2016-10-12 / Religion Column

The Days of Awe and Sukkot ask us to find our narrative

Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine & President of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors

Parashat Ha’azinu
Deut. 32:1-52

The Torah portion, Ha’azinu, along with the ethos of the Jewish New Year and holiday season begs the question: What’s in our story?

Everyone’s journey to adulthood carries with it the varying embrace of the culture from which we come and the values we were taught to call our own. In this month filled with Jewish ritual, Jewish law, and Jewish culture and values, each of us relies upon our own template to determine how much adjustment is needed to bring us into balance for the New Year and beyond. In many ways, the holiday of Sukkot, which follows five days after Yom Kippur, is about acknowledging the fragility of who we are and the importance of balance in our lives. So, this entire Jewish holiday season is devoted to balancing clarity and aspiration, reality and dreaming, and results in a wide range of emotions, from fear and awe to hope and joy.

If I asked you to tell me what has influenced the values that help you maintain some balance in your life as an adult today, you would probably tell me in the form of a story. Each of us carries with us stories that bridge the gap between who we were raised to be and who we have become. Often, these stories are told to us by family members of influence—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so on—and they last with us and underpin who we are and how we live in the world in seemingly infinite ways.

What can be a little disconcerting for some is the extent to which we have little awareness of or control over the influence of these stories to impact our lives. We can only revel in our luck at having received this wisdom, this “personal Torah,” from those who guided us (for good and for bad) or bemoan and spend countless hours struggling to manage or even undo the vision we unwittingly adopted (or, for most of us, both). I say this because it is rare that someone can understand what is influencing them in the midst of it occurring and then embrace what is appropriate while counteracting or discarding the influence of the rest as an adult, but even more so as a child or young adult.

For me, much of the impact of the stories I have received were not recognized by me as being influential, for good or for bad, until I became an adult and, like many of you, I began to take a hard look at who I had become. For example, I had countless conversations with my maternal grandparents over the limited years that I knew them, often shared in quiet moments during elongated visits in my home or theirs, that focused on their lives as Jews, both in Europe and in the United States. All of them, however, were informed by their practice and vision of what it means to be a Jew.

My grandmother would reiterate, time and again, that being a Jew is not an easy lot in life—it requires sacrifice and devotion yet yields great satisfaction. For her, being a Jew was both an unquestioned reality as well as a choice. I cannot say the same for my maternal grandfather, who, despite his life being steeped in living Jewish values, struggled to embrace an organized expression of Jewish communal life because of the tremendous sacrifice he was forced to endure just to live culturally and religiously in ways that were authentic to his upbringing and his view of the world. Both of these narratives (and others) have had immeasurable impacts on who I am.

And so, we come to the ikar, the “essential thing:” You are now old enough and wise enough to take a careful look at your biases and from whence they came, along with examining how you think and live today so as, in keeping with this “season of turning, returning, and joy,” to bring yourself into greater balance over the coming year. You are standing at a critical moment not only for you but for every soul you touch and thereby influence.

The Days of Awe and Sukkot and the final holidays of the season ask us not only to examine our lives, but also to find the right narrative to share with each person over which we hold even the slightest influence. They may not realize it now—and we may not either without being mindful of our words and deeds—yet the stories we tell, the wisdom earned from our brokenness and our wholeness that we share, impacts generations like ripples in a pond.

We may be reminded in this season and accept the reality that we are fragile beings, but we must also recognize that we are potent partners in Creation; we will be influencing others by our words and our example, whether we plan for it or not. So, let us ask ourselves: Are we ready to wield our power, knowing that tomorrow, or in thousands of tomorrows from now, the stories we tell will be told by those who receive them and make them their own?

May we be granted mindfulness in this season of self-assessment and may we take care and joy in knowing that our narrative voice will live on as echoes for generations to come. And to make that so, may your year to come be one filled with happiness and comfort, adventure and meaning, and, of course, the best of health.

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