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September 25, 2023

Days Are Scrolls, Write on Them What You Want to Be Remembered (Yom Kippur Yizkor 5784)

Sarah Berman

Days Are Scrolls, Write on Them What You Want to Be Remembered
Rabbi Sarah Berman, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5784

“Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”[1]

As the medieval philosopher Bahya ibn Paquda taught, the scrolls of our lives collect our stories, record our journeys, chart the arc of our lives.

Our stories capture our strengths, our achievements, our creativity; also our foibles, our defeats, our challenges. They memorialize friendships, relationships, family ties. And they live on, lasting past body and breath.

We each come here today carrying the stories of our lives, just as we come full of the stories of loved ones whose lives shaped our own: Those of the parent who cared for us when we made it easy for them, and still cared when we made it hard…; those of the teacher who continued to check in with us, years after they had written our last report card…; those of the spouse who ended each day with an “I love you,” even after the hard days….

Remembering them brings us joy, brings us back, brings us to tears. Why are their stories so powerful? Why are our stories so powerful?

Unlike a data set, a history book, or even most obituaries, a story takes us into the heart of a life to reveal the truth about a person, about a family, even about a people. Stories are wholehearted. They are eternal.

For thousands of years, humans have told stories. Psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology prove that we are shaped by the stories we hear and tell.[2] Or, in the words of poet Amanda Gorman, “We tell stories because we are human. But we are also made more human because we tell stories.”[3]

Stories provide us with understanding, inspiration, and identity.[4] They are our instruction manual, as master storyteller Tahir Shah writes, the “passing on a kind of inner knowledge… a kind of baton to be passed from one generation to the next.”[5]

The human instinct to tell stories is powerfully preserved in our Jewish traditions. We are a people built on the stories of Adam and Lillith and Eve, of Esther and Mordechai; of Abraham in his father’s idol shop, and Miriam dancing with the women; of Zusya who knew better than to try to live a life as good as Moses’s, and instead sought to live a life as good as Zusya could manage; and of the three daughters of Rashi, whose wisdom spawned both legends and rabbinic dynasties. Our Jewish tales--from Torah, Midrash, folktales, and history--are “our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.”[6] They reflect our need “to find out who we are.”[7]

Stories help us make sense of what it means to be Jewish, giving us shared identity, history, purpose and values. By listening, we deepen our connections not only to the lessons of our texts, but to one another. These stories give us common touchstones, reminding us that we are one people.

And we never tell our stories just once. Peninnah Schram, the Jewish folklorist, noted that, “Sometimes we have to hear a story many times in order to discover its meaning. We have to live with the story, think about it, dream about it.”[8] When we read the same Torah, Megillah, and Haggadah every year, we hear “The same words, the same trope, yet the stories change as we grow wiser with each hearing and as we ourselves change.”[9]

The memorial service, yizkor, works much the same way. Each year, we are called to remember our loved ones who are gone, invited to tell their stories one more time. And we are changed in the telling.

The year a friend died, we may have called to mind the months or years we went without speaking; but this year we might also think of the closeness we were able to recapture in their final days. The remembering may inspire us to reconnect with other dear ones whom we long to speak with again.

Last year, we might have remembered a sibling’s ache to grow up, their annoying insistence in following us around when they were too young to know they weren’t wanted; but this year we might be able to recall more clearly the wisdom they spoke even in a child’s voice. Perhaps that memory will open us to listen more attentively to other young people, whose thoughts and opinions we haven’t yet heard.

When we remember the annoyances and the insights, the hurt and the reconciliation, we acknowledge contradiction. As Jews, we live the example of the Talmud, which famously preserves the perspectives of Rabbis whose opinions were rejected by their colleagues. Because, as Jews, our duty is to transmit all of our stories. We do not shy away from the contradictions of human experience, nor the complexity of human relationships.

This complexity comes, in part, from each being belonging to a family, a community, and a people. We each came into the world unique, like no one who has ever existed before--but our stories truly began generations before we came into the world. Our stories are our legacies--as we are the legacies of those whose stories we carry. By opening our hearts to them, and to their memories, we become a vessel for something larger than ourselves.[10]

Just like storytelling, mitzvot are another legacy of Jewish identity. Of the 613 mitzvot that our tradition hands down to us, we are told, the final one is an invitation to write your own Torah.

As you write the Torah of your life, whose stories are contained within it?
How did their lives form you and guide you?
How will your life be told in generations to come?

Each of us comes to this day with our own Torah, numbering our days and testifying to our deeds.  We also come with hearts full of the stories of those who shaped us, fought with us, pushed us, loved us.

As the poet Lisel Mueller wrote,
we will begin our story
with the word and[11]

We each add our “and,” joining our stories to those of our families and of our people. Days are scrolls, and we write on them what we want to be remembered, from generation to generation.


[1] Bahya ibn Paquda, Duties of the Heart, Eighth Treatise on Examining the Soul, 3:90
[2] Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, 2009
[3] “The Big Question: Why Do We Tell Stories?” The New York Times, December 8, 2022, Amanda Gorman
[4] Michael Graves, Myths of the Greeks and Romans, 1962/1995, pp. 7-19; Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, 2008, pp. 8-13
[5] Shah, p. 8
[6] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, edited by Betty Sue Flowers, The Power of Myth, 1988, p. 4
[7] Ibid.
[8] Peninnah Schram, Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, 1987, xxi
[9] Ibid.
[10] “The Big Question: Why Do We Tell Stories?” The New York Times, December 8, 2022, Naomi Watanabe: “My story isn’t just made up of my singular life experiences; everyone’s tales blend into mine and become part of my story.”
[11] Lisel Mueller, “Why We Tell Stories,” Poetry magazine, July 1978

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.