What’s our story?

“Public sentiment is everything.  With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed” Abraham Lincoln further observed. “Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces judicial decisions.”  The chief way we shape public sentiment according to Mark Lilla in his important new book is through storytelling.  Aspirational stories stir generations and change history.

Lilla asserts that American public sentiment has been inspired by two different stories over the past century.  From the 1940s through the early 1970s, we were motivated around a picture of fellow citizens seeking to “guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights. It’s watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty.”  From the 1980s until recently, a second story took hold which pictured “a more individualistic America where families and communities and businesses flourished once freed from the shackles of the state.  Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government.”  The next generation of public leadership, Lilla argues, will belong to those who can tell and instill the most compelling new story – a new story that our country hungrily awaits.

This weekend we again witness the ferocious devastation wrought by hurricanes revealing human vulnerability and heroism.   We also anticipate the sixteenth anniversary of September 11, when wickedness took the lives of thousands revealing that the deepest challenges at the turn of the millennium would be ideological rather than technological.   As we witness calamities and devastation which demand the triage of sturdy systems and institutions, we await and deserve a shared story that can inspire our collective righteousness.

God’s Torah shares an esteem for the influence and reach of stories.  For this reason the declaration made upon bringing the first fruits in this week’s portion of Torah involves the telling of a story.  The same story that we tell around our Seder tables each spring.  “My ancestor was a homeless Aramean.  He immigrated to Egypt and grew into a populous nation.  The Egyptians were cruel to us, brutally imposing suffering and slavery.  We cried out to God, the Lord of our ancestors, who heard, saw, and identified with our anguish.  God brought us out with might and miracles, to a fertile land of promise.  Here and now, I gratefully bring forth my first fruits, harvested from the land which you, God, have given me” (Deut. 26:5-10).

Notice how personal this story is – my ancestor; my fruits.  Also, it does not mention Sinai. This is because it is less a story of revelation than a story of redemption.  We emerge from depths to heights; from vulnerability to plenty.  Finally, it pictures what genuine freedom looks like.  It has an outward focus.  It features a spirit of responsibility.  It is generous and grateful.

May we take personally aspirational stories that warm faith, empower responsibility, and instill hope.

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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