William Hamilton

Trustworthy storytelling

Analogies make the unfamiliar, more familiar. But they can also convince us that we’re more aware of something than we actually are. As journalist Gershom Gorenberg has noted, “The problem with analogies is that they take something you don’t understand, equate it with something you do understand, and make you think you understand it.”

Having observed Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, it’s important to take analogy-manipulation seriously. The Holocaust itself has become the subject of today’s most faulty comparisons. The Shoah, of course, defies comparison. The same applies to every genocide. Every atrocity requires attentive witnessing and honest testimony. When we’re genuine about the things we intimately know, we encourage others to be so in kind. Rotate your heart to listen to Ukrainians, to Uyghurs of China, and to the Rohingya of Myanmar.

In this week’s potion of Torah, the phrase ‘the stranger in your midst’ recurs five times. Perhaps the Hebrew wording, ha-gare hagar b’tochechem, is not merely speaking about foreigners or strangers in our midst. It’s also pointing to the parts of ourselves which are inauthentic to who we are at our core. Like the instances when we performed, or postured, or posted, in order to feel better about ourselves. But they weren’t true to who we really are. They were staged, counterfeit. Our task, particularly in testimony, is to purge the un-genuine.

Rabbi Yonah Emmanuel told the following story at the Jerusalem Bris of his grandson in 1985. “I’ve been unable to tell this story until now. I never told it to my wife. I never told it to my children. I never told it to anyone.

“On Passover evening in 1945 I came back utterly exhausted from hard labor in Bergen-Belson. I was 19 years old. My father, my brothers Elchanan and Shalom, and my sister Batya, were all dead. I went to my mother’s hut. She was very ill. I sat next to her and began reciting the Haggadah. We had no wine or matzah. The only thing we had was maror (bitter herbs). We had much bitterness in our hearts.

“I whispered the words of Seder into my mother’s ear. I don’t know whether or not she heard me. When I came to the blessing of deliverance, “So, too, Lord our God, and God of our fathers, enable us to reach future holidays and festivals in peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city” I felt for the first time, that I didn’t believe what I was saying. Would any of us reach future holidays? Would any of us ever see Jerusalem? Would any of us ever rejoice again? I burst into tears. And in the middle of the blessing I stopped reciting the Haggadah… If only I had been able to describe to myself back in 1945 a hint of what has happened since then. If only I had been able to imagine raising seven children and holding my grandson at his Bris in Jerusalem 40 years later, I would have had the strength to complete that Seder with my mother.”

For me a most powerful aspect of Rabbi Emmanuel’s story is how many decades it took him to share it. People who survive traumas don’t brag about them. If they do, it may be important to wonder why. Boasting about suffering can be as problematic as efforts to marginalize it.

As we strive to handle analogies with care, particularly when they apply to our most painful times, may we do our best to be honest about them and with ourselves. Thus may we enable future generations to carry our stories with honor and trust.

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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