My Sermon Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

Good Yontev.  If you have ever seen my Facebook postings, it will come as no surprise to you that I love the theater and I go to it a lot.  I love children’s theater.  I love regional theater.  I love experimental theater.  I really love Broadway roadshows.  I love it all.  Even the shows that aren’t — hmmm — superlative, I can appreciate the acting.  Or when the acting isn’t — say — the best, I will like the show.  And I’m not alone in my love of theater.  Has anyone heard of a little show called Hamilton?

Nor is it only recently that people have loved the theater.  Cats came out in 1980.  Fiddler on the Roof came out in 1964.  Oklahoma came out in 1943.  Anything Goes came out in 1934.  All of these are still being staged here in the 20-teens.  William Shakespeare wrote mostly between 1589 and 1613 yet the staging of Julius Caesar, written in 1599 by the way, caused enormous controversy this past summer when it was staged in New York City’s Central Park.  Lysistrata was written by Aristophanes in 411 BCE and is still being staged and adapted, most recently right here in Dallas in 2010 as Lysistrata Jones.  Don’t go bragging about that, though.  It opened and closed within a month when it moved to Broadway.  A couple of years ago, I saw one of our students portray Odysseus in a Plano Children’s Theater production of The Odyssey.  He was great, the show was fun, and the The Odyssey on which it was based was written by Homer in the 700’s BCE.

Randy Pearlman, our cantorial soloist, asked me a wonderfully insightful question recently in preparation for a show he starred in called The Minotaur, based on 3000 year old mythology.  He wrote me: “I have been thinking about the importance of retelling a story time after time, and I thought of you and the retelling of our stories year after year after year.  As soon as we end our stories, we immediately begin again in the same service.  So my question is this… why do you think it is important to retell the stories?”  My answer was: “Fundamentally, the stories we tell ourselves make us who we are.  If we tell stories of kindness, we become kind.  If we tell stories of how the world will take advantage of us, we become selfish.  We tell our stories over and over to be the people we aspire to be.”  The reason I love the theater as much as I do is because the theater helps me to understand who I should want to be.  The reason theater has been popular for thousands of years is because it helps to make us who we are.

The show I saw  that was most filled with stories this past year was Into The Woods, a retelling of a variety of famous Grimm’s Fairytales.  I happened to love it, but not everyone enjoys Stephen Sondheim’s musical sense.  In the finale, we are warned of the power of the stories that we tell ourselves and each other:

Careful the things you say,

Children will listen.

Careful the things you do,

Children will see.

And learn.

Children may not obey,

But children will listen.

Children will look to you

For which way to turn,

To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,

“Listen to me.”

Children will listen.

Stories have enormous power precisely because children, and adults, listen.  Stories influence and shape how we think, how we feel, how we act, and who we are as human beings.  Such is the power of the stories that we tell.  So be careful of the stories that you tell; children will listen.

Some of the most influential stories ever told in course of human history come from the Hebrew Bible.  Now let’s get out of the way up front some of what the Bible is not.  The Bible is not a history textbook.  We have outside historical evidence going all the way back to King David with records of a military victory by an Aramean king against the King of Israel and the King of the House of David.  But before King David, we don’t have any outside historical evidence.  That doesn’t mean that none exists.  After all, the evidence for King David only came to light during an archeological dig at Tel Dan in 1993.  But the Bible isn’t really meant to be a history textbook.

The Bible is also not a science textbook.  Do you remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?  Well, forget the tortoise, we’re only concerned about the hare.  According to Leviticus 11:6, “the hare — although it chews the cud, it has no true hoofs: it is unclean for you;”  Yeah.  It does not chew its cud; it has no cud to chew.  Which leaves us with two possibilities.  Either, one, God does not know biology or, two, people put this into the Bible.  Me personally?  I prefer to think that God does know biology, so that leads me to conclude that this is an example of where people patshkeed with the text.  And if that is true here, it will be true elsewhere too.  So don’t try to learn science from the Bible because that’s not what it’s meant for.

What is the Bible meant for?  It is meant to teach us morality.  The Bible is a morality textbook.  Let’s look at the story of the creation of Adam and Eve as an example.  There are actually two stories, contradictory to each other, but both necessary.  In one, God creates Adam first and then Eve from Adam’s rib.  One reason for this story is to teach us the moral lesson that to save a single human being is the equivalent of saving an entire world of human beings because everyone, including Eve, came forth from that first created man.  But then there’s a second story where God created Adam and Eve simultaneously and completely equally in the image of God.  This second story teaches us the moral lesson that despite the implications of the first story, women are completely, 100% equal to men.  The Bible isn’t about teaching history or science; it’s about teaching moral truth.

Beyond contradictory stories, another one of the difficulties with our textbook of morality is that the Bible also teaches us how not to act through negative example.  Remember that whole Golden Calf thing?  Yeah, don’t do that.  But that’s a story with a really clear lesson.  When Jacob lied to his father and stole his brother’s blessing, his mother encouraged him and his father might have gone along with it.  It’s a far more ambiguous story.  So we have to be careful about the moral lessons we draw from the Bible.  They’re not always as clear cut as we would like them to be and we should show a little humility that we might have interpreted the lesson incorrectly.  So be careful of the stories that you tell; children will listen. 

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are there to justify the way in which we have set up our society.  Certainly, we are commanded to set up a society in which we protect the rights of the stranger all because of our collective story as a Jewish People.  Exodus 23:9 states, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”  Certainly, the Bible was misused by American slaveholders to justify the holding of slaves.  We use and sometimes misuse the stories we tell to justify how our society works.  So be careful of the stories that you tell; children will listen. 

We use stories to explain society, but we also use stories to explain ourselves and to make sense of who we are.  When I was in sixth grade we had one hour every week when we would work on whatever subject you needed extra help with: math, spelling, social studies.  You get the idea.  I had an extra hour of gym.  The other kids made fun of me and my four friends who had extra gym.  They made fun of us until they realized that while they were working on math, spelling, social studies, we were playing kickball or taking batting practice.  I tell you this story because I’ve told the story to myself and have always just thought that I’m no good at sports as a result.  So I’ve never tried to get good at sports.  On the flip side, if you tell yourself the story of how you hit the winning home run or how you can run as fast as the wind or how you swim like Michael Phelps himself, then you probably would work harder at getting better in your chosen sport.  The stories we tell ourselves help to shape who we are and who we become.  So be careful of the stories that you tell; children will listen. 

When I get together with my friends and family, especially when I haven’t seen them in a while, inevitably we start sharing stories.  When we retell the stories of our shared experiences, we remind ourselves why we have maintained our relationships, deepening our bonds, drawing us closer together.  The last time I went to visit my brother, he and I and my niece and nephew played cards together.  While we were playing we talked about the many times we had played and just reminisced about when we were kids together.  The next day I remarked to my brother that the kids must have been bored with the stories, but he said no, they loved them.  They got to see the two of us in ways they could relate to and we all became closer as family. 

The funny thing is, Bill and I did not remember the stories we told in exactly the same way.  It was like that song from Gigi:

We met at nine, we met at eight,

I was on time, no, you were late.

Ah, yes, I remember it well.

We dined with friends, we dined alone,

A tenor sang, a baritone.

Ah, yes, I remember it well.

That dazzling April moon, there was none that night,

And the month was June, that’s right, that’s right.

It warms my heart to know that you,

Remember still the way you do.

Ah, yes, I remember it well.

The science I have heard about memory is ironic in that the memories we recall most frequently are the memories that become most inaccurate.  Sharing and retelling stories can bring us closer to the ones we love, but somehow recalling the memories and retelling them as stories distorts them.  So be careful of the stories that you tell; children will listen.

Jews have always loved telling stories.  Bible stories, midrashim, talmudic stories.  Why, beginning in the 1500’s in Eastern Europe there arose a type of itinerant story teller called a maggid, who would travel from town to town telling and retelling religious stories, but always with a moral behind them.  The purpose was to teach moral truth wrapped in an entertaining package.  This is the whole reason I love the theater as much as I do.  In good theater, I recognize the truth of it even as I’m entertained.  In fact, I’m even more deeply affected by a dramatic truth than a pedantic one, even when they teach the same lesson.  And I’m not alone because we have recorded theater going back 3,000 years and it probably stretches back even further into unrecorded history.

Once there was a famous maggid who was renowned through all of Eastern Europe as having the perfect story for every situation.  One day as he was walking with a disciple, his disciple asked him how he could remember so many stories since he always had the perfect one for every imaginable situation.  What an interesting question, the maggid replied.  Let me tell you a story.  Once there was a cossack who thought himself to be the finest marksman in all of Europe.  One day as he was riding through a village, he passed a barn and the side of the barn was covered in bullseyes and each and every one was pierced dead center with a bullet hole.  The cossack was amazed at such a feat of marksmanship and asked some of the men standing there who it was that made all those shots.  The men laughed and said it was Feivel the Fool and not to bother speaking to him.  Fool or not, the cossack replied, even I could not achieve such a result.  No, you don’t understand, they said.  First Feivel shoots the barn and then he draws the bullseye.  I am that fool, the maggid said to his disciple.  I don’t try to find the perfect story for every situation.  For every situation, I take the stories I have and make them fit.

Don’t we all do that?  Shaping our stories to make them fit?  Teaching the moral lessons we want to convey?  Justifying how we live and who we think we are?  Bringing us closer to the ones we love or, sadly, sometimes driving us further apart?  Isn’t it human to tell the stories that make us who we are?  What are the stories that you will tell to the children who are listening?  What are the stories you will listen to?