Chasidic tales. The foolish but pious people of Chelm. Folklore. Myths. The Jewish people is a people of storytellers. We use stories to make our points, identify moral and ethical responsibilities, and connect ourselves to an ancient tradition. Each time we hear a story, we find ourselves in it. Maybe we don’t always do this consciously, but each of us is looking for that connection; that meaning; that relevance.
As we start reading the book of Deuteronomy this week, we see Moses as a prominent storyteller. He recounts the journeys of the Israelites in a multi-part speech that includes instructions, laws, warnings, blessings, and curses. From one perspective, this discourse prepares the Israelites for Moses’s death. At the same time, the people are also carving out their own place in the story. They listen and they relate, finding themselves in the story of people they did not know; of events they did not experience firsthand. But that is the power of storytelling; we can embody the message and identify the importance without necessarily experiencing it ourselves.
Take for instance, just these past few weeks: stories of Israelis living with fear of rocket attacks from Gaza. Stories of Palestinian civilians living with fear of the next Israeli Air Force strike. Stories of children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala who are fleeing violence. Stories of LGBT individuals facing state-sanctioned discrimination in Uganda. Stories of women and children suffering sexual and gender based violence in the Global South.
These stories compel us to action. These stories agitate us to do something. These stories drive our fight for justice. The words of D’varim accomplish something similar. The story of the Israelites asks us to connect; to enter into the sacred covenant with God; to find meaning in Jewish tradition. The stories we hear become an inextricable part of our own story.
As we begin reading the fifth and final book of Torah this week, let us each be stirred by the stories we read and hear. Let us be motivated to engage. And let our engagement lead to a holier, more sacred, and more peaceful world.
Leah Citrin will begin her 5th year as a rabbinical student this fall at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. This summer, Leah is proud to be a Rabbinic Legislative Assistant at the RAC.