Ari S. Lorge | September 5, 2013
I’m reminded as I’m standing here that my grandfather used to say it wasn’t a real High Holiday sermon unless it was at least 27 or 28 minutes. I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint him in this way today but we can all be thankful.
As Rabbi Salth said in the review of the year, we just observed the 50th anniversary of the pinnacle of the civil-rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. On that momentous occasion, Dr. King delivered the iconic “I have a Dream” speech.
And my grandfather was there… sort of. He was a rabbi in the Chicago area at the time and because of his local and national involvements in the civil-rights movement, he was invited to be part of an official delegation to the march.
But he did not end up hearing the famous speech up close where his reserved spot was located. This is the story as it was told to me.
My Grandfather was moving through the Washington Mall with others from the Chicago delegation. He characteristically ran on Jewish time, so it wasn’t so surprising that he was running late. But the group was in a hurry to get to their assigned area, when suddenly they came across an elderly man who had fallen, hurt his head, and needed medical attention.
Without hesitation, my grandfather stopped to look after him. Those in his contingent pleaded with him: “Come on, we need to hurry along, Rabbi Lorge, we need to get to our spot. Someone else will attend to him.” My grandfather looked at the group, and told them, “Go ahead; I’m going to stay here.” In the end, he heard King’s triumphant speech from the back of the crowd, holding the head of the injured man waiting for paramedics on the sidewalk of the National Mall.
This is a story I have heard many times. As a kid I used to roll my eyes when my relatives would tell and retell the same stories. But eventually, these stories became a part of me. I internalized them. Over time, I discovered that these stories are critically important as I walk through life.
This story did not become a part of me because it was about the famous March on Washington. It became a part of me because my grandfather focused on a person, and not an event. Telling that story, I feel challenged and comforted. Challenged to remember that as I go through my days, people are what matter. But comforted knowing that my grandfather’s example provides direction for my own life.
You see, I have little recollection of my grandfather; he passed away when I was four. Yet, my family’s stories allow me feel close to him. Through stories he’s able to teach me how to live. I know that I am not alone, that I belong to a story that began before me and will continue on after me. A man I really never knew, yet a constant presence in my life. That is the power of stories. I know that some of you have similar ones.
As we anchor ourselves in stories, as we internalize them, as we make them a part of us, they will provide us with direction and purpose should we feel lost, a sense of belonging should we feel alone, and strength when we face change, trauma, or insecurity.
You do not have to take my word for it. Emerging research has determined that one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and those we love is tell our stories. This conclusion is based on studies done in a variety of fields, but one of the central studies actually focused on children.
Psychologists interviewed a variety of children in order to determine what they referred to as the “Do you know?” scale. They asked children questions like, “Do you know where your grandparents were reared, do you know where they went to school, do you know how your parents met?” When this data was compared to psychological tests the same children had taken, there was a clear conclusion.
The more children knew about their family’s story, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the more they felt like they belonged to something greater than themselves, and the higher their self-esteem.
Another study was conducted after September 11. Similarly, children who knew their family’s story were more resilient in the face of tragedy and trauma. So knowing that stories have the power to help us feel less alone, to find direction, and to face challenge, I would argue that young and old alike, all of us, need these types of stories, and we need them more than ever.
In our day, we are less likely to live near our families. We are more likely to move several times before settling down, that is, if we settle down. We are more transient, we live more solitary lives, and we define ourselves increasingly by what we do instead of who we are.
More than ever we need what one article in the New York Times called “stories that bind us.” If we work at it, our lives can be enriched by a family story, a communal story, and the story of the Jewish people.
The most personal level of story that we can develop is a family story. Families all look different. For some of us, when we speak of family, we think of our multigenerational family, for others our family may be made up of those to whom we are not related by blood.
Regardless of whom our family includes, having a strong sense of our family story makes us feel like we are the most recent characters in an enfolding narrative: that there were those who came before us, that there are those who surround us. Their lives impact ours even if there are generations between us, even if there are continents dividing us. It’s what allows us to hear our parents’ voices in our ears guiding us and giving us direction—perhaps saying, “I wouldn’t do that;” perhaps saying, “I’m proud of you.” It’s what allows us to feel our closest friend’s embrace if we are not there to receive it in person. It’s what allows us to see our grandmother’s smile every time we smell her chicken soup recipe on the stove. It’s what allows us to know that if our great-great-great-grandmother or -grandfather was able to overcome their difficulties, their trials, their traumas, we can as well.
So what can we do to anchor ourselves in a family story? We can tell our stories and we can seek out stories we do not know. Let’s ask ourselves where we would fall on the do-you-know scale. Do you know where your parents met? Do you know how your ancestors came to America? Do you know about a challenge your family faced and overcame?
These need not be big presentations or large tomes of family history written up. My parents relished telling these stories as my sisters and I were strapped into a minivan, completely helpless. We couldn’t do anything but listen. We can tell our stories on the way to the store, around the breakfast table, or in a few days the break-fast table.
So in the coming year, let us become story-tellers.
A communal story is the second level of narrative that can provide us with direction, help us when we feel alone, and give us strength. Now, we sit here as Central Synagogue. Can you tell our story? I joined this community in July, and I’ve asked many of you to share stories with me about your connection to Central. And several of you have offered up our community’s narrative, our community’s story.
Lest you say I do not practice what I preach, let me share with you the story that you’ve all taught me since I began. It’s the story to which I turn when I’m looking for a sense of belonging, far from my family and the place I once called home.
Central Synagogue, as many of you know, is the product of two congregations merging. And when we built our Sanctuary, it was the tallest building for blocks. Not only was it tall, but it had the capacity to seat hundreds more people than were on the congregational roster at the time. We believed the community would grow and that one day we would fill those pews. Clearly, today we could not possibly sit comfortably in that building. We are a community that builds for the future and imagines the impossible. Sure, our building is no longer be the tallest in the neighborhood, but as the city has changed, we have remained a constant presence. Some things may come and go, but Central Synagogue still stands proudly at 55th and Lexington.
And yet, our story is not all ups. You’ve told me about the fire, about the rebuilding, about rallying together. We learned in those challenging days that we are not just a building. We learned Central Synagogue is a community of people, not simply a landmark. We’ve marked moments of national tragedy, we have stood together in moments of terror, and we have put our arms around each other in celebration. No matter what has happened we have found strength in one other.
In the year ahead we will need our communal story. Few of my conversations since I’ve joined the congregation have been without some remark about change in the year ahead. We must keep our story in our minds; we must continue to tell it. Yes, we know that on the horizon are change and transition, and perhaps uncertainty. Yet we know who we are, we know from where we have come, we know for what we stand. And because of that, we also know where we wish to go. We know our story, and if we hold it within us the future is bright.
The great Jewish story is the third and final narrative that can fortify us as we walk through life. If we internalize our Jewish stories, we can look to them when we feel alone. They help us remember that we are but the newest characters in a story that goes back to the beginning of recorded history. Every Jew who has come before us stands with us, and we can hear their voices in the stories that we continue to tell. We have but to seek them out.
If we internalize our Jewish stories, we can find strength to face challenge, change, and hardship. After all, the story of the Jewish people has its share of challenge and tragedy: slavery, exile, persecution—we Jews have known adversity. We have come together as a people and overcome, often against unbelievable odds. And if we feel a part of that story, we know that we have the power to do so personally as well.
If we internalize our Jewish stories, they can help us find our purpose, for it is the purpose of every Jew. Our sacred obligation is nothing less than to find a way to make this world a better place than when we entered it. This is the great task of the Jewish people, and when we feel a part of that story, we know that it is our task as well.
So let us seek out and tell our people’s story. Where can we find them? Places both expected and unexpected. Seek them in the Torah, in the fullness of the Tanach, and in the Talmud. Read of them in our people’s histories, both ancient and modern. Find them in our folklore. Hear them in our music. Taste them in our recipes. There is no end to Jewish stories. As one scholar has said, “We Jews are a storytelling people.” There are stories for all. No matter what part of our rich tradition speaks to you, you will find a Jewish story—you can become a Jewish story-teller.
One thing you may not know about me is that I love music. Growing up, there was always some song playing in my home. My parents loved folk music so I grew up surrounded by the genre. My Mom is as a particular fan of Joni Mitchell so she holds a special place in my heart. Mitchell once sang, “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling… searching for something—what can it be?”
In this lyric, she gives voice to one option for conceiving of our lives. We walk alone, on a road that is not shared, without any sense of where we are going or why we’re even traveling. None of us is immune to moments where we may feel this keenly. Many of us, at some time, feel isolated, on our own, without purpose and without direction.
And yet, when we tell our stories and feel a part of them, when they live in our kishkes, in our guts, we are presented with a second option for conceiving of our lives, one that ultimately can overpower and overcome the first. And Carole King gave voice to it in her song: “When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand and nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there.”
Rooted in the stories of our family, our community, and our people, the road we travel need not be lonely. We can close our eyes and look to our stories. Then we remember that we are surrounded by fellow travelers on this journey of life, those who live in our day, and those who are long gone. Steeped in our stories, we need not feel lost as we travel, for they guide us toward purposeful living.
One of our congregation’s touchstone texts is a quote from Pirkei Avot—many of you may have seen it. We translate it as, “Know from where you have come in order to know what your legacy will be.” This is our first charge today. If we hold our stories within us, if we know from where we have come, we will find the confidence and sense of purpose to set a course for our future. We must go out to both seek and tell our stories.
But we have a second charge this day. As we begin a new year, let us remember that one day, our lives will be the stories to which a future generation looks for guidance. As we move into the coming year, let us ask ourselves: what will our lives teach that generation of Jews? How will our decisions guide the community and congregation to come? What stories will we leave for our family?
Our tradition teaches that our days are like scrolls. We must write on them what we want to be remembered. May the stories we author in the coming year be like seeds of goodness and greatness that sprout forth on some distant day and inspire a future generation.
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