What's Your Story?

Sukkot Sermon 2015                         
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

What’s Your Story?

One of the most important lessons I learnt in my rabbinical school Homiletics Class was “don’t talk too much about your children from the pulpit.” A wise lesson indeed because who wants to hear rabbinic parents kvell over their kids all the time? But if you will indulge me for a moment, I do want to share how very cute it is that Jonathan is really getting into his books (and his little sister happily follows along).
See, we don’t have a television at home—I got rid of my TV set back in my university days and haven’t looked back since (if you’re inclined to think this is particularly spiritual or virtuous—don’t: I still whittle away far too much time on the internet!) This means that Jonathan’s primary entertainment is books (augmented with the odd Toddler Learning Channel on YouTube) and it’s been wonderful to see him take to his books. He will come up to us and say ‘book, book!’ and we snuggle on the couch reading to him—three or four times over.
His passion for books is extending beyond the four walls of our home. When I took him to the service over Shabbat and he saw the Torah unrolled on the bimah, he enthusiastically cried ‘Book! Book!’ as he pointed towards the scroll. Could there be anything more heart-melting for a Jewish mom, a rabbi no less?

There’s more and more evidence coming out to support how important books and reading are to young (and not-so-young) children. A congregant of ours posted an article from the Guardian on our Sinai Synagogue Facebook group pointing to this. The article states:

“A recent survey, by YouGov for the children’s publisher Scholastic, revealed last week that many parents stop reading to their children when they become independent readers, even if the child isn’t ready to lose their bedtime story. The study found that 83% of children enjoyed being read aloud to, with 68% describing it as a special time with their parents. (“It felt so warm, so spirit-rising,” as one 11-year-old boy put it.) One in five of the parents surveyed stopped reading aloud to their children before the age of nine, and almost a third of children aged six to 11 whose parents had stopped reading aloud to them wanted them to carry on.”

Now, we all expect tots to love their picture books but what surprised me about the article is that older children still enjoy being read to—right, in some cases, into adulthood! If anything author Frank Cotrell Boyce argues in favour of the bedtime story on a more existential level:

“Great ideas come from people who are able to bring their whole selves – emotional as well as rational, memory as well as logic – to bear on problems. Bedtime stories give reading an emotional depth. Why would you ever stop? This is something people have done since the days of sitting around campfires napping flints. To stop doing it now is to break the great chain of our being.”

I paraphrase: a bedtime story, or any story, is part of our great chain of being.

During my High Holy Day sermons, I looked at how Judaism can give us relationship, meaning and purpose. Through community, through our values, even a reimagining of Jewish mysticism: we matter and we can make a difference, no matter how small. When we grow into that awareness, we can bring real transformative purpose to our lives. But now I’d like us to focus on one way to do that: through our individual stories and our collective Story.

If it is one thing we Jews are good at, it’s telling a riveting Story. The Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy is one long story arc that beats the best of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or West Wing or whatever series you happened to be hooked on. Not only does the Torah provide us with an overarching narrative but it also provides us with the tools to live that narrative through the commandments and festivals. In the case of Sukkot, this is particularly relevant. Our Torah reading states:
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.
 For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Eternal your God at the place that the Eternal will choose, because the Eternal your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.” (Deut. 16:13-15)
The chapter goes on to draw in Pesach as well as Shavuot: the three Pilgrims’ Festivals that make up the heart of our liturgical calendar. Our Pesach story focuses on freedom and strength, our Shavuot story on covenant and commitment and our Sukkot story on transience and joy. When we shake our lulav and dwell in our sukkah, we’re not just telling our story but we are re-enacting it, even living it.
Why are stories so compelling to children in a way that we no longer experience as adults? It is because children become so engrossed in a magical world where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred. When I read ‘the Gruffalo’ to Jonathan and hold his Gruffalo soft toy in my hand, then that to him is reality. The world is alight with an infinite number of possibilities for awe and wonder. Now, I am not suggesting that we as adults should embrace a magical, or God forbid, superstitious or delirious worldview, but recapturing some of that spirit from childhood may serve us well. When confronted with the bland nihilism of our age, building up a narrative that makes us fall in love with the universe and feel deeply is not just a lovely thing to preoccupy our minds with but it provides us with the backbone to understand our world and our place in it.

So what’s your story? What’s your Jewish story? What are the things that free you, that brush you up against your own mortality, that make you rejoice right down to your kishkes? What are the kavvanot, the intentions and understandings, that you will invite as precious guests in your sukkah? How will you ride the sweeping tide of history, from Creation long ago to Redemption yet to come? What is your place in the world, under the shach of your sukkah as you bless our universe through prayers and the lulav? If it sounds wondrous or even a bit fantastical: good.

I wish you a blessed writing of your own story. May it give you purpose, meaning and connectedness for the year to come.

Chag sameach!


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