The Stories We Tell - Yizkor 2013 Cantor Micah Morgovsky


The Stories We Tell - Yizkor 2013 Cantor Micah Morgovsky
The Stories We Tell - Yizkor 2013
Cantor Micah Morgovsky
Imagine, if you will, a Broadway musical. You are sitting in the theater, the
lights go down, the music begins, and suddenly, you are swept away,
wrapped up in a glorious fantasy. Over the course of a couple of hours, you
experience a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows, all expressed in
soaring melodies, of course, and sung by beautiful players who can,
miraculously, all sing and dance and act flawlessly. Your eyes feast upon
magnificent sets and costumes, and, as the curtain closes, the main
characters clasped in a loving embrace, you feel as if everything has been
set right in the world. But, I wonder, should that always be the goal? Should
the lights always fade to black on a harmonious chord and a perfect
tableau of vapid smiles?
Imagine, if you will, your favorite fairytale. Perhaps it’s the one your parents
read to you when you were a child. Or maybe it is the story you read to
your child at bedtime. How does it begin?
“Once upon a time...”
Those magical words that transport us to a land far, far away. There we
encounter princes and princesses, dragons and giants, sorcerers and
witches, and of course, my favorite, talking caterpillars and mad hatters.
And, though the plots may vary, at the end of each incredible journey, they
all live happily ever after.
Except, in some fairy tales, they don’t. Setting aside the white-washed
Disney-fied versions of our most beloved children’s stories, there often lies
a darker side to these tales. Think of the cannibalistic details of the Hansel
and Gretel fable. Of the harsh effect of poverty on Little Match Girl. Of the
martyrdom of the original Little Mermaid. The brothers Grimm and Hans
Christian Andersen did not sugar-coat their stories. Their lessons are harsh
and often difficult to face. They express evil and sorrow and misfortune,
teaching children that, at times, life is cruel and unkind, and without rhyme
or reason.
Imagine, if you will, the opening words of the Torah:
“B’rei-sheet ba-ra Elo-heem et ha-sha-ma-yim v’et ha-aretz.”
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
The first words of greatest story ever told. A story we’ve been telling, over
and over again for thousands of years. A story which has kept our people
alive and given us hope throughout the darkest chapters of our history. And
yet, never does the weekly parsha end, “and they lived happily ever after.”
The characters that populate these tales are all severely flawed, their
relationships conflicted, and the distinctions between good and evil
ambiguous. Woven throughout these narratives is undeserved suffering,
injustice and moral ambiguity. But they are our stories.
We are all here to remember someone today. A parent, a spouse, a child.
A sibling, a family member, a friend. For some, our relationship with the
person we have lost was uncomplicated. There was love and adoration.
Care and compassion. Fond memories of good times shared. Their
passing was expected; our loved one lived a long, full and happy life. At the
end of his days, he gathered those he loved, said his goodbyes and then
passed peacefully into the next world.
But, more often, we feel our time with our departed loved one was cut
short. The person had more living left to do. There are words left unsaid,
conversations left to be had. Hugs and laughter still to be shared. Often
there is prolonged illness. Undeserved suffering. Our relationships are
fraught with tensions, ambivalence and complexity. Arguments and yelling.
Emotional wounds left unhealed. Reconciliation and peacemaking left
unresolved. We didn’t get to say good bye.
Even under the best of circumstances, there are no happy endings.
What can we do, then, when faced with such loss? How do we fill the hole
left by someone we loved? How do we, in our mourning, begin to emerge
from the darkness back out into the light?
We can begin by telling our stories.
A recent article in the New York Times talks about the importance of family
narratives in promoting family unity and emotional wellbeing in children.
The author, Bruce Feiler, posits that the most important thing we can do for
the wellbeing of our family is to develop a strong family narrative.
Researchers discovered that children who know more about their families
tend be more resilient when faced with challenges. And so they developed
a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asks children to answer
20 questions.
Examples of these questions included: Do you know where your
grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to
high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an
illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you
know the story of your birth?
The researchers asked those questions of four dozen families in the
summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations.
They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological
tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion.
The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their
sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more
successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?”
scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional
health and happiness.”
Everyone was blown away.
And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept.
11. As citizens, the researchers were horrified like everyone else, but as
psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though
the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all
the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time.
The researchers went back and reassessed the children.
Once again, the ones who knew more about their families proved to be
more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.
Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child
overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist
The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family.
If our family story reads like a fairy tale, our encounters with the real world
are jarring and depressing. But, if our family story contains within it the ups
and the downs, the beauties and the complexities, the connections and the
imperfections, we pass along a source of strength and identity with which to
face anything and everything in the world around us.
And, if we look to our tradition, Judaism tells us to do the same: to tell our
stories, in all their complexities. Our most central narrative, the story linked
to every holiday, woven into nearly every ritual, and tied to nearly every
commandment is one of the greatest stories in human history. It is the tale
of an oppressed people redeemed from bondage and given new identity
and purpose. Setting aside the animated Dreamworks version, The Exodus
does not read like a Disney fairytale; it is a challenging and complicated
Moses, the flawed leader, struggles with both speech and anger
management issues. And yet, his character reminds us that one person
can change the fate of a nation. Pharaoh, who’s stubborn nature results in
great suffering for his people, is nevertheless, a character we can pity. For,
had he shown compassion to the Israelite people he, and the Egyptian
gods, would have appeared weak. The Israelites, despite being a whiny,
disobedient, ungrateful rag-tag gang, are nevertheless, chosen by God to
become a light unto the nations. And God, on the one hand, a vengeful and
hot-tempered entity, still hears the suffering cries of the lowly Israelites and
seeks to redeem them.
The Exodus is a difficult story; one filled with nuance, a story that has
inspired thousands of years of telling and retelling, constantly offering us
new layers and lenses of meaning in our own day. It is a story that
instructs; compels us to understand that the suffering of our ancestors
means we must always seeks to understand the suffering of others. And
reminds us that the redemption of our ancestors means we are obligated to
pursue redemption for everyone.
In fact, the entire Torah is really a single story; the story of two people,
Adam and Eve, who made poor choices and were expelled from a place of
bounty and security. And then, the multigenerational pursuit of their
descendants to return that place, making mistake after mistake after
mistake along the way. And the Torah ends without the story ever being
completed. The Israelites never reach the Promised Land; just as they are
about to enter, the curtain closes, the lights fade to black, and we roll back
to the beginning again. It is an existential lesson, reminding us that the
most meaningful story is the one that continues to be written; that, like the
real world, the story of our people is never finished.
We gather here to remember. We gather here to mourn. Some of us recall
the comforting touch of a mother. Some of us the exasperated look of a
sibling. Some of us the unrealized dreams of a child. We remember the
complete stories, the stories of meaning. The ups and the downs, the
beauties and the complexities, the connections and the imperfections. We
can smile at the idiosyncrasies, even as we continue to struggle with the
hurtful words. We can feel the strength they gave us, even as we
remember how we helped support them.
The novelist Jonathan Franzen offered some of his life’s stories in his
memoir “The Discomfort Zone.” In his mid-thirties, Franzen comes home to
visit his mother, who is seriously ill. He reflects:
“My mother loved to be a part of things, and having strong opinions was a
way of not feeling left out. At any given moment in the last twenty years of
her life, family members in three time zones could be found worrying about
her strong opinions or loudly declaring that they didn’t care about them or
phoning each other for advice on how to cope with them.
Franzen continues, “I…finally started to love [my mother] near the end of
her life, when she was undergoing a year of chemotherapy and radiation
and living by herself. I’d admired her bravery for that. I’d admired her will to
recuperate and her extraordinary tolerance of pain. I’d felt proud when her
sister remarked to me, ‘Your mother looks better two days after abdominal
surgery than I do at a dinner party...’
“She, for her part, was accustomed to my leavings and didn’t complain too
much. But she still felt about me what she’d always felt, which was what I
wouldn’t really feel about her until after she was gone. ‘I hate it when
daylight-saving time starts while you’re here,’ she told me while we were
driving to the airport, ‘because it means I have an hour less with you’.”
For Franzen, memory forced him to face regret alongside joy, grief
alongside gratitude. He recalls a relationship laden with complexities, but
one filled with blessings as well. He comes to mourn his impatience,
trumpet her determination, and wish for just one more hour with her. But,
as he reflects later in his writing, these are not completed memories, but
unfinished stories. Stories that still impact him. Stories that still shape
him. Stories that he is still writing. Even years after his mother’s death, her
presence lingers.
When we sit shiva, the period of time during the first week after a loss, we
stay in our homes and receive guests. Customarily, the guests are not to
engage the mourner in conversation, rather, visitors must wait for the
mourner to speak. And, as the mourner begins to speak, she is encouraged
to recount memories and stories about her loved one. And, when she
speaks, the healing process begins. We begin to creep out of the darkness
of our loss and into the light of memory. And, while not every story we
recall is sweet and uncomplicated, these reveries inform our choices and
imbue our lives with meaning.
In this space and at this time, we let these stories swim in our hearts and
our minds. We step away from the outside world of Disney and Broadway.
We leave our “Once upon a time’s” and our “happily ever after’s,” and
instead, open ourselves up to the tales of true meaning. Our loved ones
leave us not only with their spirits and their memories; they leave us with
their unfinished stories, the legacies of lives filled with beauty and struggle
and complexity.
Our Torah begins with the letter bet and ends with a lamed. Those two
letters together spell the Hebrew word lev.
Our Torah, our Story, is the heart and soul of our people, just like our loved
ones live on in the stories we tell. And, while nothing we can say or do can
take away the pain of our loss, telling the stories of the ones we have loved
and lost binds us to them, weaves them into our hearts, and compels us to
impart their wisdom to those who come after us.
Their lives, now a part of us, can never die.
Their book, now ended, becomes a chapter in the never-ending Book of
May we all be inscribed for a sweet new year.