Back in the day, when I was a PhD student in Bible, I had the occasion to study the German theologian and scholar Gerhard von Rad. Von Rad, who died in 1971, was a pioneer in a field of Biblical scholarship called Form Criticism, and his most famous article bore the scintillating title “The Form Critical Problem of the Hexateuch.” If you have never heard of von Rad, and you don’t know what Form Criticism – or, for that matter, the Hexateuch – is, then you are in good company. Allow me to try to explain in two or three sentences. As a student of the Bible, von Rad was deeply interested in the question of how the Bible took shape from the story of creation to the entry into the Promised Land. For him the Bible’s final form was not the Five Books of Moses (what we call the Humash or the Pentateuch), but the five books plus the book of Joshua – the Hexateuch. The Hexateuch, von Rad believed, was a literary expansion upon an ancient kernel of a story, a kernel which we find when we open this week’s Torah reading. Von Rad argued that the core creedal narrative upon which the entire Bible is based is the opening lines of Ki Tavo – the liturgical declaration offered by the ancient Israelite pilgrim as he offered his first fruits at the temple. Arami oved avi, “My father was a wandering Aramean, he went down to Egypt with meager provisions and . . . there he became a great nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us . . .We cried out to the Lord . . . and the Lord heard our pleas and saw our plight . . . The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 25:5-9) Von Rad used the term Heilsgeschichte – sacred or hallowed history – to describe these few verses. A short recitation, significant both for what it includes and what it does not, it is the most ancient and sacred rendition of Israelite history. From these few verses, von Rad argues, the Bible took shape – story after story, strand after strand – until it took its final form. Four and a half verses. Not just the urtext of all of biblical literature, but the prism through which the ancient Israelite viewed him- or herself – these verses somehow encapsulating ancient Israel’s self-understanding.
If you had to distill your entire life story, your biography, into just a few short sentences, what would they be? What would you say? It is an interesting question to consider, always, but especially at this time of year. What are the key elements by which you would present yourself to the world – the verses that reflect your self-understanding? What would you leave in, what would you leave out? I imagine I would say something like, “I am the grandson of a pulpit rabbi and one of four children. I married a woman, also one of four children, and the two of us are now raising four children together. Though I almost became an academic, I am now, like my grandfather before me, privileged to serve a congregation and the Jewish people.”
I won’t ask you to share your story aloud, though it would be a fascinating exercise. The real question is what that self-constructed narrative says about you. Reflecting on my mini self-narrative, it is as interesting for what is in it as for what is not. Why do I begin with one grandfather and not the other? Why focus on the number of children in my family of origin and my present family? Of all of Debbie’s many qualities, why focus on the number of her siblings? Why point out that I almost became one thing but chose to become another? Why did I leave out the fact that my father is a physician and that in college I was pre-med until that fateful day I dropped organic chemistry? Maybe because the story I shared is neat and tidy and a little bit self-serving – my present and hoped-for future somehow mirroring my past and generations gone by. Were I sitting in a therapist’s office, someone could tell me exactly why my Heilsgeschichte is what it is. Moreover, I imagine that what I just shared is but one of many possible self-narratives – the one I just told being the one I can share while standing on the pulpit in front of my congregation. I may have others– all depending on audience, mood, or moment in life.
In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith goes to great lengths to explain the power of the stories we tell about ourselves. As human beings, we all have a storytelling impulse, a deep-seated need to impose order on our world and especially on our own lives. “Storytelling,” wrote Mary Catherine Bateson, “is fundamental to the human search for meaning.” (Cited in Smith, p. 104). We would rather not think that the events of our lives are either random or meaningless, and so we craft a tale. How this led to that, that led to this – not so much that it was all foretold or predestined, but that it all has meaning. There are, despite what some may say, objective facts. But the act of weaving those facts together – the construction of our personal myth – is anything but an objective process. A million conscious and unconscious choices we make to highlight conditions or traditions we have inherited, challenges we have overcome, and sufferings that we have endured. Will that painful breakup come to define us? Will that illness forever change our outlook? Will that hard-won victory set us up for success in the future? Maybe, maybe not. It is a choice that we make as we weave the tales of our lives. No different than the Israelite of old, we construct narrative identities that become prisms through which we see the world and, most importantly, ourselves.
Towards the end of this week’s parashah there is a fascinating announcement by God as Moses is wrapping up his charge to the Israelites just prior to their entering the Promised Land. “You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the Land of Egypt,” Moses announces, “yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:1–3) The rabbinic commentaries have a field day with this verse. Of course, the Israelites had hearts, eyes, and ears, so what does it mean to say that they have been given them only now? Perhaps, as some note, only now, at the end of their desert sojourn, do the Israelites really demonstrate appreciation for the miracles performed on their behalf. I think the answer is even more basic. In the midst of the miracles and setbacks and desert wanderings, Israel wasn’t ready to absorb, assimilate, and integrate all that was taking place. They needed time and maybe a bit of distance. Here and now, Moses is calling on them to become responsible for the act of crafting their self-narrative. This was the final stage of their emotional development as a people, before they could enter the next chapter – in their case, the Promised Land. It is a charge from Moses. Don’t just be passive bystanders to the events of your life. Use your eyes, your ears, and most of all your heart. Recognize the responsibility and the opportunity that comes with being the author of your life story.
And so too all of us today. We are but days away from the beginning of the new year. If there is one image associated with Rosh Hashanah, one constant visual image, it is that of a narrative, a book: the book of life. L’shanah tovah tikatevu, we will say to each other: May you be inscribed in the book of life. B’seifer hayyim brakhah v’shalom, we will chant: In the book of life for blessing and peace. More often than not we think of this book as being the divine ledger into which our names, please God, will be inscribed. That may be true, but today I would ask you to consider another possibility – the possibility that the author whom we are speaking about is not the good Lord above, but you, me, and all of us, and what is in the book is the story we have knowing and unknowingly written.
For each of us, the year gone by has held our fair share of joys and sorrows, successes and setbacks. That is inevitable, and much of the time it is beyond our control. Those are the objective facts. Let me ask you the question of today. How have you made meaning of those facts? Have you learned and grown from those experiences? Or have you turned yourself into a victim, a person with a perpetually wounded sensibility? You have been let down by another person – a colleague who turned out to be not so collegial, a partner who turned out to be less than you had hoped. Welcome to the club. Today let me ask you: Are you still stuck in the moment, stewing in that sting? Are you sitting around just waiting for the next betrayal? Or have you licked your wounds, dusted yourself off, learned from the experience, and done what we all need to do, which is to move on. The holidays are not here to affirm the narratives we have constructed for ourselves. The holidays are here to call our attention to them, to challenge them, and, when necessary, to overturn them! There are in this room people with loved ones with whom they do not speak, people refusing to reconcile. We can be so convinced of the rightness of our story that we refuse to entertain the possibility that our story is but one side of the story. Lest we forget, Pharaoh's fatal flaw was that he hardened his heart, refusing to see the possibility that his reality could change. The holidays are a wake-up call reminding us that it is we who are the authors of our stories – empowered, but also responsible. Neither our stories nor our hearts should be set in stone. They can be written and then rewritten, our lives not any one single story but a palimpsest containing traces of an ever-renewing self-understanding. That is the promise and the challenge of the coming holidays. We must allow our loved ones and we must demand from ourselves the responsibility that comes with taking authorial authority over the books of our lives.
The other night someone asked me whether or not, with a week and a half left before Rosh Hashanah – it was appropriate to say L’shanah tovah tikatevu, May you be written into the book of life for a good year. Well, if you are asking about God’s book of life, then I suppose it is a bit early. But if you are talking about the book of your life, the one that you are writing, the prism of your self-understanding – then yes, absolutely, on this day L’shanah tovah tikatevu. Today take personal agency for your role as the author of your life story. Have a heart to understand, eyes to see, and ears to hear. Take seriously that the authorial choices you make will, in no small part, determine your story, and may you write and be written for a year of good. Now is the time to demonstrate the requisite boldness of character to tell a different tale in the year and years to come. May we all have courage of heart to do so in the awesome days ahead.