Maurice A. Salth | September 19, 2009
Some of the best years of my life were spent living in Denver, Colorado; long before I ever considered becoming a rabbi.
I did have an active Jewish life there and I especially enjoyed having friends at my home for Shabbat dinner. Now in Denver, a good challah bread was hard to find. I eventually found one at my local bagel place. Interestingly it was named “Moe’s Broadway Bagels”. Moe’s was known for its bagels and employees with attitude. One Friday afternoon I stopped by to pick up my order of two challahs for my upcoming Shabbat dinner. I told the clerk my name and he looked under the counter and said “Yo Mo, there’s nothing reserved for you.” “No problem,” I told him, “I’ll buy them off the shelf.” He looked at me and said, “Sorry dude, sold out.” I tried to remain calm.
Just then, another employee called out from the back and walked up to me with a paper bag containing two challahs, “This must be you,” he mumbled, and handed me the bag. I looked and on it was written this: “Some Guy.”
Yes, the bag read, some guy. I wasn’t pleased with this title: some guy. To that clerk, some guy seemed to be a yutz, a schmo, an insignificant person. I do admit that at times I have seen myself as some guy, but the some guy or some gal perspective does not resonate with our tradition’s view of who we are. To the contrary, the Torah describes each of us as being created, btzelem Elohim , in the image of God. No one is just some guy or some gal and every New Year we should stop to remember and reflect on our own uniqueness as we examine our lives and our history.
The best way to claim our distinctiveness is to tell our own stories. In fact we are supposed to do it, it is considered a great mitzvah. Sharing and listening to stories is quintessentially Jewish. We know our most precious treasure is a book of stories, the five books of Moses, our Torah. This season reminds us to listen carefully to our personal and to our tradition’s stories. They connect us, instruct us on how to live, and remind us how valuable we truly are.
Stories are bridges that connect our hearts to one another.
In preparation for the upcoming year of programs here at Central, I recently gathered with a dozen congregational volunteers around a table in the Pavilion room. Our agenda of tasks was long, but I started by asking them each to share aloud something of which they were proud. At first they were silent. They gave me that ‘what do you think you are doing rabbi?’ look. You know that look. But one by one, haltingly, their remarkable stories flowed. Anne told of a recent reunion with a number of her previous kindergarten students, she had been their teacher 45 years ago, Marilyn astonished all of us when she explained why she once was on the cover of People magazine, and Stan talked about his first place finish in his inaugural swim race. Our stories connected us. They reenergized our relationships. This group was no ordinary gathering of guys and gals. And Central Synagogue is no ordinary congregation.
Since joining the Central Synagogue family, the story I have heard most often is the account of the fire. Just 11 years ago, three weeks before the new Jewish year, fire devastated our beautiful and historic sanctuary. Some predicted our members would depart to other synagogues. Instead, that Rosh HaShanah our community, four thousand strong, transformed the Armory at Park Avenue and 66th Street into one of the most spiritual places on earth.
Two weeks ago I went to the Armory. After hearing all these stories, I had to see it for myself. I walked in. It was cavernous; a large rectangular room with drab green cinder block walls and splintered wooden floors that ran the length of a city block. I said to myself: “This is the Armory?” Yet for three years, while our sanctuary was being repaired, Central’s members converted this raw space into an astonishing place. As one longtime member said, “In restoring the synagogue to its original grandeur, we discovered something beautiful about ourselves. ” We didn’t just survive, we thrived.
And this story, our story, continues to be retold as the next chapter of our synagogue is written. Even if you are like me, a new member of the Central Synagogue family, the story of the fire and our congregation’s resilience and renaissance is now a part of us. The account of the fire reminds us that we are a synagogue comprised of remarkable people, not bricks and mortar. We are a community committed to each other and to the tenets of our faith.
Yes stories are bridges that connect our emotional guts, our kishkes, and that is why every New Year we need to speak of them.
Stories not only connect us, they also instruct us. When we listen to ourselves and to each other we learn what is most important in life.
Virginia Hill recently shared stories of her father with her daughter. Virginia’s childhood in North Dakota coincided with the tough economic times of the 1930s.
Virginia told her daughter: “Dad was a quiet man. He loved his kids but wasn’t always sure how to interact with me and my sister. He seemed to be more comfortable playing catch with our brother. One day we were helping dad with chores outside the house and this old car drove up, and a man got out and called dad by name. ‘Mr. Hill, someone in town told me that you might help feed my family.’
He was a young fellow with a wife and two small sons in the car. He explained that he was an engineer and that he had just graduated from the University of Minnesota. He said that if he could get to Fort Peck, Montana by the next day, he would have a job. Fort Peck was 248 miles away. Dad owned the local pharmacy and knew everyone in town. He took this family to a restaurant and had them fed.
His friend, who owned the Ford dealership, filled the car with gas and put on a spare tire. Dad gave this man a sack filled with food and five dollars. The young man insisted on giving dad a watch he had received from his father on his graduation day. He wouldn’t leave until dad took it. Dad kept the watch on his night stand. He never wore it, but every Sunday he would wind it for the week ahead.
Twenty five years later I happened to be in my folks’ home. My brother, who worked in the pharmacy, called and said ‘somebody just came in and asked for dad, so I sent him to the house.’ The doorbell rang and standing there on our front porch was a man in his late forties with two tall young men with him.
He said to dad, ‘You may not remember me Mr. Hill. I’m the fellow that you helped to get to Ft. Peck.’ Dad looked at my mother and said ‘Florence – the watch.’ And mom took the watch off my dad’s nightstand and returned it to the man; the same watch his father had given to him when he graduated university. It was still ticking.
This man never expected to see it again. He had returned because he wanted his kids to meet my dad.
That is the type of man dad was. He gave me my feeling of self-worth. He gave me a feeling of history and where I belong. Whenever I am asked to help someone, I think of what dad did for the man from Fort Peck. ”
Virginia’s dad wasn’t perfect. And her relationship with him was complicated, like many of our relationships with people in our family. Yet, retelling stories about him to her daughter reminds her of the life lessons she learned from him: integrity, kindness, and the responsibility to help others when we can.
We Jews also know how important it is to share our collective tales alongside our individual stories. As a people we are passionate about telling stories from our Torah.
Every year we listen to the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. As a test, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. Inexplicably, Abraham agrees to the gruesome charge. The Torah describes Abraham and Isaac’s long, quiet march up Mount Moriah and how Abraham ties young Isaac to a rock. Abraham lifts his knife above his son’s head and is stopped only at the last moment. It is for me, one of the most troubling stories in our Torah. Just what is going on here, and why do we retell this story?
There is no consensus on the answer to this question, but for me, this story, like many in Genesis, is meant to guard us from behaving like those in this horrid tale. It is meant to turn our stomachs. Our tradition does not shy away from presenting us at our worst. If Abraham, our patriarch, could lose sight of what was most important in life, so can we. If Abraham could be so blinded by other priorities besides his family, so can we. If God could err by creating a test that is so awful, we, made in the image of God, could make a similar mistake. We tell this story at Rosh HaShanah as a warning of what can happen when we forget who we are and how we should behave.
As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches, “The stories of the Torah tell not only of what happened long ago, but also what happens in each generation. They are true not because they happened but because they happen .” Our tradition asks us to prioritize our loved ones, avoid distractions and live righteously. It is a model meant for individuals and communities alike.
In addition to connecting and teaching us, our stories mark each person’s uniqueness.
I want to show you this small, very special Torah. Last winter one of our 7th graders, Caroline Kuritzkes, became bat mitzvah. She read Torah from this scroll and she described how it had endured many decades of anti-Semitism in Europe, first escaping with her great, great grandfather Abraham from pogroms in Kiev and then again with her great grandfather David when he fled Nazi Germany after Kristalnacht.
Having become a student of her own history, Caroline shared these words with our congregation that Shabbat morning, “This Torah has brought all of us together and has united the Kuritzkes family across the generations.” She added that the Torah “is a reminder of what our family and Jews all over the world have endured with great courage. It is significant not only to my family history but also to Jewish history, and with it we will always keep traditions alive.”
One of our elders, Elie Wiesel, has said that it is the sharing and listening of our stories that protects the Jewish people. They guard us from slipping into the mindset that we are just some guy.
Yes, our narratives actually protect us by teaching us where we come from. They help us to see our link in the chain of time.
This past January, the matriarch of my family, my beautiful great-aunt Lillian, died. Lillian was four feet seven inches tall, but was a giant to all who knew her. She ate only the healthiest of meals and swam twice a day into her nineties. Once a forty-inch standard television secured six feet in the air by a TV stand in her building’s common room loosened and fell directly atop my tiny aunt. She walked away with only a few scratches. The television was not as lucky. It never had a chance against Lillian. It was totaled.
She had a very big heart and was the keeper of our family lore. In October of 1920, when she was five, her four siblings, mother and grandmother left Poland for the United States. Lillian used to tell me of the chickens that roamed the homes of their shtetl, and how her siblings and mother wrestled my then 16-year-old pigtailed grandmother from soldiers on the family’s journey to the ship that took them to America.
Lillian called me “dahling.” Well, she called everyone “dahling,” and she protected me with her love, her stories, and her boundless passion for family and life.
Every September she would be the first person I would call to wish a happy New Year.
“Thank you dahling, I love you,” she’d reply.
I miss her and find it hard to talk about her because I am still grieving and trying to figure out what it means to be here at Rosh HaShanah without her, and what it means that our family’s history now resides with me and my generation.
Telling such stories can be hard. When we talk about loved ones, our struggles, and even our triumphs we feel vulnerable, sometimes even heartbroken. All too often we lock our tales tightly in vaults so even we cannot access them. On Rosh HaShanah we are called upon to open up our internal safes and tell those stories. Though it may be painful, our tradition asks us to reconnect with the tales that have defined our character, our humanity, and our history. This is why the telling of our stories is one of the few mitzvot, one of the few commandments, to be called a mitzvah g’dolah, a great mitzvah.
Storytelling and listening has, for many of us, fallen to the bottom of our lists of things to do. Partly because of the emotion connected to our stories, and in part, because we are busy people with Blackberries, families, friends, jobs and task after task to complete. Some of you may be like me, lulled into the trap of thinking I am listening to important stories of others because every week I am engrossed by drama on “The Amazing Race”, the daily gossip on the “Today Show” or the latest happenings of my favorite sports teams.
Now, there is nothing wrong with being a fan of these shows or our teams, but there is a problem if the false intimacy that they can provide replaces our stories and the stories of others in our lives.
Can we find the time, the courage, and the patience, to be adding our own stories to that of Jon and Kate and the remaining contestants on “American Idol”?
Can we make time this Rosh HaShanah, and throughout the year, to listen to the stories of ourselves, our family and friends?
I believe we can.
This New Year let us remind each other that we are much more than some gal or some guy, we are each special and unique to our world. Join me in taking more time to ask people questions that return us to our stories such as:
What was one of the happiest moments of your life?
What songs did your mom or dad sing to you when you were young; and can you sing them to me?
And what are you proud of?
When you leave the sanctuary tonight please pick up this page of additional suggestions of thoughtful questions we can raise this New Year and when you get home visit our Web site for more ideas on how we can share our stories.
We are a sacred community. Our stories matter.
They connect us, teach us, they protect us, and remind us of our value.
This New Year it is time. Time to embrace this great mitzvah
Let us reclaim our legacy of sharing our stories anew.
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