Deuteronomy Telling Our Stories, Living Our Stories
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
My fourth grade teacher was a Holocaust survivor. I don’t remember much about her beyond how kindly she welcomed me as a new kid into the school and that we built dioramas of Janush Korczak’s story out of model magic. Janush Korzak ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Poland in the 1930s and, when the Nazis came to bring the children to the concentration camps, he went with them to support them. (At least, that’s how I’ve retained the story so many years later).
This wasn’t the first holocaust story that I had internalized and it certainly won’t be the last, but I can still see the red and yellow clay children that I built, standing in lines in front of a construction paper orphanage.
Already in fourth grade, the story of the Holocaust, the story of “never again,” was real, live, and mine. I have always learned best through stories.
In this week’s parsha, we are given the guidelines for telling another story. It comes in the form of a formula to recite upon sacrificing our first fruits in the temple:
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּהַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה
“Our ancestors were wandering Aramean. They went down to Egypt. They lived there as strangers, few in number. There they became a great nation, mighty and numerous. But the Egyptians were cruel to us. They afflicted us. They imposed hard labor upon us…” (Deut 26:5-6).
When I read these words, I hear them in the rhythm of communal recitation, in the English translation found in the CCAR’s 1981 haggadah, the one my brother and I carefully place at each seat at our family’s seder every year. I’ve heard them read so many times that I can recite many of them by heart. We learn in the Mishna that the same words from this week’s Parsha are our starting point for the Exodus story we tell at the seder. They open the answer to the age-old question, why is this night different than any other night?
This week, in the depths of Elul, as the moon fades towards Rosh Hashanah, this story comes to remind us where we came from, the stories that make us who we are, so that as we have a clear understanding of the path we should be on. On Passover we are commanded to internalize our story as if we, ourselves, lived it. We encounter these very same words again now we so we can reflect on them: how do I stand with regards to this story? How am I living a life such that my actions tell these stories too? What do I need to adjust or change? Where do I need to apologize and make amends?
The Jewish calendar offers us this beautiful rhythm of internalizing our people’s story and measuring ourselves against it. “אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי – Our anscestors were wandering Arameans.” Reading the words now necessarily calls to mind the passion and conviction with which we told our story at the seder table story in the middle of the year, the lenses through which we understood it, and the questions we asked about it. In light of these memories, when we retell our story in Elul in order to recommit, readjust and straighten our path. The Jewish calendar knows the power of a well-placed story.
This summer, our people’s stories have never been far from the front of my mind.
As our government’s treatment of immigrants and refugees grows more and more abhorrent, my Facebook feed has been filled with images of my fellow Jews protesting. I saw photos of signs that read “Never Again is Now” and “Close the Camps.” I read posts about so-and-so’s grandmother’s fear of being turned away at the border, the fate she narrowly escaped but for the grace of being let in, and how today that grandchild knows they must speak out as other future grandmothers face the same fear at our border. I watched livestreams full of Jews, immigrants, and allies standing together and telling their own personal stories while shutting down ICE buildings.
Protest, too, wield the power of a well-placed story.
Just as the month of Elul interrupts our lives with an urgent need to stop, reflect, and course correct before Rosh Hashanah, protests interrupt business as usual to force us to hear a story ask us to measure ourselves against it, and implore us to course correct.
As an organizer, living according the Jewish calendar is a vital way for me to interrupt the drolls of daily life and push myself to live in God’s story, the Jewish people’s story. Celebrating holidays and observing mitzvot give me a rhythm for checking my life against my values – making sure my feet are walking the story that my soul carries.
As a Jew, I have learned to use protest to bring the rest of the world into this process of reflecting. The protests I saw told our Jewish story loudly and apologetically, hoping that asking others to reflect on how our experience as Jews with xenophobia and white supremacy can help our country course correct now, before the situation escalates.
When I finally was able to join a protest, we repeated the same story over and over again in a formula, just like on Passover:
We’ve got our ancestors at our back, we’ve got generations forward, we’ve got land and spirit. Never again para nadie.
The more we repeated this story, the deeper I felt it in my bones. Sitting there, singing these words over and over again, I was struck: this is what it feels like to live our people’s story. I felt grateful for the way hearing the story told and retold all summer stirred my heart towards action, and I felt proud and humbled by the opportunity to join in its retelling and, hopefully, move others towards action.
As we inch closer and closer to Rosh Hashanah, to standing together and begging our Creator for forgiveness, I hope that we can use these stories that have been so lovingly instilled in us as our guides for teshuva, and the urgency of this moment as the driving force towards living out our stories with integrity.
Frankie Sandmel is a student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.
Learn more about Hebrew College’s rabbinic, cantorial and rav-hazzan programs at our Open House & Day of Learning, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear), on November 18, 2019.