If you have had a child become a bar or bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai in the last two years, or if you will have a child reach that milestone in the next year or so, you know that I like to meet with the family of upcoming b’nei mitzvah about a year before the service to talk about the process of preparation.
At that meeting, which is often in the family’s home, I like to start the conversation with a question. I ask the parents about their memories of their own coming-of-age. For parents who were themselves b’nei mitzvah as thirteen-year-olds, I ask about their experiences on that special day. I also ask parents who did not celebrate becoming b’nei mitzvah, for whatever reason, about their coming-of-age experiences. They, too, tell me about their first communions, confirmations, quinceañeras, or other rituals marking their transition from childhood to adulthood.
I ask all of these parents, “What did it mean to you at the time?” “What are your lasting memories from that occasion?” “What does it mean to you now?” I want them to tell me their story. More importantly, I want their children who are about to become b’nei mitzvah themselves, to hear the story and the meaning their parents give to that story as they begin the process of creating their own story about what it means to grow up, what it means to be a Jew, and what it means to make a commitment to something larger than themselves.
On many occasions – I would say about half of the time – after the parents tell their coming-of-age stories, the child tells me that he or she had never heard the story before. I almost always notice that the child seems less anxious and more interested in talking about their own bar or bat mitzvah service after hearing about the parents’ experience. I can almost see the gears turning in the twelve-year-olds head, saying, “My mom and dad have been through this. They seem to be calm about it. They remember good stuff about it. I can have a good experience, too.” I find that those stories do more to prepare the child than anything I can say.
Stories do that for us. They help us connect with other people and with ourselves. Storytelling is the way that we human beings make sense of the world and they are the way that we prepare ourselves for our futures. Stories are how we understand ourselves.
Some writers have proposed that the scientific term that we use to name our species, homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing person,” does not properly identify our most distinctive feature. Plenty of animals, they argue, are capable of “knowing” to one degree or another. The thing that really makes us unique as a species, though, is our habit of storytelling. Some suggest that we should call ourselves homo narrans, “storytelling person.” We are, indeed, the only species that can tell stories that describe our past, our hopes for the future, our fears and our sorrows. Perhaps, more importantly, we are the only species that can listen to other people tell their stories and be moved by them.
I believe that the style and substance of Jewish tradition strongly agrees. Storytelling is at the heart of what it means to be a human being and it is at the heart of how Judaism relates and finds meaning in our most important human experiences.
Consider the story we heard today in this morning’s service. The story of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, is filled with contradictions and nuance in conveying what it means to have faith, in conveying some of the powerful emotions of being a parent, in conveying the pain of sacrifice. These are ideas we can talk about and discuss, but, somehow, a story has the power to explore these nuanced and complex feelings and experiences more deeply than an analytical approach ever could. Storytelling allows us to emotionally enter difficult human situations and to wonder, “What does it feel like to be in that place?” “What would I do if I were there?” “What does this mean to me?”
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the day that we call the “birthday of the world.” That is a kind of a story, too. We don’t, of course, believe that today is the literal and factual anniversary of the day the world was created (not even the ancient rabbis agreed on that). It is certainly not the anniversary of the Big Bang or anything that science could teach us. Rather, Rosh Hashanah, the “birthday of the world,” is a way of understanding the world the way that a storyteller might describe it.
Rosh Hashanah is “In the beginning.” Rosh Hashanah is the cosmic “Once upon a time.” Rosh Hashanah is the holiday that reminds us that, in order to understand the meaning of our lives, we must assume that the world began and is here for some reason, and so are we. Rosh Hashanah reminds us that our lives are not just a random and meaningless occurrence. God put us here for a purpose, whether that purpose is to “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and have dominion over it,” as the first chapter of Genesis teaches, or whether that purpose is to be God’s partner in repairing a world that was broken almost from its first moments, as later rabbinic tradition would teach.
The story of Rosh Hashanah is the story of our own origin – the origin of the world and the origin of each of us as individuals. Rosh Hashanah asks us to wonder, “Why was I created? What am I here for?”
Let me ask you, right now, to take a moment to think about your own story, the story of your life so far. How would you describe to someone you know what you have found out through your life’s story about why you are here? What does your life’s story teach you about what life is all about? What does it have to say about how we should try to live our lives?
Take a moment. Think about it. Think about what you would like to tell me about your story and what it means to you.
I have been the rabbi of Temple Sinai for just over two years now. I know that I am really still at the beginning of my story with this congregation when I consider that there are so many members of this community whose stories I have not yet heard. Over the course of this year – 5777 – I am going to set a goal for myself to hear the stories I have not heard. In order to truly be your rabbi, I need to learn about who you are. I need to hear your sacred stories.
So, today, I ask of you – if you get a call from me over the course of this year asking if we can have coffee together sometime, or if we can meet at the Temple or in your home – take a little time to meet with me and let me get to hear some of your story. Also, you don’t have to wait for me to call you. My commitment to you is that, any time you like, I will gladly make the time to hear you and to learn from your story.
Getting to know each other, of course, is a two-way street. To be your rabbi, I want to get to know your story, and, I imagine, you want to know some of mine, too. A Rosh Hashanah sermon is not an invitation for a rabbi to tell his or her entire life story, but let me just tell you one small story to get the storytelling ball rolling between us.
Unlike many of my classmates in rabbinic school, I didn’t always want to be a rabbi. My interest in studying Judaism did not begin for me seriously until I was already in my thirties. In fact, as a teenager, I didn’t think that being Jewish was a very important part of my life. In fact, I dropped out of Confirmation class when I was in ninth grade because I didn’t feel like I had much to confirm. I was more interested in saving the world than in studying Torah.
I worked as a young adult for a national environmental organization, and that, to me, felt like it was my life’s calling. After about eight years, though, of doing that important work, I noticed that most of the people who started with me in the organization had left. They had gone off to law school or to work in the business world – and who could blame them? Working on environmental campaigns is hard work with long hours and not much pay. Also, you don’t get to celebrate too many victories for all that work.
I started asking myself, “What makes me different? Why is it so important to me to save the world?” I spent some time really thinking about this. My job was in downtown Boston and I remember spending my lunchtime sitting in Boston Common, eating a sandwich and wondering, “Why do I keep doing this? Why do I think it’s my job to make the world a better place?”
The answer I eventually found deeply surprised me. From my early childhood, my parents had put me in Religious School and explained that I had a duty to learn about being Jewish because God expected me, as a Jew, to be a good person and to do the right thing.
The internal lesson I took from that, even as a child, was that because I was Jewish, I really didn’t have an option when it came to choosing between making the world a better place or just doing whatever was pleasing to me. My job, as a Jew and as a human being, was to live up to high moral standards, to help those in need, to repair what humanity has broken, and to heal this wounded world. I thought it was my job. I knew that I was commanded.
It was not too long after those summer afternoons in Boston Common that I came to a decision that I needed to learn more about what it means to be a Jew. Once I started learning and studying, I was hooked. I became a youth group advisor for a Temple in Lowell, Massachusetts. I started teaching Religious School at a couple of different congregations. Two years after that, I moved with my new wife to Jerusalem and began my studies as a rabbinic student.
And that is the story of how I got to the place where I am today. That is a part of my story. It is the story that teaches me who I am, what is most important to me, what I want to do with my life. It is even the story that tells me the reason why I was born.
We all have stories like this. We all have a storyteller within our minds that tells us the most important things about ourselves. On Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, we think about the origin story of the world, and, I think it is also a good time to think about the origin story of ourselves, too.
Let me ask you to spend some time this holiday, while you are enjoying your apples and honey, to tell a bit of your story to someone who should hear it. And make sure to hear it yourself. It may teach you something you had forgotten about who you are, why you are here, and the reason why you were created.
What’s your story? I can’t wait to hear.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu. May your story be written for a good year.