Stories that are telling

“A vote for a film has become a vote for a cause.”  This weekend’s Academy Awards was thus summed up in this week’s Wall Street Journal.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Well-told stories are intended to represent larger lessons from history, values, and the human condition. 

We are storytelling beings. In order to answer questions like ‘What should I do?’, we must first sense clarify ‘Of what story am I a part?’  As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman once said, “No one ever made a decision based on a number.  People need a story.”

Hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare’s plays were today’s Hollywood’s screenplays.  Thousands of years ago, biblical stories were told to inform our moral imagination.  Ever since, their relevance has been due less to their supernatural drama, than to their entirely natural human struggles over right and wrong.  Civilization has changed a lot over the millennia, but human nature has not.

This week’s portion of Torah presents the story of the sin of the Golden Calf.   It is, in the end, a story of forgiveness.  Yes, the Tablets are smashed and three thousand lives are taken.  But the remaining three million women, men, and children of the House of Israel are spared. 

Forgiveness has a particular flavor in the text.  It does not come freely.  Its costs include effort and accountability.  God is prepared to end the covenanted project with the Children of Israel.  Their idolatry, less than six weeks after the Sinai revelation, is flagrant.  But Moses’ reminds God of promises made and demonstrates the force of his own commitment.  “Please forgive their sin” he entreats.  “If not, You can blot me out from the book that You have written” (Ex. 32:32).  The horizon of covenant surmounts the immediacy of context.  And there is more.  Earned forgiveness can reward with breakthroughs of newfound intimacy.  God’s essential attributes featuring patient mercy emerge (Ex. 34:46).  A second set of Tablets flows from the Torah’s most intimate encounter between Deity and Prophet. 

Curiously, the portion ends with its first mention of Holy Days like Passover and Sukkot.  Why? Perhaps to allude to what will become its method of turning one-time events into annual celebrations.  A first Seder in Egypt becomes ritualized and re-enacted to become an annual observance.  ‘Once upon a time’ stories will be made into seasonally re-lived rituals.  This too will apply to forgiveness.  Yom Kippur’s roots emerge from the Golden Calf iniquity.  The Portion’s prologue alerts us to this with recurring references to the word Kippur (Ex. 30:12, 15, 16).

As we struggle with grievances over wrongs inflicted by others, may this season when we honor Motion Pictures that are most worthy of our esteem, also prove to be a time when we take personally the lessons from the Torah’s telling story of forgiveness.  May our vote for its story make it our story.

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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