Identity: Narrative and Choices
I once heard the following story… It was one of those years when baseball’s World Series coincided with Yom Kippur. A man, a good Jew was having a serious spiritual crisis about the issue. So he went to his rabbi and said, “I know that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year and that the Kol Nidrei prayer is something every Jew tries to attend. But this year there’s a crucial game on television that same night and I don’t know what to do.” The rabbi didn’t get upset. Instead, he said, “That’s what they invented DVR’s for.” The congregant replied in joyful amazement: “You mean I can record Kol Nidrei?”
In 1910, Rabbi Solomon Schechter ,the second president of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the founder of the Conservative Movement, allegedly told his rabbinical student, “Remember this, unless you can play baseball, you will never get to be a rabbi in America!”
So I don’t know a lot about baseball but I have enough information to ask youa very simple question: Where was Sandy Koufax on Yom Kippur morning 52 years ago?
Even though many rabbis claim that he was at their services, the truth is that nobody really knows. What we all know is where he was NOT. Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because of his observance of Yom Kippur. In his autobiography published the following year, he wrote, “There was never any decision to make … because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows I don’t work that day.”
Koufax repeated his rationale over the next years: “I had taken Yom Kippur off for 10 years. It was just something I’d always done with respect.”
So what is this sermon all about?
I want to explore with you a very simple idea. In the Ethics of our parents in the mishna on chapter 3 verse 1 we read:
דע מאין באת, ולאן אתה הולך, ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון.
…”Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting”…
This sermon is about identity. Know from where you are coming, which means what is your narrative, and where you are going, meaning what are the choices that guide your way.
Let’s start with the Narrative…
The Torah in general and the book of Genesis in particular is a story that came to challenge the understanding of humanity at the time. By placing Man in the center of the creation Torah creates a narrative of human responsibility toward the world and its creatures.
The most important Mitzvah of passover is to narrate it to our children: v’higadta l’banecha והגדת לבניך.
God introduces Himself in the 10 commandments with a story: אני ה’ אלוהיך אשר הוצתאיך מארץ מצריים – I am Yah your God who took you out of the land of Egypt. Thus it introduces the narrative of redemption, of empathy, and of the recognition of human suffering.
Our identities are sustained by narratives…
There is a story that I used to share with my students when I was a young counselor in Argentina almost 20 years ago. This story is about a little boy who got lost in a store. When the manager found out, he took him by the hand and asked: – What is your name?
For a second he kept on crying.
– What is your name? He repeated.
“Dan Segal,” he replied.
And when he said his name something wonderful happened to him. Suddenly he felt good. He knew his name, he was somebody. Saying his name made him feel safe and centered again. He wasn’t lost because he knew who he was!
A few days later, something that happened at school reminded Dan of that incident. Dan was in a class studying about America. The teacher asked each of the students to say something about the countries of their respective parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Someone talked about Holland, another about Ireland, and so on. Then the teacher called Moshe Samuels, who, to her surprise, did not get up.
The teacher looked at him for a moment and said, – Well, Moshe, don’t you have something interesting to tell us. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?
Dan looked at Moshe and noticed that his friend felt as he did that day in the store. He was blushing and his eyes were wet. Then Dan was called on. He started by explaining that the word Jewish comes from Judah, and that he was one of the sons of Jacob.He explained what that name has represented throughout Jewish history. He also shared a few more things that he was taught in the synagogue: how the Jewish people had been delivered from the Egyptians and how we had observed the ten commandments and the sacred festivities. When he sat down again, he felt the same way he had felt in the store when he remembered his name and was able to utter it loud and clear. He was filled with tranquility and confidence.
Later Dan wrote:
Now I wonder if a person can get lost knowing his name and his address perfectly well. I wonder if a person needs more than his name in order to identify himself. I wonder if there is another kind of name, an inner name that arises from knowing who we are and where we come from. My inner name is Jewish and I think I am fortunate to know it.
When you know your name you can’t get lost! When you know your name you become someone…
Our identities are sustained by our Narratives!
Dr Marshall Duke and Dr Robyn Fivush, from Emory University discovered something amazing about personal narratives: They noticed that students who know a lot about their families tend to face challenges better.
So They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale. They asked children to answer 20 questions, such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
The more children knew about their family’s history – both the good and the bad – the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. They proved to be more resilient by being able to moderate the effects of stress.
One of most the important things that you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.
The researchers explain the results by stressing the importance of the child’s sense of being part of a larger family. The children who have the most self-confidence have what they call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. From here we learn that our narratives also give us emotional support and strength. We understand that דע מאין באת – Know where you come from – is an essential question in our lives.
Now let’s explore the לאן אתה הולך ,the “where you are going”.
As I said, the “where you are going” has to do with the choices that you make. The sum of our choices say something about who we are.
How do I become the person that I want to be?
How do I become a good father – Brother – Son – Husband or Friend?
How should I embrace my Jewish identity?
The profound desire of being what we want to be is always challenged by making the choices that bring that desire to the realm of life.
In this complex context, I find thought provoking the ideas of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his book “The Lonely Man of Faith”. …”There are two sides of our nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature. He wants to build, to create. Adam II is the humble side of our nature. Adam II wants not only to do good but to be good, to live in a way internally that honors God, creation and our possibilities. Adam I savors accomplishment. Adam II savors inner consistency and strength. Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here.
And Soloveitchik argued that these two sides of our nature are at war with each other. We live in perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value. We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I, and often neglects Adam II. And the problem is, that turns you into someone who treats life as a game, and you become a cold, calculating creature who slips into a sort of mediocrity where you realize there’s a difference between your desired self and your actual self. You don’t have the depth of conviction. You don’t have commitment to tasks that would take more than a lifetime to commit”…
Making choices is a constant battle between these two deep rooted forces. The challenge is to question our intuitive decisions and reactions with the perspective of the self that we would like to be. Any meaningful legacy that we pass on to our families is the product of hard work, conviction and consistency.
What are the songs, the foods, the stories that tell about who you are? What are the choices that you made that can tell about your essence?
In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Silver headed the search for thousands of displaced Jewish children across Europe. They had been hidden from the clutches of the Nazis in farms, convents, and monasteries, and now he sought to return them to their families if at all possible.
The rabbi had a promising lead with a report that a monastery in southern France had taken in Jewish children. But the priest in charge was of little help, declaring that to his knowledge, all of their children were Christians. And Rabbi Silver could produce no records.
Schwartz … Kaufmann … Schneider …
These family names were obviously German, but they could be either Jewish or Gentile. He scanned their small faces—many had lived there since they were toddlers. How could he know if any of them were from Jewish families?
He asked if he could visit again at bedtime . When he returned at night, in front of the children he began singing in Hebrew, “Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.” (Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.)
A handful of faces lit up. Remembering the prayer that had once been part of their bedtime ritual, many children in the room, covered their eyes and started crying and calling out for their mothers.
We All are sometimes lost… And We feel exactly like the kid in the mall, or like the kid in the classroom… Sometimes, like the kids in the orphanage, we don’t even know how lost we are.
We live in a confusing world and the experience of being lost happens in a variety of places and moments. That’s why we need to make sure that we carry in our baggage the narratives and the tools that will help us remember from where we are coming and where we want to go! We want to have the emotional strength to live meaningful lives.
We want to have the tools to be able to say things like: Today is Yom Kippur and I don’t work … Or in other words these are my limits and if I go beyond them I’ll distance myself from the self that I want to be.
We want to hold the narrative that reminds us that we are Jews, that our story is about redemption of the oppressed and about human empathy.
We want to close our eyes and to hear the loving voices of our parents… We want our children to close their eyes and to perceive our love. We want to experience the power of an “intergenerational self” that connects us with our inner name.
May we have the love, the patience and the consistency to repeat again and again our stories and to pass on their strength.
May we have the courage to question our choices and to embrace the person that we want to be.
May this 5778 reaffirm in us the bravery to be who we are, to remember where we come from and to truly choose where we want to go!
G’mar Chatima tovah