Why We Tell Stories

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Rabbi Boris, July/August 2014

Of all the programs we have at TBI, from Shabbat services to holiday celebrations, classes and social events, one seems to hold a special power for many people, and not surprisingly, also attracts the biggest crowds. This American Jewish Life, the monthly program when we honor a member of our community with an opportunity to share their life story, has connected deeply with so many of us. We connect with it because it allows us to learn more about many of the people we meet in our wonderfully diverse community, but also because it gives us a chance to participate in one of the most core human acts: to listen to stories. As we hear people share their lives with us, we participate in a unique kind of learning, one that allows us to see ourselves in the experiences of others and to gain new insights into ideas and issues in our own lives. These stories, like all stories, are a natural path for us to make connections and find meaning for ourselves. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt once said, hearing a story will “reveal meaning without committing the error of defining it.” With a story, truth finds its way to us through the path of life, and through listening to the journeys of others we find our own place in the greater web of our community.

This year as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of TBI, we are blessed that this will be a year of telling stories, and of listening to and responding to the insights that they bring. It is a time to look back into the history of our community to find the experiences that helped create the diverse spiritual home that we have today. This is the year when we can be reminded how our stories, both those of our own lives and those of our community, have held together Jewish life throughout the generations.

On its most basic level, the role of stories and storytelling in the Jewish tradition is to pass on the history and traditions of our people and community. This is of course true across all faiths and cultures. Yet there is also a deeply spiritual and uniquely Jewish purpose to stories; that they should elevate people’s faith and inspire them to live more meaningful and spiritual lives, and teach them mussar haskel, ethical understanding. Through hearing the experiences of others, we can better know how to act in our own lives, and can learn how to live each moment with compassion and meaning.

Of course the Torah is stories, as are the classic folktales, the midrashim, and the endless stories from every Jewish community around the world. Yet none of these stories could exist without all of our individual stories; the experiences, the joys and challenges that brought us to the place we are today. One could even argue that the entire goal of Jewish experience, the most important part of learning and listening, is to add our own story, our experiences, our relationships, to the story of the Jewish people–all we need to do is look at a page of Talmud or any book of Torah commentary to find this truth. While Judaism needs ritual, belief and action, it is the stories that hold it all together.

There is a classic tale from the Talmud (a story about stories!) that reminds us how the entirety of Jewish practice and belief owes itself to the memory of the experiences of those who came before us: Two writers rushed into the beit midrash, the study hall of the Rizhiner rebbe. They wanted him to write the preface to their respective books, one on Jewish law, the other on aggadah, the tales and lore of the Talmud. The law scholar was sure that the rebbe would see him first because of his expertise on Jewish ritual and practice. However the rebbe said that he would see the storyteller first, telling him: “Our Torah begins with stories, were it not for the stories, we would have no basis for the mitzvot that follow.” It is the stories that bring to life all that we do and makes sure that others can learn from our experiences.

As we reflect on the history of the TBI community in the coming months, we need to remember this timeless call to hold on to the past even as we and our community move ahead. Come to an oneg and shmooze with other members of the community, join us for Torah study and add your own voice to the voices of our tradition, or respond to one of our official requests for you to share and record your experiences at TBI before our anniversary celebration in the fall. I hope that you will take the time to share your stories in our 80th year, and may we all know the true blessing of listening to and learning from each other!