Telling Our Story
My first grade teacher Mrs. Kent, used to scare me by announcing sternly to our class: “Behave. If you don’t, it will go on your permanent record.” Did you have a teacher or parent who said that to you?
I believed her. I believed there was a permanent record kept in the principal’s office, and that it followed you all of your life. I imagined that when you applied to college, they opened up this file, and if you misbehaved in the first grade, it would be right there in the permanent record, barring you from higher education and frankly, a future.
We are deep into our election year, and you know our presidential candidates understand that what we do in our lives is part of a permanent record. Every four years there are extensive background checks and secret vetting that goes on for those seeking their party’s nomination; and then later for those being considered as vice-presidents. This year’s v. p. candidates just held their debate last week. As the process for their selection unfolded this summer, I was thinking about this sermon, and I recalled something Dan Quayle said shortly after his nomination. Some of you in this room may remember when Quayle was lifted from obscurity and became his party’s v.p. candidate. There was a press conference, and someone dug up the story about how he had used influence to get into the National Guard instead of going into the army. One of the reporters asked him why he did it. His answer was simple and touching. “If I had known back then that I would be standing here now, I wouldn’t have done it, believe me.” Perhaps we all have moments like that; when we are hit with the reality that there is a permanent record of our lives.
Our un’taneh tokef, a prayer we recite on our holy days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, teaches this inconvenient truth hidden in religion that we try to run away from, namely, that there is a permanent record of our deeds. That prayer says that there are big books God keeps with Him, and in them are written every one of our deeds. Those books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, when God begins to decide our fate; literally, whether during the next year we will live or die; whether it will be a blessed year or a year of struggle.
Many of us dismiss this prayer and its imagery as pediatric religion; a tale made up to scare children into behaving. But, from my heart I’ll tell you that the more stories I hear about people whose funerals I attend, and I hear them from wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, children, and other relatives: the inner circle of humans we touch the most significantly, the more stories I hear, and the more my children grow and mature and enter into relationships and begin to raise children, the more I have come to see the truth of what one of our sages said: life is a book; you better write in it only what you want remembered. So there really is a permanent record.
This truth reveals a lot about your life. Like: you are important; that what you do matters; that you are not some speck of dust floating through the world; some leaf blowing here and there; a meaningless portable, intricate plumbing system. You are a child of God; and what you do impacts the lives of people you touch and is engraved onto their souls. You are a story.
The un’taneh tokef is about the claim that what we do now is not unnoticed, that it gets recorded, and that it has the potential to come back someday to bless or haunt. What we do is written somewhere and felt by others; – by us in quiet, reflective moments, by our families; our co-workers; our friends. When we lose our temper with a child; when we disrespect a parent; when we withhold affirmation from someone who needs it from us; when we ignore the ill; when we are mean to a waitress; there is a record. When you give another human being a smile, a pat on the back, a sincere compliment – the effect can go a long way for a long time in changing that person’s life. This is the message of this very old but still important prayer. What we do does not simply vanish.
I recently officiated at the funeral of a very beloved man whose grown children could hardly stop crying when they began speaking of their father. They sat in my office for almost two hours regaling themselves and me with stories of their extraordinary father. While by today’s standards he did not live to ripe old age, he had a long life that was really well lived. They couldn’t stop telling stories. And then one of the children said: I’m proud to call him my father.
My mind seized on that statement. I thought to myself: someday, God willing many years from now; one of my children will say after I’m gone: I’m proud he was my father. I realized, that’s almost all I really want out of life; that I will have lived a life that at the end of which my children will have stories to tell and they might say: I’m proud he was my dad.
Don’t all of you want the same thing? Even if you don’t have children, don’t you want your family and friends; someone to have stories to tell about you that are uplifting and inspiring?
The two most important places in Judaism are the home and the synagogue. And what are those places if not locations for telling stories and for creating the memories that become the stuff of new stories? We have told the story of the Exodus out of Egypt for a few thousand years, and we add to that the story about the time I invited my elementary school teacher to our Seder at home before my parents knew we were going to have a Seder! We are a storytelling people; and for good reason. The world is kind of crazy right now. It’s a struggle out there. Violence like we cannot believe. Racial tension we haven’t felt since the Rodney King trial – and that’s 8 years since America elected our first African American president. The economy is challenging. Kids are not convinced that a college education is important for success. There are more refugees wandering the face of our globe than the world knows what to do with. The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening and the middle class is disappearing. The Middle East is a tinder box. ISIS is insane and no one knows what to do about it. North Korea for crying out loud is testing nuclear weapons. People are getting shot on our streets. How can we make it in a world like this?
We Jews know something about having the courage to wake up in the morning and get out of bed. We know something about how to make it when times are tough. We know about survival; not just physical survival, but spiritual survival; surviving for a noble purpose. How have we learned that? How did our ancestors get the strength to stick with it?
One way is this: we told our story. During the course of the year and during our holy days we tell stories about our people. And we remember stories about our loved ones during Yizkor four times a year and at their yahrzeits. Friends, all this storytelling and remembering may be a key to our survival.
Recently, there has been a lot of research into the family and how to make families, along with other groups, like our religious communities, work more effectively. According to an article by Bruce Feiler, the NY Times Family columnist, the surprising finding in this research is that “…the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” In other words, tell stories. One researcher had an unexpected opportunity to test this idea after 9/11. She went back to families she had been studying previously. None of them had been directly affected by the attack, but all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. And the study showed, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
Why does knowing about your family help children overcome challenges — from scrapping a knee to dealing with 9/11? The answer is that when telling family stories, not only about an ancient family that lived thousands of years ago, but also about our parents and grandparents, children develop a sense that their family has been around for a while. And from those stories they hear about how those who came before them dealt with circumstances they confronted. Some of the stories are about how the family started out dirt poor and then rose to success and comfort. Some of the stories are about how a family had it all and then lost everything.
Studies have shown that children who have the most self-confidence are the ones who know they belong to something bigger than themselves. As Feiler says at the end of his article: “The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
Allow me to illustrate how our sages understood the power of story-telling: Every year we gather around our tables to share the Passover Seder. It is depressing that our Passover Haggadah, our story book for the Seder, reminds us that in every generation there are people who hate Jews and that seek our destruction. But the fact that year after year we sit around those tables telling the story reminds us that somehow we survived slavery and all the others who’ve sought our destruction. So the story behind the words, “In every generation there arises an enemy who seeks to destroy us,” is that our Jewish family has gone through some tough times. But we hung in there. We stuck together. And we came out ok.
For the last 20 years or so, the Ginsburg side of my family has held reunions every few years. The patriarch of the family is 90 year old Donald Maines. He knew the founding generation of brothers and sisters that settled in St. Paul. Over the years, the family has branched out all over North America. At the last reunion, Cousin Donald took each branch of the family aside. When it was our turn, he asked my brother, sister and me, along with our spouses and children, to join him alone. He sat us down and said, I want to tell you some stories about your mother you don’t know. My mother died when she was quite young, a mere 50 years old. Every story we hear is precious. I don’t know why it took for long for me to hear the story Donald told us that evening. It’s the story about the day my mother stood for the first time after suffering for a year with polio at 9 years old. For a long time her parents had been encouraging her to try to stand and walk. On the very day she managed to struggle out of her wheel chair and get onto her wobbly legs and take her first hesitant steps in a year; on that day her father died. My mother was so distraught. She thought she had done something to upset him. No, she was told, your father prayed every day for you to walk. That was also the day she decided that her father’s name, Cecil, would become her middle name. That’s how I came to have a mother named Helen Cecil. My mother struggled every of day of her life after that to walk as a way to honor the memory of her father. From this story I learned about her persistence and focus and deep love for her father.
One of my father’s stories: I was once a garbage man – one of the many things I did to earn my way through college. Maybe that’s a story my children will someday tell. One day I broke a garbage truck. I don’t know what I did; something about driving it all day with no oil or something like that. Garbage collection was done by the city. Damaging a city vehicle was a big deal; I faced a hearing. That day my father wanted to reassure me everything would be ok. He said, “you know, during the depression, for a while I was driving a dry cleaning truck in Oklahoma. I never knew he drove a truck and never knew he lived in Oklahoma. But it became part of the narrative of his life story; and from all his stories I learned how he struggled through the depression. One of the other jobs he had during those tough years was for a department store in Chicago. His job was to go to the homes of people who were delinquent on their store credit cards. He’d often go to the home at dinner time; figuring it was a safe time to find people. Once he went to a house and asked for two brothers whose names were on a delinquent account. Their mother answered the door, telling my dad that her sons leave the house around dinner time because there wasn’t enough food for everyone. That story helped me understand why my dad was a bleeding heart liberal.
Stories about my parents have taught me about caring; and hope and persistence. My parents made it thru tougher times than I’ve ever faced, so I’ve often relied on their stories to remind me that I can make it through the challenges in my life.
We learn our way through this world by knowing where we came from; knowing our stories. It’s how we become grounded; it’s how we learn our values; what’s important; how we are to live in this world.
Think about the book you’re writing with your life. What stories are you leaving people who know and love you? What do they teach about what’s important to you? Is it the book of stories you wish to leave after you are gone?
Today comes to tell you to keep writing in the book of your life. We may not like the idea that the book of our life is open before God. But today we are reminded that the words written there don’t have to be the end of the story. We can add new stories. We can write new chapters. We can make it a book we’re proud of by dedicating ourselves to teshuvah, to prayer and sincere introspection, and to acts of loving-kindness in our world. That’s how we can write a classic, and open the possibility that when people come to remember us, they can tell stories that speak to our character, to what we valued, who we loved, how we lived during the time we were privileged to draw breath. May we realize that it is a blessing that life is like a book, for we can leave a book of memories that will bless and comfort those who know some of our stories long after we are gone.