The Torah’s Story, and Ours

(appeared in Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, September 29, 2010)

Each year, on Simchat Torah, we finish the Torah in an instant. The saga of Moses concludes. We stand ready to embrace our future, as a Jewish people, on the edge of the Promised Land.

Just as quickly, we start the Torah again.  We are thrust backwards to prehistory (let alone pre-Jewish history) and the story of creation.

This ritual transition is sudden and breathtaking.  There’s no time for reflection.  No time for retelling.

The narrative, its lessons, its legacy – there’s no time for us, at the end, to preserve them for the generations to come.  Not at the end of the Torah-reading cycle, nor at the end of our life cycle — unless we seize the opportunity beforehand.

There is time along the way of life to preserve our stories, and it’s our responsibility to use it.

Moses paves our way in this regard, and Jews have followed suit ever since. Moses also demonstrates how gratifying the process of telling our stories is, if we take the time.

Consider Moses at the end of the Torah, standing high on Mt. Nebo, on the eastern side of the Jordan.  Fated to die in exile.  Steps away from his destination, his life’s job unfinished.  It is unspeakably painful, tragic.  Or so we think.

There’s a sense of loss, no question.  Moses pleads with God to allow him into the land, to no avail.  “’Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon…. ‘ But God was angry with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!’”

Moses wants more.  To go forward, to see more fruits of his labor.  And so do we.

But Moses cannot.   Nor can we.

As it says in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers), “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor.”  “It is not your duty to finish the work.”  But what do we do with it?

Again, Moses.  What does he do?  For the rest of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), he tells his story within the narrative of the people and prepares them for the tasks ahead in the land of Israel.  It’s his legacy statement, and leads to the greatest reward of his life — seeing the people go off, ready to embrace the future.

Moses implores the people to follow suit with their storytelling, in gratitude, when they arrive in the Israel — in the presence of the kohanim, the priests.  “Then you shall say the following before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt and lived there with very few….’”

Moses provides both a model and a mitzvah for us – of a part of the Jewish life cycle we too often miss.  To capture our past, for the future, with anava, humility.

Tell your story, record it, write it.  Preserve it, as Moses did, for your kids and grandkids, before the time is up.

Grandparents: Preserve Your Stories for Your Grandkids

So you’re now grandparents — with relish.

You devour the privileges.  Watching your kids do what you did.  Spending time with the grandkids.  Enjoying special moments of intimacy with each one of them.   Seeing them grow through joyous lifecycle events — brit, simchat bat/baby naming, performances at school, successes on the ball field, b’nai mitzvah, graduations galore, weddings (please G-d).

But what about the responsibilities?  Some grandparents can’t figure that one out.  The practical responsibilities of caretaking – those belong now to your kids.  Are you destined solely to observe, attend, give birthday presents and – if you live in the area – to offer spot babysitting?

Far from it.

According to Jewish tradition, the responsibilities of teaching and guiding only grow with age, wisdom, and experience.  You remain parents, still in the business of teaching your children, albeit with wholly different challenges of time, place, style and frequency.  And you are grandparents, with the unique opportunity to take the role of teacher and mentor to an entirely new level.

As grandparents, you become the main link for your grandkids to the past, to lives lived in a different way, to values highlighted when they are now hidden, to a Jewish tradition less obscured by assimilation and other modern stimuli.  As you communicate to your grandkids about your past, you offer them alternative roads to their future.

We all want to preserve our legacies and life experiences for future generations.   Grandparents, here’s your chance.   Inspired by a simcha coming or just past, initiated by a grandchild’s family roots project, standing on the scaffolding of memory generated by the moment, give your grandkids the gift of your lives.  Your grandkids want – and need – to hear you, both now and in the future.

Preserve your story for them, and for the generations beyond.  Record or write yourself, or with the seasoned help of a personal historian — who will interview you, hear your story, ask the right questions, draw out the formative moments, relationships, themes and emotions, and tie them together.

In either case, here are a few guidelines:

  • Focus on life-changing decisions, transitional moments, moves, influential relationships, mentors and those you have mentored.
  • Consider your core values and how have you lived them.  Discern what your life goals have been and whether you have achieved them.
  • Remember that the goal is not to determine exact history — but rather to grasp the riches you can from your past and to reflect on how they made you feel, what impact they’ve had on your life, and the lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on to the next generations.

Go beyond and arrange transcriptions and written text in a life story book – replete with photos, memorabilia, and other scans which illustrate the life you’ve led.  Create a visual timeline of your life that correlates events in your life with events in the world around us.  Frame an ethical will to accompany your estate planning.  These are just a few of many options to choose from as you preserve your story for your family.

As a rabbi and personal historian, I have had amazing experiences seeing the eyes of grandparents and others like you light up as you explore your past – as you reflect on subjects as diverse as who mentored you as young people, what shaped your career choices, whether you’ve achieved your life’s goals, and how being Jewish has enriched your lives.  Your eyes light up with the past and they also peer ahead to the legacy in formation – for your kids, grandkids and beyond.

Grandparents, take heart.  You are not just bonuses to your grandkids’ lives, not just happy observers.  You are essential to them – no more so than when you bequeathe to them your stories, the foundation for their futures.

Preserve Your Story, Now

I’ve loved hearing people’s life stories as long as I can remember.

As a child, I savored the stories of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and parents.  The relationship between my father and grandfather running a small textile mill in Woonsocket, Rhode Island (USA).  How, in World War I, my other grandfather survived the crushing poverty of Jerusalem and then Vienna.  My grandmother’s correspondence, in Hebrew, with her father in the mid 1920’s – she a teen in Lithuania, he in Brooklyn preparing the way for his family’s immigration to the United States.

I remember the way family members told stories.  The wistful, nostalgic, sometimes sad and other times happy looks on their faces.  The rushed excitement or the pregnant pauses of their words.  I was always ready with follow-up questions.

Their stories became mine, part of my self-understanding.  The stories connected me to the family members, to the world, and to the heritage of an exceptional people.

As a person and Jew, I’ve been nurtured on a diet of stories and life testimony ever since – others and my own.

As a congregational rabbi, the passion became a profession – listening to people’s stories, validating their experiences, and capturing their narratives at the end of life for family and friends.  I also linked people’s stories to our flourishing story as a Jewish people going back to the time of Moses, our greatest life storyteller, who recalled our national epic – and his personal one – at the threshold of the Promised Land.  Through these experiences, I understood, better than ever, the irrepressible drive of human beings to pass on their stories, their legacies, and their values.

Now, I create jewishlifestory, so you can walk in Moses’ footsteps, vitally alive, preserving your stories, legacies and lessons for your children and grandchildren.

May the jewishlifestory blog inspire you along that path.  I’ll share my stories.  Please share yours.

Bruchim ha’baim.  Welcome.

Mark Robbins ,