A story can change your life. If it’s really inspiring, it can become the engine for your larger purpose. But stories are also combustible. As Liel Liebovitz illustrates in his magnificent new book, stories can drive people to abandon reality. They can drive them to defy reality. Even to go mad.
Our sages knew this. They knew that, in the hands of heretics or hucksters, a story could cast a spell. They knew that, given our primal urges and their hungry appetites, people could feel so driven by stories, that they’ll carry out reckless plans at any cost.
The sages got this. They understood. And so, they knew our Jewish survival depended on telling a better, more positive story than the grim one unfolding all around them.
As we conclude this Festive season this weekend with a lot of circle-dances, I want to leave you with my favorite 20th century Sukkot story.
Teenage Joel was known as a particularly stubborn student at school where Talmud was studied day and night. He could never accept why Rabbi Kook, the son of the central figure in the history of religious zionism, hung pictures of Herzl and Ben Gurion on his dining room wall, alongside pictures of revered rabbis and hasidic masters. After all, these moderns weren’t religious, didn’t cover their heads, much less take note of Shabbat in their lives.
One day, young Joel knocked at Rabbi Kook’s door to walk him to school. They passed an ultra-orthodox cluster of folks in the neighborhood, listening fervently to one of their leaders on a soapbox. He was proclaiming that the truly pious were like the citron (etrog), the most-prized of Sukkot’s Lulav cluster. “This,” he professed, “is why we encircle the altar with citrons.”
Rabbi Kook got very agitated. Alarmed, actually. He began to pull young Joel away, as if they needed to escape from danger. Young Joel recalled how forcefully the elderly rabbi yanked him onward as he grumbled. Joel leaned in to listen. “This is mistaken. It’s incorrect,” the rabbi continued, “The altar was not encircled by citrons. It’s encircled by willows.” The citron is the most elite of the four species. While the willow is the most inclusive. It see’s the best in everyone because it looks for it.
At that moment, something clicked for young Joel. He now understood why figures like Herzl and Ben Gurion deserved as prominent a place as the avowedly pious did. At that moment, Rabbi Kook became his rabbi. And it is that moment, dear reader, that needs to find its pulse today. May it become a beating heart for our people in the year we’ve just begun.