December 3, 2022 -

The Stories We Tell

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Yom Kippur, 2020.  

As a newly minted rabbi, I was tasked to officiate at a funeral for a family I did not know. As is customary, I met with the grieving loved ones prior to the service. In that gathering, two of the three sons of the deceased patriarch were effusive about the loving-kindness their father exhibited to them.

Afterwards, the one son who shared very little during the gathering pulled me aside, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Rabbi, I don’t know who that person was that my siblings were talking about, but that was not the father I knew”. He then proceeded to share with me details about the relationship he had with his father, a pointedly different one from his brothers

You can only imagine what was going through my mind later that night when I sat down to write the eulogy. I wanted to show honor to the person who was known by each one of his children, and I wanted to do it respectfully. It was then, as a young rabbi, that I realized the stories we tell are not always perfectly aligned with how others have lived them. This is not only true with family dynamics, but in the daily relations we have with others. How we experience others, and their role in our personal, public, or national narrative does not always reflect the story as a whole.

Looking back on that experience, I view it as an example of a bigger question:

How do we continue to adhere to our own understandings of our story when we are blind to the uniquely felt stories of others?  

We collectively share in this Day of Atonement, but the stories we carry with us are deeply personal.

A common salutation before Yom Kippur is “May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life”[1]. What is written is how we have lived our lives until this point. What is sealed is what we’d like to be our legacy.

Today, it is our responsibility to examine our words, our deeds, and the stories that we have written into our Book of Life[2]. Are you ready to have that book sealed?

In ancient times, important figures would carry a personal seal with them that served as their signature, their imprimatur[3].

If that practice were still the custom today, would you be happy to place your seal on your story as it has been told? Looking back, through the lens of today, would you amend your legacy, knowing that others may view your story differently?

Today, Reform congregations throughout the world read these compelling verses spoken by Moses to all the people of Israel on behalf of the Holy One:

You are all standing here today in the Presence of God…the heads of your tribes, your leaders, your officials, all Israel: your babies, your wives, the resident foreigners in your camps who fetch your firewood and water—ready to cross over into the solemnly sworn Covenant that God, your God, is making with you today…

The text continues:

I’m not making this Covenant and its oath with you alone. I am making it with you who are standing here today in the Presence of God…yes, but also with those who are not here today. [4]

We may know our stories, but what might we learn from the stories of “those who are not with us here this day?” Just like the three grieving brothers I met before the funeral, our experiences inside and out of family and faith circles naturally deviate.

The narratives we believe may be sacred to us, but these words from Deuteronomy – that we stand with everyone –piqued my thinking. Who are the others who are part of this sacred compact across faith, time and space – and, what are their stories?

Do you remember “Schoolhouse Rock”[5]? The animated series that first aired in the 1970’s? In between Saturday morning programs, the videos would teach about elected leadership (“No More Kings”), how Congress works (“I’m just a Bill”), and women’s voting rights (“Sufferin’ Till Suffrage”), among other themes.

Four decades later, I still remember those melodies filled with facts about American history, politics, grammar and science. The Emmy Award-winning educational series was so effective that Leah and I raised our kids on those videos, too!

As I turn back the chapters of my Book of Life, and peer at those videos through the lens of today, I realize that, as much as I loved them, they did not tell the whole story. Even at 9 years old, I remember that the one entitled “The Preamble,” that described our Constitution[6] as a beacon of the principled American vision for liberty.

That video engendered in me a sense of pride in being an American. It was good to know that we stood up for equal rights, abolished slavery, and that our government leaders represent all of us. But the video didn’t reference the fact that a person of color was considered to be only 3/5 of a person[7].

The one about women’s suffrage didn’t mention any of the women of color who paved the way for the passage of the 19th amendment. The video about abolishing the monarchy didn’t reference the ways in which people of color continue to be subjugated in myriad ways.

I now look back and realize that Schoolhouse Rock omitted important key elements of our history, elements that still reverberate throughout the country today. These feel-good videos reinforced the projected image we wanted our country to be.

It is not lost on me that nuanced historical accounts rarely fit into a 3-minute video, but we must take note that these were the stories we wanted to hear, believe, and teach.

Our Reform movement is grateful that our Cantor Laureate, Sarah Sager, was the inspiration behind The Women’s Torah Commentary[8].

I cannot help but wonder how the stories of the Torah might have been told if women had a voice in their telling. Would there have been more female prophets? How would the laws have been interpreted? And how might God have been viewed differently (after all, how many High Holy Days have we all uttered the words, Lord, King and Father)?

In future years, I wonder what American history will say about Colin Kaepernick, who knelt down to protest racial injustice before football games during the National Anthem[9]. Decades from now, how will that story be preserved and transmitted to future generations?

Might future Americans read about an insolent Kaepernick whose behavior was disrespectful to the flag, and to those serving in the military, or will they remember his actions as the kind of non-violent protest worthy of the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?

As our lives grow longer, the Book of Life grows with us; the pages become worn and yellowed. We may be tempted to remember our stories selectively, focusing only on the image we want to project and protect. But during the Days of Awe we can revisit it all.

On Yom Kippur we can determine if what has been written should now be sealed, or might we first inscribe an amended note to our younger selves.

Atem Nitzavim… God said, I’m not making this Covenant and its oath with you alone. I am making it with you who are standing here today in the Presence of God…yes, but also with those who are not here today

Are the stories of your life—as you have always told them to yourself—perceived in the same way by those with whom you stand? What purpose does it serve for you to maintain them as they are, even though revising them might improve your relationships or improve your legacy?

Just a few weeks ago a Major League Baseball broadcaster made an offensively blatant homophobic remark. In his apology, he said:

“I made a comment earlier tonight that I guess went out over the air that I am deeply ashamed of. If I have hurt anyone out there, I can’t tell you how much I say, from the bottom of my heart, I am so very, very sorry…I pride myself and think of myself as a man of faith…I want to apologize for the people who sign my paycheck…for the people I work with, for anybody that I’ve offended here tonight: I can’t begin to tell you how deeply sorry I am. That is not who I am. It never has been”.[10]

“That is not who I am. It has never been.” In those few words, he issues a denial that something so distasteful and unseemly could ever come out of his mouth. That was not the image of himself he wanted to be true, and not the way he wants others to see him. Yet before aspersions are cast, I think this story is instructive to us, too.

We don’t always want to believe that our darkest thoughts, words or deeds are part of us, but we must accept that they are. With all that is going on in the world right now, a personal reckoning is perhaps the most important thing we can do. If we say we stand in covenant on this day, whom do we bring to that covenant? Is it the touched-up image of ourselves that we have fallen in love with? If that is so, then we are worshipping an image that is not worthy of the Day of Atonement.

It feels incredibly pertinent during these High Holy Days to dig deeper, to uncover the stories that we tell, and to test if they serve us, if they serve our loved ones, and if they serve our communities and our world. Even while in quarantine, we can release the stories that confine us, and that hold us back from standing together in covenant.

Here are three actions steps to beginning the process as you peer back into your Book of Life:

  • First, Examine…take a deep dive into your past. From where did you develop your ideas, politics, and prejudices? How much of what you have learned was imbued in you by the environment around you? What were the stories you were told? Which ones are still true?
  • Second, Learn…read more books by authors who don’t look or think like you. Follow leaders on social media who stand up for issues that you don’t know about or have been resistant to embracing. Talk to generations different from yours. Who are your children or grandchildren following on Instagram or on other platforms? Find friends whose life experience reads differently from yours, and ask them if it is okay to come forward with respectful questions that you have always wanted to know.
  • Third, and finally, Act…find an organization that engages in advocacy and causes that you know little about, despite your preconceived notions. Join a local campaign with a candidate you believe in. Join in action with others who may not believe in everything you do, but you have a shared passion that makes you stronger together.

The Book of Life has been written, but it is still waiting to be sealed. It is up to you—to all of us—to change a narrative that needs to be changed, to fill in the missing pieces of a story that no longer rings true. Only by acknowledging those missing pieces can we work towards a more complete truth, a story that brings wholeness and peace to our world.

We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

[1] Inspired from the High Holy Day liturgy

[2] A thematic thread throughout the High Holy Days

[3] See Genesis 38

[4] Deuteronomy 29: 9-14

[5] https://www.schoolhouserock.tv/

[6] https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

[7] Article 1, Section 2

[8] https://wrj.org/torah-womens-commentary-0

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/sports/colin-kaepernick-nfl-protests.html

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/08/19/reds-broadcaster-thom-brennaman-apologizes-making-homophobic-slur-air/