Telling our stories

D’var Torah
Rabbi David Benjamin Fainsilber
October 13, 2017 // 24 Tishrei 5778

As with all beginnings and endings,
they are a time to take stock of the stories of our lives.
As we end our Torah cycle and immediately begin it again —
like a revolving door, entering back into parashat Bereisheet,
back to the beginning —
we find ourselves at a time to take stock
of the sacred stories of our tradition
that we are meant to tell again and again.
These are the stories that were recounted around the campfires
in ancient Egypt and ancient Israel,
in Babylonia, and in every corner of the Diaspora
for generations, for thousands of years.
Elders recounted stories to children,
parents and grandparents or the charismatic aunt or uncle
shared the stories of our people
for the sake of the children, for the sake of all the generations that gathered.

Yesterday morning, Shemini Atzeret,
I went for a hike with our 6-year old Adar at Lake Elmore,
taking him out of school in order for him and me to experience
a piece of the final day of Sukkot;
to connect to the land around us in Vermont,
even as I told him about the day’s focus
on prayer for rain in the Land of Israel.

A familiar trope began early on in the hike.
About 15 minutes into the three hour hike,
Adar began asking me:
“When are we going to be there?
When will we get to the fire-tower?”

To distract him, or perhaps to make a point, or perhaps both,
I began telling him the story of Sukkot:
How we made our way out of Egypt,
and as we wandered in the wilderness,
we lived in Sukkahs throughout the journey.
Along the way, the Israelites complained:
“Why did you take us out of Egypt?
Will we ever get to the Promised Land!?”
The Israelites complained about their lack of water;
about Moses’ leadership; about how life was better in Egypt.

I told Adar that he came from a long line of kvetchers,
dating back thousands of years.

And so it was, my scheme of distraction had worked.
“Abba,” he said. “Tell me another story.”
I recounted other stories of our ancestor’s wilderness journey,
in no particular order, except as they came to my mind.

I told him about the Tabernacle in the wilderness,
introducing the details and concepts
of the High Priest Aaron’s sacred clothes,
and the sacred tasks we must take on through our lives.
“What’s the next story, Abba?” he asked after that story.

I told him about the manna collected
and how the Israelites were only allowed to collect
what they needed to eat for that one day,
so that they might learn to be satisfied and fulfilled with what they had.
“What’s the next story, Abba?” he asked after that story.

So, I shared with him how the Israelites had also complained
about the taste of manna,
and how G-d had given them so much quail to eat
that they got sick from it.
“What’s the next story, Abba?” he asked after that story.

I shared the story of Miriam and the women singing and dancing
out of their first sense of freedom,
having crossed the shores of the Red Sea…

And on and on, I shared stories of the wilderness
until we got back to the car.

Later last night, after our hike,
after our Simchat Torah celebration at JCOGS,
Adar and I, and now huddled with our 4-year-old Yonah,
gathered on the couch with two books from PJ Library,
the foundation that delivers free books to Jewish children.
We read Maya Prays for Rain for Shemini Atzeret,
and then Sammy Spider’s First Simchat Torah,
telling the stories of the holidays
in ways that they could grasp and appreciate.

Along the day’s journey, I recounted not just the stories,
but the messages to derive from each story;
what could be learned;
how we are meant to live a purposeful life based on each story.

And so we return back and recycle the stories of yore,
as we come to this week’s Torah portion of Bereisheet,
a parashah filled with some incredible stories.

I am going to leave the hard job of talking about Cain and Abel
to the more capable hands of Simon Rosenbaum,
who will speak his own Torah tomorrow morning at his Bar Mitzvah,
about our need for a stronger sense of responsibility for others.
Not all of us are so capable as Simon
to deliver such a powerful message
from such a difficult story.

Yet, this week’s Torah portion also includes the story of creation,
the mythic birth of our world.
When the darkness was over the firmament;
when G-d created light; and the waters; and sky and land;
and green vegetation, and fruit trees, and grasses;
and sun and moon;
and swarming creatures and birds and sea monsters and fish;
and every living animal and creeping thing and wild beasts,
and humanity in G-d’s image, to be stewards of the land and all creation;
and finally the day of rest, Shabbat.

Refracted through the rabbis,
we could tell this story through the lens of how
seven things were created before creation itself,
including, as it says in the Talmud:
“Torah, teshuvah/repentance, the Garden of Eden,
Gehenna, the Throne of (G-d’s) Glory,
the Beit Hamikdash/the Temple in Jerusalem,
and the name of Moshiach/the Messiah.” (Pesachim 54a)
We could tell the story in this way
and wonder why these particular things were created before creation itself.

Or we could tell the story through the eyes
of those who came some 1000+ years later,
the Kabbalists, and their intricate understanding
that G-d created the world through 10 Utterances,
mirroring the 10 Commandments later in the Torah.
And then we could understand how the story reflects
the power of G-d’s words,
and how our own words make an impact on others.

However we tell this story of creation,
these are our stories, our people’s stories, our mythic stories:
as told in the Torah,
as told through the rabbis and through the Kabbalists;
even as told through the eyes of Sammy Spider.

The responsibility of telling these stories
is what separates a Jewish child from a Jewish adult.
It is the step of becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah
where we now become responsible for passing these stories down.

Simon, now it is your turn to tell these stories,
and to shine a light on them for those younger than you, but also for all of us.
You are now officially both a learner and a teacher among us.

But this is a reminder not just for you, but for all of us.
As we cross the threshold of our Torah, beginning again,
we are reminded that each of us can make an impact.
These stories told by the campfires and before bedtime
are ours to tell.
We have so many teachers and natural educators in our congregation,
it is not only the parents who are responsible
for teaching the children.
In fact, it never has been only the parents.

For the sake of our own children and those of our community,
we each must prepare ourselves to tell them our stories,
to pass down our collective wisdom.

You do not need to know all of the stories in the Torah
in order to tell one story.
You might pick your favourite one or two stories from our tradition.
Show up at shul; call over a child during Kiddush,
heck, call over anyone that will listen!;
invite a family or friend to your home,
and tell stories.

And let us not lose sight of this too:
though we are responsible for teaching the stories,
we are also still expected to learn and receive these stories too.

It is upon each of us to learn and pass on these stories
to another generation and across the generations.
In so doing, we build our community
out of the collective wisdom of thousands of years.