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Jonathan Sacks
Jonathan Sacks

Telling the Story (Bo, Covenant & Conversation)

'The Jewish story is in its way the oldest of all, yet ever young, and we are each a part of it. It tells us who we are and who our ancestors hoped we would be.' (Pixabay)

Go to Washington and take a tour of the memorials and you will make a fascinating discovery. Begin at the Lincoln Memorial with its giant statue of the man who braved civil war and presided over the ending of slavery. On one side you will see the Gettysburg Address, that masterpiece of brevity with its invocation of “a new birth of freedom.” On the other is the great Second Inaugural with its message of healing: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…” Walk down to the Potomac basin and you see the Martin Luther King Memorial with its sixteen quotes from the great fighter for civil rights, among them his 1963 statement, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” And giving its name to the monument as a whole, a sentence from the I Have a Dream speech, “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”

Continue along the tree-lined avenue bordering the water and you arrive at the Roosevelt Memorial, constructed as a series of six spaces, one for each decade of his public career, each with a passage from one of the defining speeches of the time, most famously, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Lastly, bordering the Basin at its southern edge, is a Greek temple dedicated to the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Around the dome are the words he wrote to Benjamin Rush: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Defining the circular space are four panels, each with lengthy quotations from Jefferson’s writings, one from the Declaration itself, another beginning, “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and a third “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Each of these four monuments is built around texts, and each tells a story.

Now compare the monuments in London, most conspicuously those in Parliament Square. The memorial to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George contains three words: David Lloyd George. The one to Nelson Mandela has two: Nelson Mandela, and the Winston Churchill memorial just one: Churchill. Winston Churchill was a man of words, in his early life a journalist, later a historian, author of almost fifty books. He won the Nobel Prize not for Peace but for Literature. He delivered as many speeches and coined as many unforgettable sentences as Jefferson or Lincoln, Roosevelt or Martin Luther King Jr., but none of his utterances is engraved on the plinth beneath his statue. He is memorialised only by his name.

The difference between the American and British monuments is unmistakable, and the reason is that Britain and the United States have a quite different political and moral culture. England is, or was until recently, a tradition-based society. In such societies, things are as they are because that is how they were “since time immemorial.” It is unnecessary to ask why. Those who belong, know. Those who need to ask, show thereby that they don’t belong.

American society is different because from the Pilgrim Fathers onward it was based on the concept of covenant as set out in Tanach, especially in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The early settlers were Puritans, in the Calvinist tradition, the closest Christianity came to basing its politics on the Hebrew Bible. Covenantal societies are not based on tradition. The Puritans, like the Israelites three thousand years earlier, were revolutionaries, attempting to create a new type of society, one unlike Egypt or, in the case of America, England. Michael Walzer called his book on the politics of the seventeenth century Puritans, The Revolution of the Saints.[1] They were trying to overthrow the tradition that gave absolute power to kings and maintained established hierarchies of class.

Covenantal societies always represent a conscious new beginning by a group of people dedicated to an ideal. The story of the founders, the journey they made, the obstacles they had to overcome and the vision that drove them are essential elements of a covenantal culture. Retelling the story, handing it onto one’s children, and dedicating oneself to continuing the work that earlier generations began, are fundamental to the ethos of such a society. A covenanted nation is not simply there because it is there. It is there to fulfil a moral vision. That is what led G. K. Chesterton to call the United States a nation “with the soul of a church,”[2] the only one in the world “founded on a creed”[3] (Chesterton’s antisemitism prevented him from crediting the true source of America’s political philosophy, the Hebrew Bible).

The history of storytelling as an essential part of moral education begins in this week’s parsha. It is quite extraordinary how, on the brink of the Exodus, Moses three times turns to the future and to the duty of parents to educate their children about the story that was shortly to unfold: “When your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’ you shall answer, ‘It is the Passover service to God. He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians, sparing our homes” (Ex. 12:25-27). “On that day, you shall tell your child, ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8). “Your child may later ask you, ‘What is this?’ You shall answer them, ‘With a show of power, God brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery’ (Ex. 13:14).

This is truly extraordinary. The Israelites have not yet emerged into the dazzling light of freedom. They are still slaves. Yet already Moses is directing their minds to the far horizon of the future and giving them the responsibility of passing on their story to succeeding generations. It is as if Moses were saying: Forget where you came from and why, and you will eventually lose your identity, your continuity and your raison d’etre. You will come to think of yourself as the mere member of a nation among nations, one ethnicity among many. Forget the story of freedom and you will eventually lose freedom itself.

Rarely indeed have philosophers written on the importance of storytelling for the moral life. Yet that is how we become the people we are. The great exception among modern philosophers has been Alasdair MacIntyre, who wrote, in his classic After Virtue, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Deprive children of stories, says MacIntyre, and you leave them “anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”[4]

No one understood this more clearly than Moses, who knew that without a specific identity it is almost impossible not to lapse into whatever is the current idolatry of the age – rationalism, idealism, nationalism, fascism, communism, postmodernism, relativism, individualism, hedonism, or consumerism, to name only the most recent. The alternative, a society based on tradition alone, crumbles as soon as respect for tradition dies, which it always does at some stage or another.

Identity, which is always particular, is based on story, the narrative that links me to the past, guides me in the present, and places on me responsibility for the future. And no story, at least in the West, was more influential than that of the Exodus, the memory that the Supreme Power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless, together with the covenant that followed whereby the Israelites bound themselves to God in a promise to create a society that would be the opposite of Egypt, where individuals were respected as the image of God, where one day in seven all hierarchies of power were suspended, and where dignity and justice were accessible to all. We never quite reached that ideal state, but we never ceased to travel toward it and believed it was there at journey’s end.

“The Jews have always had stories for the rest of us,” said the BBC’s political correspondent, Andrew Marr.[5] God created man, Elie Wiesel once wrote, because God loves stories.[6] What other cultures have done through systems, Jews have done through stories. And in Judaism, the stories are not engraved in stone on memorials, magnificent though that is. They are told at home, around the table, from parents to children as the gift of the past to the future. That is how storytelling in Judaism was devolved, domesticated, and democratised.

Only the most basic elements of morality are universal: “thin” abstractions like justice or liberty tend to mean different things to different people in different places and different times. But if we want our children and our society to be moral, we need a collective story that tells us where we came from and what our task is in the world. The story of the Exodus, especially as told on Pesach at the Seder table, is always the same yet ever-changing, an almost infinite set of variations on a single set of themes that we all internalise in ways that are unique to us, yet we all share as members of the same historically extended community.

There are stories that ennoble, and others that stultify, leaving us prisoners of ancient grievances or impossible ambitions. The Jewish story is in its way the oldest of all, yet ever young, and we are each a part of it. It tells us who we are and who our ancestors hoped we would be. Storytelling is the great vehicle of moral education. It was the Torah’s insight that a people who told their children the story of freedom and its responsibilities would stay free for as long as humankind lives and breathes and hopes.


[1] The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

[2] What I Saw in America (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922), p. 10.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), p. 216.

[5] Andrew Marr, The Observer, Sunday, 14th May 2000.

[6] The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston), preface.


Listen to the audio recording by Rabbi Sacks zt”l by click here


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Available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, Persian, German, and Turkish.


QUESTIONS FOR THE SHABBAT TABLE:

  1. What is the power of a story?
  2. Why is it important for political leaders, teachers, and parents to all tell stories?
  3. What stories are important in your family?

To learn more from Rabbi Sacks zt”l, please visit his website www.RabbiSacks.org or follow @RabbiSacks on social media .

You can also join one of his WhatsApp groups by visiting www.RabbiSacks.org/WhatsApp.


LATEST BOOKS:


The Power of Ideas: Words of Faith and Wisdom

With a Foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales, this new volume brings together a compelling selection of Rabbi Sacks’ BBC Radio Thought for the Day broadcasts, Credo columns from The Times, and a range of articles published in the world’s most respected newspapers, along with his House of Lords speeches and keynote lectures.

First heard and read in many different contexts, these pieces demonstrate with striking coherence the developing power of Rabbi Sacks’ ideas, on faith and philosophy alike. In each instance he brings to bear deep insights into the immediate situation at the time – and yet it as if we hear him speaking to us afresh, giving us new strength to face the challenges and complexities of today’s world.

These words of faith and wisdom shine as a beacon of enduring light in an increasingly conflicted cultural climate, and prove the timeless nature and continued relevance of Jonathan Sacks’ thought and teachings.

Available to order here.


Studies in Spirituality: A weekly reading of the Jewish Bible

Studies in Spirituality is the new volume collating a year of Rabbi Sacks’ Covenant & Conversation essays. Each chapter on the weekly Torah portion contains an uplifting idea on finding spirituality within every sedra, and within ourselves.

With a Foreword by Sivan Rahav Meir.

Available to order here.


Tanakh: The Magerman Edition

A decade in development, the new Koren “Tanakh: Magerman Edition” offers an eloquent, faithful, and masterful translation of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings with the renowned Koren Hebrew text. This volume includes – for the first time – Rabbi Sacks’ new, modern, readable and accurate translation of Torah that was completed shortly before he passed away.

In a recent review, The Jerusalem Report said: “The beauty, felicity and scholarship inherent in Sacks’ rendering of the Torah into elegant modern English are apparent on every one of its 498 pages, which form something like a quarter of the whole… [This] magnificent new edition of the Tanach – a work that sets a new standard of excellence.”

Click here to take a look inside.

Purchase the Tanach directly from Koren publishers: click here


Rabbi Sacks And The Community We Built Together 

Family members and colleagues of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from the UK as well as team members from his tenure as Chief Rabbi have joined to produce a new book of many original articles, photos, stories and Torah teaching to pay their tribute to Rabbi Sacks’ impact as Chief Rabbi and perpetuate that legacy – the community we built together.

Some of the many highlights include, a Foreword from Lady Elaine Sacks, an Introduction from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, recollections from Rabbi Sacks’ family, stories from friends and colleagues, insights into all of his books, and contributions from the Dayanim of the London Beth Din.

Click here to learn more and to order a copy


These weekly essays written by Rabbi Sacks zt”l were originally distributed as part of the Covenant & Conversation Ethics series. The Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust will carry on distributing these essays each week, to allow people around the world to continue to learn from, and be inspired, by his Torah teachings. 

About the Author
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) was a global religious leader, philosopher, the author of more than 25 books, and moral voice for our time. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. Rabbi Sacks passed away in November 2020. His series of essays on the weekly Torah portion, entitled "Covenant & Conversation" will continue to be shared, and distributed around the world,
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