On staying at home
“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers. Incidentally, among the last named there are two groups which, to be sure, overlap in many ways. And the figure of the storyteller gets its full corporeality only for the one who can picture them both. “When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about,” goes the German saying, and people imagine the storyteller as someone who has come from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”
I have started my words today by quoting the great twentieth century cultural critic and German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, in his essay “Die Erzähler” or in English “the storyteller”, published in 1936.
For Benjamin, society was changing so swiftly, that experience from the past no longer seemed to have much relevance for the present. He also spoke of the world entering an age of information, which Benjamin wrote
“proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling”, and since we are so surrounded by it, it can be hard to escape the idea that an informational understanding of the world is the only and best way to understand it.
In our days, and specifically in a world that right now cannot travel as we have done until just a few months ago, and a world drowning in information, so much of it “fake news”, nevertheless we maintain the rhythms of our religious practice and the cycle of the reading of the Torah. We continue to sit in the desert with Moses, and with Aaron and with Miriam, leaving behind what was - Egypt - and preparing the Israelites for what lies ahead in the Promised Land.
These preparations are informational, the laws preparatory information for how to behave in future time: the instructions for the Levites to work as God’s priests, and the acceptance of a later date for a second Pesach that Liya has read for us are both good examples of this. But we are also caught up in the spinning circle of the storyteller, weaving for us the world of the desert so vividly, that we can imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt, making our way across the desert, hungry and tired and with sand in our sandwiches, or for the low-carb among us, in our sandals.
Liya, as you mentioned, you are a Jewish Pioneer, the first teenager in our community to celebrate her bat mitzvah sitting at home at her kitchen table, linked to the rest of the world by your computer on zoom. And while you may have preferred to go to Pittsburgh and of course to meet your family members and celebrate all together, you know that circumstances have not permitted this today. But as Walter Benjamin noted - you don’t need to travel to have something to talk about, there is also a long tradition of listening to people who have spent their lives staying at home.
We all hope very much that this corona situation will be temporary, and that the world we once knew will return to us and resume soon enough. I spoke last night about my experience in the desert, how I lasted about forty minutes before needing to be rescued. I am sure some of you have felt the same way after forty days of being stuck at home, the loss of freedom, the “quantity time” with family as our dear UHC president, Cary Horenfeldt, has coined the term. In the Torah the Israelites spent forty years in limbo - knowing their origins and their eventual destination, but being stuck somewhere in between. As my mother used to put it, “sometimes life gets in the way”, akin to the Yiddish proverb: “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht” - “man plans and god laughs”
Our lives, our stories, do not always go as they should, which is one reason the cycle of the Torah is so comforting. When we read the stories, year after year, we know what to expect, even as we have forgotten the details from one year to the next. This contrasts with our own experiences, when we are never quite sure what is going to happen next. And as the Torah tell its story, it doesn’t always try to explain things, and with lacunae, with gaps to fill our own imaginations are left to wonder about the “why”. The rabbis of course were experts at this too, and the writing of midrash consists of their attempts to fill in the motivations and details that the Torah chose to neglect.
Liya you’ve worked hard this past six months and have mastered so well everything that you have been asked to do, from the prayers to your reading of Torah and haftarah. You’re my first student in a long time who hasn’t required a recording of their Torah portion to help them memorise it. You have a big talent - I know not only for Torah reading - and I do hope you’ll contribute to the uHc by reading Torah again in the future. Wherever you decide to live your life one day, I hope you know that there’s nearly always a Jewish community close by, be it large or small, to which you belong and can take your rightful place as an adult member. Please continue to cherish the memories of your heritage, to make proud of all those who have come before you, and to be a link in the chain of tradition with future generations. I wish you and all the Gilboa family watching around the world many congratulations and a hearty mazal tov!