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October 10, 2019

A Time For Stories (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)

Daniel S. Ross

In my younger and less spiritual years, every time I went to the library, I had a routine: I would march over to the science section with a highly specific topic in mind—the solar system, birds of prey, whales—find its shelf with the good old Dewey Decimal System, and check out every single book on the subject.

I loved facts.

Cold, hard facts such as: The average surface temperature of Pluto is -380 degrees.

Fast facts such as: The fastest bird in the world is the peregrine falcon, which can dive at speeds of up to 240 miles per hour.

And fun facts: Whale sharks have nothing to do with whales. They’re actually the world’s largest fish.

I aspired to become a walking encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Brown was my personal hero.

And when I wasn’t trying to become the world’s youngest expert on whales, I was the kind of kid who read the front page instead of the comic strips, who watched CNN instead of Cartoon Network.

I wanted the facts. Because I believed that facts were the truest source of truth. Because I believed that facts could solve all of the world’s problems.

And those were the blissful days of my childhood in the 50’s. The 5750’s. You might remember them better as the 90’s.

Even as a kid in the 90’s, I thought I needed to know all of the facts.

One has to think: All the more so for us in 5780, when the facts are rather bleak.

We live in a time of historic antipathy and polarization.1 A time of evaporating empathy.

As Rabbi Buchdahl spoke about on Erev Rosh HaShanah, we live in a time of epidemic loneliness.2 A time of vanishing connection.

And most troubling of all, we live in a time when, according to the World Economic Forum, only 6% of us believe that the world is getting better.3 A time of crippling hopelessness.

Those are the facts. The facts, but not the truth.

Don’t get me wrong—I love facts. Facts are really important. Facts put people on the moon.

But the truth, in 5780, is that facts cannot remedy our lack of empathy, our disconnection, and our hopelessness. The truth, in 5780, is that facts cannot heal our heartbreaking spiritual condition. The truth, in 5780, is that for the sake of our souls, there are times when we need to put down the newspaper turn off cable news, and walk over to a different section of the library.

On this Kol Nidre night, on this most soulful of evenings, I submit to you that now more than ever, we need the sweet escape of good stories.

Because leaving this world is essential to living in it.

Fast forward to my junior year of high school. That year, I read a story that truly changed my life: Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen.

The Chosen is a coming-of-age tale that explores the friendship between Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, two Jewish boys in 1940s Brooklyn. Of the two, I found myself particularly drawn to Danny. And not just because we share a name. Danny spends hours upon hours in the public library, swallowing book after book after book. Fact after fact after fact.

But unfortunately for Danny, his yearning for secular knowledge is problematic because he is the son of Reb Saunders, a Hasidic rebbe whose community rejects the outside world.

And in the novel’s final pages, the tension between Danny and Reb Saunders erupts. Reb Saunders reveals that as a father, he was horrified by his son Danny’s love of facts. Indeed, when Danny was only four years-old, Reb Saunders cried out to God in agony: “There was no soul in my…Daniel, there was only his mind. ”4

Imagine fearing that your four year-old son has no soul. Imagine hearing your father tell you that he felt that way about you.

I remember tearing up the first time I read those pages. I thought of myself as a child and my piles of books of facts. And when I wrote an essay on The Chosen for English class, its thesis statement was four brutal words: “I had no soul.”

I was 16. Teenagers can be a bit melodramatic. Have a little empathy.

Actually…that’s exactly the lesson I learned from The Chosen.

In the words of author Neil Gaiman, “[Stories] give us empathy: [they] put us inside the minds of other people, [give] us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes.” When I saw myself through Reb Saunders’ eyes, when I saw myself in Danny Saunders, I realized that as much as I admired Danny’s mind, he wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to be. I wasn’t the kind of person that I wanted to be. My soul was undernourished.

And facts don’t feed the soul. Stories do.

Studies have shown that when we read stories, we not only get a break from this heartbreaking world, but also we improve our ability to live in it. Reading stories elevates our capacity to discern other people’s emotions, to assume other people’s perspectives, and to imagine how other people will feel or react in various situations.5

Think back to high school English: Remember witnessing the world’s injustice through Scout’s innocent eyes in To Kill a Mockingbird. Remember sitting and suffering with Holden Caulfield through his loneliness in The Catcher in the Rye. Remember falling tragically in love with Romeo and Juliet.

Think back to last week’s Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah: Remember laughing with Abraham and Sarah at the joy of Isaac’s birth.

That’s the great and terrible power of stories: They give us deep, vivid memories of things that never happened to us. And those memories can change the way we experience life as much as our own do.

Among the saddest realities of our society in 5780 is our lack of empathy. We struggle to fit our feet into each other’s shoes. We fear. We blame. We shame. We throw facts at each other like we’re in a food fight.

And our souls are still hungry.

In 5780, we need stories to nourish our souls, stories that give us the gift of seeing the world through each other’s eyes: the eyes of a fearful parent, the eyes of an innocent child the eyes of a melodramatic teenager. That’s not a fact that we can find in a book on whales. That’s a truth we can only learn from a story.

But stories don’t just feed our individual souls. They are also the force that binds our collective souls.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that we human beings form groups. From families to clans to tribes to nations. From teams to armies to law firms to synagogues.

But research has shown that in a state of nature the maximum size that a group of humans can sustain is about 150 people. Beyond 150, it’s just too hard for our brains to keep track of everybody.

Yet there are almost 3,000 people in this room right now. This evening we’ve formed a beautiful collective soul nearly 20 times the supposed natural limit of our kind. How did we get here?

Israeli Historian Yuval Harari suggests that the bridge between tribe and civilization, between 150 and 150 million, was stories.6 What makes it possible for human beings to cooperate on the massive scales necessary to build and maintain large communities is our belief in shared stories. Nations, companies, religions, the New York Mets, the New York Yankees: these are the products of our collective imagination, stories we tell each other, stories we agree upon, stories that inspire us to work together towards common goals like security and prosperity and maybe even transcendence.7

In short, stories are the true bricks and mortar of our civilization.

Indeed, to borrow the words of a story that brought so many of us together this year on Sunday nights at 9pm, as Tyrion said in Game of Thrones:“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No one can defeat it.”

But the stories we share provide us something even more essential than the building blocks of our culture. Stories open up springs of connection between us.

I could stand up here all night and do my Encyclopedia Brown routine. Fast fact: Mercury orbits the sun in just 88 days. And I would lose you after about 30 seconds.

But if I bring up Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, The Hate U Give or Where The Crawdads Sing, Margaret Atwood or Dara Horn, then we have something to talk about. Because a story doesn’t belong to any one of us. Stories belong to all of us. And there’s nothing, nothing, like connecting with someone over story you both love.

A story like Kol Nidre.

Tonight, we tell ourselves a story: This is not just the 203rd day of the astronomical year. This is the holiest night of on our Jewish calendar.

The stage I’m standing on, the seats you’re sitting in, this concert hall that houses us, these things are facts. They aren’t why we’re here.

We’re here because tonight begins the 10th of Tishrei. The Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur.

And for over 3,000 years, our people have gathered on the 10th of Tishrei to ask God for forgiveness.

Year after year, we stand side by side, pounding our chests in haunting unison, confessing together, as one: Ashamnu, “We have sinned.”

Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

This beautiful story, our beautiful story, is what brought us together on this night, as a beautiful collective soul.

In 5780, we cannot look to facts for the connection our souls need. Books about gravity cannot bind us to each other. But stories can. That’s the truth.

But what story do we need in 5780? We don’t have to look very far. It’s been right in front of us this whole time. Right back there. Right beneath the words Rabbi Salth spoke about. It is the story that has sustained our people for over 3,000 years: the Torah.

Like all great stories, the Torah gives us the gift of seeing the world through other people’s eyes. A jealous sibling. A barren woman. A disappointed parent.

Like all great stories, the Torah is one that we share. Its words are the Jerusalem stone of our collective Jewish soul. We debate its meaning. We live by its calendar. We read and re-read it year after year after year.

And it’s not even a book that you can easily flip back to the first page. Have you ever rolled a Torah scroll from the end of Deuteronomy all the way back to the beginning of Genesis? There goes an hour of your day.

So why is this story different from all other stories? What makes the Torah eternal?

Maybe the answer can be found in the etymology of the word Torah. Torah’s Hebrew root is yud, resh, hay—yarah—which comes from the realm of archery. It refers to the act of shooting an arrow at a target.

Torah is the target towards which we aim the arrows of our lives. It is the guide that directs us how to live.

But what does it mean to fire the arrows of our lives towards Torah? What is the ultimate truth of this ultimate story, our story?

The truth is that we human beings have very bad aim.

We eat the forbidden fruit. We kill our brothers. We cast out our sisters. We disobey our parents. We spurn our blessings. We lie. We cheat. We steal. We worship idols.

The Torah teaches us that we will fail to hit its targets. But the Torah also teaches us that though we will miss, we still have a shot at redemption.

We can welcome strangers. We can bless our children. We can ask our brothers for forgiveness. We can make sacrifices. We can provide for the widow and the orphan. We can find our way to the Promised Land. Or, as Rabbi Lorge taught us, we can build sanctuaries in the wilderness.

We have hope.

The Torah’s ultimate target for our lives, its ultimate truth, is hope.

And in 5780, our souls are hungry, most of all, for hope.

Hope is not a fact. We won’t find it in a book on bald eagles. The truth is that hope springs eternal from Sarah’s laughter, from Joseph’s pit, from Miriam’s well.

The looming image of this High Holy Day season is one of God above us with a giant book. And when I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to get my hands on that book, what I imagined was the greatest encyclopedia in the universe.

In 5780, I think differently.

Elie Wiesel once said: “God made [humanity] because [God] loves stories.”

Now I understand the truth: that the Book of Life is not a list of facts, but a heavenly ark filled with stories. Because though we need facts to survive, we need stories to live.

And so my Kol Nidre prayer for us is that on this night that we refrain from feeding our bodies, we remember to feed our souls with stories. Stories that open our eyes to each other’s worlds. Stories that bring us together. And most importantly, the story that guides us to hope: our story, our Torah.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah, may we be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.

2 -at-epidemic-levels-in-america
3 -bad-news-you-were-wrong-about-how-things-have-changed
4 Potok, Chaim. The Chosen (p. 283). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 
5 201811/does-reading-fiction-really-improve-your-social-ability
6 Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (pp. 26-27). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
7 Ibid.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.

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