alive. Stories exist outside of time, and yet are a vital part of the fabric of our own time. Each story we hear helps to create each moment of our own lives.
And whether or not we are aware that our own, individual stories are a piece of the of the universal tale that is told, we constantly come across the stories of others, even as we tell our own. And even when the stories of others become our own. Even when stories are shared by a group—passed on from generation to generation—so that even if we weren’t there, it’s almost as if it has become part of our own memory. The story becomes ours.
And even if we can’t remember the place in the forest, we still tell the story—generations later. And the real power exists not in the forest, or the fire, or the prayer—but in the story itself. And that story becomes part of who we are, as we constantly write and rewrite the Book of Life.
These High Holy Days give us the chance to consider those stories—and how we will write the next chapters. “Days are like scrolls, write on them only what you want remembered,” wrote Bachya ibn Pakuda in the 11th century. And while scrolls have become pages have become screens—the essence of this idea remains true and relevant, that each day we live, we tell our story. And that story unfolds throughout our lives—sometimes with unexpected plot twists, but always with the opportunity to ourselves change the narrative.
As Rabbi Laura Geller writes:
Our book of life doesn’t begin today. It began when you were born. Some of the chapters were written by other people: your parents, siblings and teachers. But the message of Rosh Hashana is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day – by the choices you make. The book is not written and sealed, you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to emphasize and remember, and maybe even which parts you want to leave behind. Shana Tova means a good year and a good change. Today you can change your life. It is never too late.
Indeed, we can change our lives, change our stories. And we can change the way we hear stories.
Sometimes, that change is possible because of a new lens through which we come to view a story that once seemed familiar. Just like reading a beloved childhood book as a teenager or an adult gives an entirely new understanding of it (for better or for worse), the same is true of life. Experience filters the stories we hear. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us the opportunity to consider that lens.
Rabbi Alan Lew of sacred memory tells a story of hiking with his son, in which a storm suddenly came, causing them to take shelter from the rain in a shack. While the rabbi looked out the window at the view outside, his son looked at the window itself, and all the life forms that were crawling around there. He compares this to the act of Teshuva, of turning within to create change within ourselves: “…It is a shifting of our gaze from the world itself to the window through which we see it, because that window, the screen of consciousness, is not just a blank, transparent medium. Rather it is a world unto itself, a world teeming with life, and that life affects what we see.”
The window of our minds determines how we hear stories—what we take from them and learn from them.
And this is equally true for the stories that we tell ourselves. Sometimes, we need to change the negatives scripts that run through our minds, or reframe truths that we once believed.
We need to continually reframe the stories we hear—to examine not just the view, but the window. To refocus the stories that we hear from others and also that exist for us alone, the ones we tell ourselves—the stories of our minds. And, perhaps, to come to change the way we retell them, to others and especially to ourselves.
And this idea, by the way, exists in a real way. Memories are essentially stories. In a recent study, scientists at Northwestern University demonstrated that our memories have a life of their own. We have long informally known that human memory is notoriously fallible—but what these scientists demonstrated is that when we remember something from our past, we are actually remembering the memory—not the event itself. So that those events that we have remembered the most, are actually the memories that have been shaped by our present experience and the way that we have recalled the past. Our brain edits and reframes our memories in order to fit into our current reality each time we recall them. The more we tell a story, the more true it becomes.
And so, during this High Holy Day season, may we become more aware of this power we possess—the power to tell stories that shape reality—for ourselves and for those around us. Let us consider: What is the story that we want to tell, in order to make change within ourselves and in order to influence the change we wish to see in this world.
Once upon a time, Moses told the Israelites a story—it was the story of freedom. His story helped them to envision a reality that was different from the only one they knew. It was with this story that Moses was able to part the waters of the Sea of Reeds, and inspire the people to move forward—to march into freedom.
Moses told the people this story and inspired them—they passed it on to their children and on and on through the generations. The story of having been strangers, that calls us to create better lives for all people.
Once upon a time, a couple got married. When one spouse died in a different state, the other wanted to be recognized as the legal spouse on the death certificate—so that the story of public record matched the story of reality. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for couples to get married, regardless of gender. The story of equality.
Once upon a time, a few dozen rabbis raised $1,132,959 for childhood cancer research. We did that because of a powerful story. And while shaving our heads was an interesting sub-plot, what truly made our accomplishment possible was the story of a little boy with cancer, and his parents that told their family’s story not just to their friends and colleagues, but also to the world. Inspiring so many of us, and inspiring so many others to support us. The story of a future of superheroes who win in the end.
Once upon a time, and still today, we hear stories, too many stories, that tell us that there is so much change that must happen in this world. Stories of people. Stories of Syrian refugees, who just want to find a place to live and be safe. Stories of a teenager in Israel being killed because she was supporting her friends. Stories of a Palestinian family burned in their home. Stories of women gathering defiantly to pray at the kotel, despite being threatened and even arrested. Stories of anti-Semitic graffiti being painted on synagogues in San Antonio, and of the community that rallied around them. Stories of black youth being targeted for walking through a neighborhood or attending a pool party. Or of a black woman dying in a jail cell after being pulled over for failure to use a turn signal. Stories that must inspire us. The stories of a world yet to be repaired.
Once upon a time, right now, we hear the story of the journey for justice, organized by the NAACP and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism—a march from Selma to Washington this summer. Hundreds of rabbis have been carrying a Torah, on each step of the trip, remembering the stories told by the photos and the legacies and the stories of those who came before: Abraham Joshua Heschel walking beside Martin Luther King, as if his legs were praying; Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then President of the Reform Movement, a man described by Social Justice leader Al Vorspan as, “…a disturber of sleep who brought discomfort to the comfortable,” who stood with King at a demonstration at Arlington National Cemetery, and himself carried a Torah; the 15 rabbis who spent the night in jail with King in St Augustine, FL for praying in an integrated group and sitting down at a table at a restaurant, who went because, as they themselves wrote, “They could not stay away.” Stories of Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner….so many stories.
Those who are marching this summer have heard these stories and told them and retold them and have strived to out these ideals themselves.
Members of both groups have been educating and sharing wisdom and learning from and inspiring each other—with stories. The stories of history and hope.
Once upon a time, just a few days ago, we heard the story of Middle Passage, a disabled veteran who joined this Journey of Justice from the very beginning and carried an American flag, determined to march the entire way from Selma to Washington. We heard how he took that name for himself to remember the route by which his forefathers were brought to this country. And even though only connected through hearing about him, so many of us have been truly saddened to hear that he died of a heart attack after 922 miles. Perhaps our collective sadness is a tribute to the power of stories—and his story has only strengthened the collective resolve to finish the journey. The story of determination.
On Wednesday, Rabbi Robinson and I will join in the final steps of this march. Some of our teen leaders will be joining us, and I hope others of you will consider joining us, as well. As we take a final step for justice and use the stories we’ve heard in order to create stories of our own. The stories of trying to see ourselves as if we, too, were strangers in Egypt and marched towards freedom.
Because that’s what we do: we create stories. And we tell stories.
Once upon a time, Moses freed the slaves through tales of freedom. And once upon a time from generation to generation, we’ve told and retold that story so that we can continue to inspire more freedom in this world. And maybe, once upon a time in the future, we’ll know a world where no one is treated as the stranger. In the meantime, we’ll tell the stories that can help to bring us there.
That’s the power of stories. And that’s the responsibility of having heard them.
And so I invite you. Consider the stories that you want to tell. Consider their power and how you want to use them. Consider the stories that are in your own mind that you want to change. Consider the stories you want to tell through your life. And consider how you will tell them. And how you will hear new stories. And how the story of the world will unfold.
Once upon a time, we heard a story. And it inspired us to do something, and that inspired us to do something else, and somewhere along the way, we gained a new story. And then we started to tell and retell it. And it was sufficient.
As we enter this new year: may your life be holy, may your stories be sacred, and may you tell and retell your story, even as you rewrite it. And may we remember that it is by not just telling our stories, but by living them and retelling them, that they begin to become reality. And that it is by telling stories, that we are able to create selves that are better, and a world that is better.
And, through that, may we all live happily ever after.
 I did not end up using this paragraph in the spoken version of the sermon, but am keeping it in the printed text.