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Rosh Hashanah - 2009 / 5770 - Rabbi Carey Brown   


Rosh Hashanah - 2009 / 5770 - Rabbi Carey Brown 

Rabbi Carey Brown
Temple Isaiah
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770

Dear Yael,

It is your first Rosh Hashanah and I want to tell you a story. Although you will not remember me telling you this story this year, or even next year, you will surely hear it again and again. I imagine that it will become such a part of you, that you will come to understand that you have been hearing it your entire life.

It is a story about your great-grandmother, Nana. You met Nana twice in your life – do you remember how she fed you your bottle and you gnawed on her knuckles? You have her eyes, the same shade of denim-blue that she liked to self-reference – singing along with Mitch Miller’s “5-foot-2 Eyes of Blue” – with her dancing hands shimmying in the air. 

Nana, was a woman who loved to celebrate the holidays together with family. I have such fond memories of sitting around her dining room table on Erev Rosh Hashana, eating the golden chicken-soup and sweet apple kugel that I will teach you to make one day. Around the table, Nana would tell stories about her parents, especially about her mother.

So this story is not only about Nana, but about Nana telling a story about her mother, your great-great-grandmother, Clara, for whom I was named. Clara was from a Jewish family living comfortably in Romania. When she was a teenager, her mother insisted that the family head to America, even against her father’s wishes, because she believed that there would be better opportunities for her children in the United States. Clara had studied French in school and when her family was crossing the Atlantic, she was able to converse with the French captain of the boat. While charming the captain, she asked him to send hot tea to the passengers in steerage out of concern for their health and comfort. The captain was taken by her compassion or beauty, or perhaps both, and arranged for the crew to serve tea throughout the rest of the journey.

After Nana would finish telling the story she would look around the table at her family and say, “Aren’t we lucky for all that we have? Children, not everyone is so lucky, and we have to do our part to make sure that others who are in need are taken care of.” She was a wise woman, Nana, and had a lot to teach us. She still does, as her stories are now passed to you.

***

I am sure that each and every one of us gathered here tonight has a story that serves a similar purpose in our families: the moving recollections of a grandparent, perhaps a story of difficult times and the courage that was found to persevere, or a legend of great adventure. A story has the power to impact our lives as the values that are passed from one generation to the next through a story have an influence beyond measure. Stories are among the most precious heirlooms that we inherit from those who came before us.

A recent article from the Wall St. Journal made note of the important influence that family stories can have on children. The article reported that, “As parents cut budgets, many are finding family stories have surprising power to help children through hard times. New research bears out the value of family stories, linking teens' knowledge of them to better behavior and mental health. Knowing family stories helps children put their own experience in perspective…”

As a Jewish people, our ultimate family story is, of course, Torah. In a tangible sense, our scrolls are carefully passed from one generation to the next as an inheritance. But more significantly, the stories contained within are the precious legacy that has sustained us for generations. It is the story of our people that informs and guides our lives.

And in Jewish living, we give incredible value to stories. When someone dies, what is the first thing we do? We gather with family and friends and tell stories. It is a way for us to give honor to their memory and keep a spark of them among us. Stories inform how we live our lives and speak to eternity. The Talmud teaches us that, “Any righteous person who has his statements quoted after his death is considered as if his lips are moving in the grave.” (Yevamot 97a).

Memory is a powerful tool in creating meaningful life. Judaism unequivocally affirms the power of memory. Memory is often elusive and selective, and this is especially true in the case of a people’s historical memory.  Understanding the past has shaped Jewish identity and collective memory throughout the ages, and as Jews, we represent a unique fusion of history, memory and peoplehood. 

For the Jewish people, collective memory flows through ritual and recital.  Not only does the positive injunction “zakhor,” remember, appear multiple times in the Torah and our liturgy, but we are also commanded with the negative mitzvah: not to forget.  Many scholars argue that the English translation of the word zakhor as “remember” is too small in scope, too passive, arguing, rather, that the word implies a level of action.

The notion of Jewish memory is intrinsically woven to the themes of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah has many different names ascribed to it: Yom Harat Olam – the birthday of the world, Yom Teruah – named for the sound of the shofar blast, Yom HaDin – for the din – or judgement – that we face from God in this season. But another important name for the holiday is Yom HaZikaron – the day of remembrance. It is a day to remember our personal histories, and particularly our behavior over the past year.   Here too, we sense that memory, as we remember on Rosh Hashanah, is an active memory. We not only look back to remember our actions of the past year, but we actualize those memories and allow them to inform our behavior in the coming year.

The memories and stories that we inherit from those who came before us are an important part of a person’s legacy. When we think about legacy, we all want to believe that something of value will survive us. Whether it is the children and grandchildren we have brought into the world, or the fruit of our life’s labors, or an invention or something we fixed or taught or made — we all strive to leave the world different — hopefully better — than the way we found it. In the grand scheme of things, my life may be like a pebble tossed into a pond. But, I want to believe that the ripples I make will go on, even after the stone has sunk to the bottom.   Stories are those ripples in the water. It is impossible to measure the stretch of their radius, but the legacy that we inherit from the stories of those who came before us is priceless. 

A wonderful Hasidic story about the Baal Shem Tov gives an important illustration of the power of a story:

When the Baal Shem Tov was about to die, he assigned tasks to all of his disciples in order to continue his tradition. To one disciple, Reb Yaacov, he gave the task of traveling from community to community telling stories. One day, Reb Yaacov found himself in Italy, excited to hear that there was a wealthy Jew in the town who paid handsomely to hear stories of the Baal Shem Tov. 

When he arrived at the man’s home, he was treated royally and invited to stay for Shabbat and share his stories. Before sundown, Reb Yaacov prepared his repertoire of stories, carefully selecting the most meaningful stories for this important man. Around the dinner table he was invited to begin telling his stories, but when he stood up, he could not remember a single tale! 

The host was gracious and invited him to try again at lunch the next day and then again at the third Shabbat meal in the late afternoon. But however hard he tried, Reb Yaacov could not remember any stories. Finally, Reb Yaacov decided to leave, his head bowed low in embarrassment. He hitched his wagon and as he was about to return home, he suddenly remembered one story. 

He went back to his host who was happy to invite him back inside. Reb Yaacov began to tell him the story of an experience he shared with the Baal Shem Tov some ten years before:

They had traveled to a town where the local bishop was delivering a sermon in the town square. All of the Jews in the town were hunkered down in their homes, fearful that the bishop’s sermon would incite anti-Semitic violence. But the Baal Shem Tov was unafraid and sent Reb Yaacov to order the bishop to come see him at once. 

At first, the bishop sent Reb Yaacov away, but after a second request, the bishop stopped his sermon, left the town square, and followed Reb Yaacov to see the Baal Shem Tov. The two men met in private for a number of hours and then each went his own way, as if nothing had happened.

With tears in his eyes, the wealthy Jew embraced Reb Yaacov and said, “Thank you for returning to tell me this story. Everything you have told me is true in every detail! I know it because I was there...I was that bishop!”

The host continued, “I was born and raised a Jew, but the lure of a great career tempted me to convert, for a Jew could not enter the university. At first I practiced my religion clandestinely, but little by little I forgot my origins.

“After I had attained the office of bishop, I began to be haunted by dreams and visions of my youth. One night the Baal Shem Tov came to me in a dream and demanded that I return to my people. I began to think of repenting, but wondered if I had the strength. The night before my sermon, the Baal Shem Tov appeared to me again, saying that he was coming to help me. 

The Baal Shem Tov gave me instruction for carrying out my repentance. When I asked him how I would know that my repentance had been accepted, he replied: 'When a man comes to you and tells you the story of what happened that day, you will know that your repentance has been accepted.'

“I faithfully followed all of the Baal Shem Tov's instructions. When you came here, I recognized you immediately. And when you could not remember a single tale, especially my tale, I knew that my repentance was not yet complete. These past few days I have done a lot of soul searching and, thank God, now I know that my repentance has been truly accepted.”

He was saved by hearing his own story. 

We each have dual roles in the transmission of the important stories in our lives – we serve as both the receivers and the transmitters. In this year that has passed, this year in which my daughter was born and my grandmother died, I am humbly aware that my place in the line of the story has changed. I can no longer be one to simply listen to the story, to receive the tradition, but now I take on a more active role as a teller of the stories to the next generation. My grandma will live on in the stories that I share with my daughter, Yael, and the values that she imparted to me through her stories will guide our lives on as I continue to share them. 

As we enter this New Year, let us consider as we look back and reflect, what were the significant stories that we heard this year? What stories do we hope to tell this year? And how will they impact our lives and our world in the way that only a story can?

May this be a year of receiving and transmitting our stories. Of inspiration and memory. Of remembering and acting. May we be stirred by the stories that we hear and moved to share them with those we love.

L’shana Tova.