June 20, 2014
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper
When the Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion to intercede with heaven for the same reason, he would go to the same place in the forest and say “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I still can say the prayer,” and again, the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moishe Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say,” I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rhizin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God. “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, and I can not even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.
And it was sufficient.
What’s interesting to me about this story, among other things, is that first of all, it’s about a story. Story-telling was at the center of the Baal Shem’s spiritual art. In fact, some of his best stories were about stories themselves. Secondly, I find it interesting that the story seems to arise out of a sense of insufficiency — out of our sense of limitation. We can’t light the fire, we can’t remember the prayer, we can’t find the place of holiness in the forest of our soul anymore, but as long as we can tell the story, all this insufficiency becomes sufficient.
Failure, absence, insufficiency are often the most exquisite expression of a thing; nothing demonstrates the depth and the tenderness of love so much as a story of unrequited love. Stories tell the message of the soul and the message of the soul is always about imperfection, loss, absence and yearning. It is through these things that we come to know the soul.
Stories are sacred. Stories are healing. Our stories tell us who we are, and that, of course, is the deepest healing of all.
We are a people of stories. We have always used stories to pass on the wisdom of our tradition. Our Bible is a multitude of stories, which taken together form a single story, and in Talmudic times, we’ve re-interpreted this story with another collection of stories called the Midrash.
We are Jews because we accept the story of the Jewish people as our own story, at least in part; for some of us a very important part; for others, just some incidental scenery in the background of a story centered elsewhere. But if it weren’t part of our story at all, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something missing in the story of our lives, which being Jewish filled in, even if only in a small way. All stories start with something missing. If life is perfect, there is no story. Perfection is the end of the story, the end of all stories.
Rachel Naomi Remen, the author of the book Kitchen Table Wisdom, used to be a practicing physician — a pediatric oncologist. But now she engages in a very different kind of healing, a healing centered precisely on stories. She writes:
At first I was surprised that people with the same disease had such very different stories. Later I became deeply moved by these stories, by the people and the meaning they found in their problems, by the unsuspected strengths, the depths of love and devotion. Eventually, these stories would become far more compelling to me than the disease process itself. Everyone suffered, but they responded to their suffering in ways unique as fingerprints, and in time, the truth in their stories began to heal me.
When we haven’t the time to listen to each other’s stories, we seek out experts to tell us how to live. The less time we spend together at the kitchen table, the more how-to books appear in the stores. But reading such books is a very different thing than listening to someone’s lived experience.
In telling stories we are telling each other the human story. Stories that touch us in the place of common humanness awaken us and weave us together as a family once again.
Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham make many of the same points in the book The Spirituality of Imperfection. They write:
One of our problems today is that we are not very well acquainted with the literature of the spirit.
Joseph Campbell observed:
We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. Thus distracted, we no longer listen to those who speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives.
We modern people are problem solvers, but the demand for answers crowds out patience — and especially patience with mystery, with that which we can not control. Intolerant of ambiguity, we deny our own ambivalence, searching for answers to our most anguished questions in technique, hoping to find an ultimate healing in technology. But feelings of dislocation, isolation and off-centerdness persist, as they always have. What do we do with this confusion, this anxiety, this pain? How do we understand this inevitable part of our life?
Spirituality hears and understands these questions, but it knows better than to give an answer. Some answers we can only find; they are never given. And so the tradition suggests. Listen. Shema. Listen to stories. For spirituality itself is conveyed by stories, which use words in ways that go beyond words to speak the language of the heart.
Rabbi Arthur Green writes:
The light within us needs to be rekindled, needs to have its glow restored. This usually comes about when we see a glimpse of that same light shining in another. There are moments when we catch the glow in the most ordinary of people, usually in moments of giving, sharing, or somehow showing a generosity of spirit that opens their light to our view. The light we see in that moment is that of YHVH the one beyond all form — the being beyond names — the unspeakable word beyond and within all words — the eternal source of inner light.
On Shabbat, our own stories are even more important as once again we gather for prayer. So many of us have stories we have told of loves and losses and hurts that need healing. So many of us have yet to tell our stories. Sometimes the words fail us and the emotions overcome us. Nevertheless, the healing that comes with being together is important. We may never be able to remember the words, but we can embrace one another as we gather for our stories. Through our retelling of our own stories we will hopefully lead others on a path towards wholeness and peace.
Once upon a time … and there was wholeness and peace.