Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Thoughts Following Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz' "The Ongoing Story: Exploring the Enduring Impact of the Exodus"

I just heard a wonderful presentation from Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz. She made great observations about the telling of the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. For one thing, before the story finishes, G-d says that everything that transpires is happening so that the Jewish People can tell the story to their children. Wow.

Another point was that matzah and marror are commanded as mitzvot before the Jews leave Egypt (as part of the Korban Pesach), so their more than just part of the story telling that happens about the story as we look back. There's this fascinating phenomenon of the story not just as something being told after and about the narative but it being part of the narrative, clearing making this a story that we need "to question."

Also, it's a story without a clear begin or end.  We were told that we would tell it while it was happening, which blurs when it starts as a story.  And we're told to tell it for all generations, which means it doesn't end.  It's "a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it," scooped from our past and present and poured back into our eternity.

Dr. Jacowowitz also pointed out how central Yetziat Mitzrayim is to so many mitzvot (unlike Mtan Torah, which is not referenced in that way!) and how this is in part because more than being part of our history, it's meant to be part of our destiny.  The point is to live a life infused with the lessons of The Exodus, a sensitivity to victims and strangers and a deep understanding that's always evolving from that experience through which we were born as a nation.  

Peripherally issues and questions were raised about how the story speaks to us as individuals and as a nation, about how it is our story and also a story that belongs to the world, and about how it is ever evolving and adapting to the times - as evidenced by the many hagadot that continue to appear with fresh framings of the ever flowing story.

I am a story teller.  And I'm always interested in new quotes about it.  I'm thinking now about this unique mitzvah of telling a story.  As Rabbi Shlomo Kahn pointed out in his Haggadah, the name Haggadah is inspired by the Torah, it's the book used to help of fulfill the mitzvah of "Vehigadetah lebinchah," "You'll tell your children" the story of The Exodus. 

Here are a few more quotes about storytelling that I've encountered and am still digesting, and which relate to Dr. Jacobowitz' observations:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."  - Joan Didion 

I think it's a yin/yang thing; we also live in order to tell stories. - Me

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller.” - Rebecca Solnit, The The Faraway Nearby

"Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it.” - Rebecca Solnit, The The Faraway Nearby

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” - Jonthan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

"Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species." - John Green, From the Author's Note to The Fault In Our Stars

"Reality is not just the story we are locked into" - David Grossman

"Maybe stories are just data with a soul." - Brene' Brown

"You don't remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened." -  John Green in, An Abundance of Katherines, pgs. 207-208

No-one likes the naked truth, but everyone loves a good story." - The moral of a story of the Maggid of Dubno, the way I tell it.

And these two from Rav Nachman of Breslov:

"People criticize stories as being somehow unsophisticated, etc, but if stories are lacking depth why does G-d start his book with them?"

"People think that stories are to put people to sleep but in truth stories serve to wake people up."

"It's true, even if it didn't happen." - What I say when listeners ask if a story is true.

"It's true for now." - What Rock Davis says in answer to the same question.

And getting back to the Haggadah:

“There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as part. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity.” - The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah (Essays) p. 29

The Rambam says that on Pesach night we need to discuss, regarding the Exodus, what happened ("mah she'irah") and what was ("mah shehayah"). Rav Noach Weinberg's take on this is that "what happened," is just the facts, as best as you can report them. And "what was" is more about empathy, what was it like? How did it feel? These the two important, separate and distinct layers of storytelling.


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