A story for President’s weekend. Prior to the election of 1860, an unknown stranger came upon an Texas plantation. The plantation owner took him in as a guest. The stranger paid close attention to how the slaves were treated, how they were whipped and sometimes sold. Then the stranger said goodbye and went on his way. Weeks later he wrote a letter to the plantation owner, informing him he would soon have to free his slaves—“that everybody was going to have to, that the North was going to see to it.” The stranger told the owner to go into the room where he had slept and see where he had carved his name into the headrest. When the slaveholder went and looked, he saw the name: “A. Lincoln.”
Dozens of similar stories were told back in the 1930’s by surviving slaves. As William R. Black wrote this week in The Atlantic, whether these stories actually occurred is less important than the reality that survivors believed they were true. Precisely at a time in history when white- supremacists were claiming that Lincoln, had he lived, would have restored slaveowner rights, former slaves countered with stories of Lincoln’s intimate identification with their plight.
Our chosen stories can be very telling. Our stories have agendas. Selecting the ones we decide to tell also points to our agency. We are free to tell that which we wish to tell.
A curious contrast to biblical slavery presents itself in this week’s portion of Torah. Throughout the first third of the Book of Exodus, the hardened heart of Pharaoh inflicted pain onto Hebrew slaves in Egypt. As we now begin the final third of the book, we are introduced to the opposite of a hard heart. Not a soft heart, but a free, voluntary heart. “Everyone whose heart impels him (yi-dvenu libo) to give” (Ex. 25:2). The arc of the Torah’s second book moves from coercive, harsh-heartedness toward freely expressed, generous-heartedness.
Alas, the setting for our country’s latest mass-murder is a school – a place of learning. Yet the stories told in response reveal lessons unlearned. They also feel tinged with coercion. Does a storyteller rigidly associate with protection or with weapons? With the motive and mental capacity of the killer or with the agony of the bereaved? Listen well. Speakers clearly convey the stories they wish to project. Policy and practice may grind and drag. But learning should not. Take note of any who seem open to learning. They voluntarily and freely model open, generous hearts (n’divat lev).
On this President’s weekend when we cherish our nation’s greatest leaders, we appreciate that they were also among our greatest learners. May we elect to tell and hear fresh stories. And may they shape new ‘thoughts and prayers’ that go to the heart of the matter.