One of my favourite songs from the hit musical Hamilton is “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. Alexander Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of America, however it was not just the way in which he revolutionised the fiscal system but his ability to succeed under extreme adversity that made his story both fascinating and inspiring. Nonetheless, few had heard about him (certainly outside of America) until he became the title of the Broadway musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. At the end of the musical Hamilton’s wife sings these words:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Every other founding fathers’ story gets told
Every other founding father gets to grow old.
And when you’re gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?
We know that history is told by the victors, which means a certain story will get told, and others will not. This is part of the arc of human history.
Storytelling is perhaps the oldest form of identity formation. Humans tell stories in order to create a sense of belonging. Noah Yuval Harari describes this in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, though he believes none of the stories we tell are necessarily based on objective truth but rather on myths, yet emphasising that stories are the mechanism through which homo sapiens create meaning and find their place in the cosmic drama.
Stories are our earliest form of imaginative reasoning and they are also the way in which we nurture curiosity and knowledge in the young.
Carmine Gallo, a public-speaking coach and author of the bestselling book Talk Like Ted, argues that what makes a successful speech is one in which we tell a story. Storytelling helps the speaker connect with the audience and transforms data and facts into heart and emotion. When we hear a story, we become involved in it, we begin to identify with the character, we see ourselves in the narrative.
Torah is a book of law but it is also fundamentally a book of narrative. To ensure the survival of the Jewish people we need more than law, more than data and facts – we need a story. Stories create identity, nurture community and foster connection and commitment.
In today’s post-identity culture there has been an abandonment of what we would term grand narratives. The philosopher Jean- François Lyotard understood ‘postmodernism’ to be the rejection of a meta-narrative, a universal narrative that defined the human story. Today his argument has been taken to a radical end, where we see an abandonment of ANY narrative – objective, subjective, universal or individual. We view the individual as a floating atom disconnected to anything that comes before or after it. We have no sense of belonging, no formative identity and ultimately no responsibility to anything other than ourselves in the present moment. Whilst this ‘enlightened’ view may have some immediate benefits, in the long term it cannot sustain humanity. Because we are, ultimately, social animals and in order to create a society, a world, in which we facilitate the betterment of others, we each need to play a role, we need to understand our place and see ourselves as something larger than the present moment and our present ‘state of being’.
In this week’s parsha we read one of my favourite narratives in the book of Devarim. The parsha begins כי תבוא – when you enter the land. One would perhaps expect instructions on how to form a governing body, an army, a system of rule. Instead, we find an unexpected narrative in chapter 26 telling us that when we come to the land we must take our first fruits up to the Temple and to the priest who will lay the fruit before us on the altar. The farmer is then commanded to tell the story of his people in the following declaration:
My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and lived there as a stranger, just a handful of souls, and there he became a great nation – large, mighty, and great. And the Egyptians dealt cruelly with us and oppressed us, subjecting us to harsh labor. We cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors. And the Lord heard our voice and He saw our oppression, our toil, and our enslavement. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and His arm stretched forth, with terrifying power, with signs, and with wonders. He brought us into this place and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and with honey. And now I am bringing the first fruit of the land that You, O Lord, have given me. (Devarim 26:5-10)
The first thing we are instructed about as we enter the land is neither battle tactics nor fiscal or legal policy. Instead, we are instructed to tell a story. But not just any story – one that gives context to this moment – a story that explains how we got here, why we are here and what this moment means for me as an individual and as a member of my nation. Why? Because that is the key to our survival.
God understood what Noah Yuval Harari, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Carmine Gallo discovered in the last two decades – that stories create identity, and identity creates community and community creates responsibility and without responsibility there can be no society. When we tell a story we become a part of it. We put ourselves into the picture and hence we will naturally be reluctant to leave the stage. No wonder the Rabbis chose this narrative as the central text for the Haggadah on Pesach. Pesach is all about living the story, creating memory. This narrative does exactly that. Entering the land holds the risk of hubris – it would be easy to claim that these fruits belong only to me, results of my labor, to my strength, to myself: ואמרת בלבבך כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה – you might be tempted to say to yourself, ‘My power, the strength of my own hand, have brought me this great wealth’ (Devarim 8:17). But by declaring our story, we move from hubris to humility, from self-interest to communal responsibility. We put ourselves in the picture, we place ourselves on the stage, whilst simultaneously being deeply aware of the other actors, of our role, of the moment at which we enter the show. We know that without the entire cast and the progression of the scenes in the production, our moment on the stage will be meaningless.
Twenty years ago this April we made Aliya, 5 months pregnant with our eldest daughter, the first grandchild on both sides. We left our families behind precisely because we believed in the story of the Jewish people. We wanted to be on the stage, not on the sidelines, we wanted to play a part in the Jewish narrative and we felt we could play that role best in the place our people had been praying to return to for 2000 years – the land of Israel. We named our eldest daughter Meital for the water and dew of the land – the motif that exemplifies the covenantal relationship between God and man. This week she will enlist in the Israeli Defence Forces. And whilst we are anxious, we are also brimming with pride that she will play a part in the story of our nation. We are cognisant of the fact that instead of focusing on what degree she will study, which career to choose, what path she wants to follow, like ordinary post-high school graduates, as an Israeli kid she is instead asking “what unit do I want to serve in, what sherut/service do I want to direct my energies towards, what area of society needs me, what skills do I have that can be used best for my country?”. I am not sugar-coating the complexities and problems of this country – there are many and they are complicated. But this week, at the moment when I stand at the army base and send off my eldest daughter to serve her country, I will reflect on the farmer in this week’s parsha who does not take his fruit, the labour of his hands, straight to his home and his family to enjoy but rather takes it up to the Temple places it before the High priest and tells the story of his people, acknowledges his role on the stage of history and subsequently shares his produce with those that have less than him. I will recall the message of Moshe to the people that the key to our survival in the land is neither our political system, our economy nor even our leaders. The key to our survival is the story we choose to tell to our children. I will tell my daughter that in this moment she is connecting to the thousands that have come before her, throughout the centuries of history, those who have fought for this country, and the thousands that will come after her. That she has the profound privilege of living in her nation’s land, a privilege that had been denied to so many of her ancestors for so many centuries. I will remind her of her responsibility to tell the story, our story, her story, the story of our people to anyone who will listen. I will remind her that she is part of a long and rich chain that began with our forefather Abraham responding to a Divine call that bought him to this land, through to the farmer who bought his first fruit to the Temple in the time of Joshua, to King David and all the Kings of Israel, to the pioneers and survivors who resurrected their old-new land in 1948 and the paratroopers who stood crying at the Western Wall in 1967. I will tell her that the greatest source of strength is to know where you came from and to where you are going and to view yourself not just from the parochialism of your own individual narrative but rather as part of a much larger, much grander story. This is where the ‘I’ extends beyond itself to something transcendent and eternal. And I will tell myself, as I will surely wipe a tear (or a few!) away, that now I am giving my child over to the country – this is my fruit, the fruit of my womb, the child I have nurtured and now at this moment I am making the declaration that she is part of the story of my people and I am offering her talents, her goodness and her motivation to the people that I love. I am sharing her with those that need her and though it is hard and a little daunting, it is my farmer moment, my moment of ארמי עובד אבי – my declaration that we are part of the greatest story that humanity has seen and that we are privileged to play a role in the greatest drama ever produced on the stage of human history. And for that I am eternally grateful.