William Hamilton

Stories that are telling

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Oberlin College. “And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher who didn’t quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great and profound significance: Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be; We ain’t what we wanna be; We ain’t what we gonna be; But thank God we ain’t what we was!”

Almost all inspirational stories, according to Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick, follow one of three plots. The Challenge plot is the story of the underdog, of will-power over adversity, of David defeating Goliath. The Connection plot is about relationships, not just romance but also bridging gaps, surmounting divides. And the Creativity plot inspires discovery, breakthrough moments like the apple falling on Newton’s head. Rev. King’s story is one of our Nation’s greatest challenge plots that stirs us to be more.

But what happens when people are telling very different stories about the same events? We aren’t the first generation to feel as if we are living one story only to discover that we are enacting an entirely different one. In this week’s portion of Torah, Joseph tells his still-anxious brothers as much.  “And you thought bad against me; but God thought it for good” (Gen. 50:20).  Joseph is acknowledging that his brothers had bitter and violent intent against him.  They sought to turn his dreams into nightmares.  Yet God had entirely different designs.  God sought to save Jacob’s family form famine and to settle them in Egypt in anticipation of redeeming them.   

Of course, many stories are not inspirational.  Some are tragic.  Others can be painful.  And we must interpret this biblical passage with caution.  It is not saying that God hides in all silver linings.  Nor is it suggesting that reckless means are justified by noble ends.  Rather it may be conveying that when we act responsibly and generously we can tilt outcomes toward merit.  It is not accidental that sibling reconciliation brings them face to face with a new story — the larger arc of which will transform history. 

Perhaps this is a fourth story plot 0- one which incorporates elements of all three plots, as well as of painful plots  –– which we call The Exodus.   It challenges us to stand with the powerless (slaves in Egypt) against the powerful (Pharaoh).  It implores us, as strangers in a strange land, to forge connections with others.  And its emphasis on freedom (from bitterly painful slavery and stubborn rigidity) fuels our creative resourcefulness, seeking breakthroughs to more hopeful tomorrows. 

Rev. King (whose birthday is this weekend) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (whose yahrzeit is this weekend) — both of whom spoke at Kehillath Israel fifty years ago — possessed unique gifts for making an invisible God audible.  Their message?  God was telling a different story — back then — and even now.  Undeterred, may we live in accord with its designs.

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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