‘Each of us is more than the best thing we’ve ever done’

“We choose the story we wish to tell. This may be the most important lesson I could ever teach.” Thus a colleague lovingly reflected in the wake of the sudden, agonizing passing of Rabbi Reuven Cohen (may his memory bless) – beloved teacher and precious soul – just after Yom Kippur this week.  “The story I choose to tell is not to try and make sense of God’s inscrutable ways, but to affirm that Reuven was taken from us fully forgiven, restored to his ancestors fully atoned and cleansed.”

What stories do we like to tell?  Given today’s uncertain world, do we tell of fear and danger?  Or do we focus on resilience and helpfulness?  Do we favor sharing unflattering details about others?  Or do we prefer to show and tell of their positive qualities?

The stories we choose to tell are telling in another way.  What is told’ and ‘how it is told’ says a lot about the person doing the telling.  This is because we have agency when we tell a story.  It is in our hands.  So much of what happens to us is not.  Being in the wrong place at the wrong time – whether in central Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Las Vegas – being in harms way is often not in our hands.  Yet the story we elect to tell says a lot about the kind of people we are.

The Festival of Sukkot holds many different stories.  Moments of joy amidst the fragile and fleeting.  Returning to nature in a way that may ennoble human nature.  God’s sheltering presence.  Ingathering inclusively.  Curiously, King David is prominent.  His fallen Sukkah will be raised (Sukkot prayer in Grace after meals) and even the Festival’s scroll, Ecclesiastes, opens by ascribing authorship to the son of David (Ecc. 1:1).  Why David?  What stories do we tell of him?  What qualifies him for Messianic ancestry?  Was he the Bible’s great warrior?  Did he establish Jerusalem’s centrality and compose Psalms?  Or was it that he sinned, and then repented?

Do our stories generate excessive pride?  Or do they reflect deep humility.  If it is true that ‘each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’, then the inverse is also true.  ‘Each of us is more than the best thing we’ve ever done.’ 

Such a realization is sobering.  Yet it can also be activating.  Every Saturday night prior to Havdallah, we pray a prayer that connects God’s greatness with God’s humility.  Perhaps great goodness finds its source in deep humility.  May this be a season when we consider what we are telling and how, so that our stories gently bestow dignity and activate goodness.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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