The Power of Stories
Memory is a tricky thing – how do we keep memories alive?
In Torah Study a few years ago we were studying Passover and the Exodus from Egypt with then Senior Rabbi Janet Marder. We encountered the Hebrew word, Zikaron, as transliterated – meaning a memory, or a remembrance. In Exodus 12:14 God says to Moses, “This day shall be to you one of remembrance: . . . you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.” And for 3,000 years the story of Passover has been faithfully told by the Jewish people.
Rabbi Marder commented that a Zikaron might be a tangible thing that reminds one of an event or a person. My home is filled with these things – small figures or other art objects that remind me of places I have been and trips I have taken. Why? They invariably elicit a story – where I was when I found this small treasure, why it appealed to me, the conversations I had with the artist or the shopkeeper, what the weather was like, or what part of town or countryside I was in, maybe the smells and sounds and sights of that place, all come rushing back. I remember the delight of the discovery, the connection to the piece, the place, the desire to take something home to remember.
At the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday our priest Bruce Bramlett commented on the power of stories in our lives. We often honor those we love who have died by telling stories from their lives – times they have touched us, shown their true selves, stood for something. This is a comfort and a way to remember. We begin telling stories as we hear of a loved one’s passing, as a way to keep their memory alive. Jews say about a person who has died, “May their memory be a blessing.”
Stories and objects that remind us of stories – these filled my days last week. We were preparing for First Seder Friday evening in our home. My husband found a beautiful Matzah plate with our special dishes. It had the Hebrew word for Matzah inscribed in the center of the clear rectangular glass plate surrounded by beautiful turquiose glaze. I loved it on sight, but we had no origin story for this lovely dish. It was therefore less treasured than the cup we use for Elijah, one of a pair we received as a wedding gift. But from now on I will aways remember this beautiful glass Matzah plate as tied to this first Seder after the pandemic lockdowns, a thing of beauty that arrived mysteriously to help us celebrate our table of 8, family and friends.
Each of the great Abrahamic holidays is filled with powerful stories. We learned last Sunday at an interfaith Ramadan Iftar about Laylat al-Qadr, (Arabic: often translated “Night of Power”). This Islamic festival commemorates the night on which God revealed the first verses of the Qurʾān to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel; it is believed to have taken place on one of the final 10 nights of Ramadan in 610 CE, though the exact night is unclear. Since that time, Muslims have regarded the last ten nights of Ramadan as being especially blessed. I loved the idea of the Angel Gabriel whispering verses in the ear of Muhammed. This year the Night of Power will be celebrated on April 28; many Muslims will pray late into the night. Ramadan Mubarak! This is a powerful reminder that we are all called to listen for God’s voice.
On Maundy Thursday we remember the Last Supper, where Jesus was gathered with his disciples commemorating Passover. During this dinner, Jesus stood, took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist and went from guest to guest, washing their feet. John 13:3-16. Now, this was the work of a slave, not an honored teacher. Despite Peter’s horrified reaction, Jesus calmly continues until he has completed the task. When he is finished, he explains to his disciples, or students, that this is meant as an example for all of them. “Do you understand what I have done for you? he asked. You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Then if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you. In very truth I tell you, a servant is not greater than his master…” This powerful example of Jesus’ servanthood and compassion for other humans is a story retold throughout the centuries. He explains, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” John 13:34. "Mandate," I command you, is the phrase that gives this service its name. Remember to love one another.
At First Seder we remember the story of Nachshon ben Aminidav, who is a forbear of both King David and Jesus. According to the Midrash and the Talmud, Nachshon is said to have been standing at the Sea of Reeds with the other Israelites, the Egyptians in hot pursuit. Moses is standing deep in prayer, and the other Israelites wait, scared and bewildered, at the edge of the Sea. Nachshon, believing in God’s power and promise of salvation, walks alone into the sea. When the water reaches his nose, the sea parts, and the Israelites have a path forward on dry ground through the Sea of Reeds. We learn from this story to have courage and faith, not to wait for God to reveal His power, but to take action and do what is right, relying on God to support the action.
From these three beautiful stories we learn important lessons applicable to all three Abrahamic faiths - listen for God’s voice, love one another, and act in faith, not waiting for a sign. These stories are powerful reminders of God’s grace in our lives. What stories do you tell around the table, at Iftar meals, Seders or Easter dinner? Who are you remembering during these holidays?
One of our sessions in Interfaith Bridges covers Holidays, Food and Fasting. We learn the traditions for the various holidays of the three Abrahamic faiths. There participants can share stories from their favorite traditions. Stories shared over meals bring us together in intimacy and recognition of common values.
I wish you many opportunities to share your stories of holidays and loved ones, and a chance to hear the precious stories of others. In that way we will continue to build a beloved community, a community of Shalom.
God's peace, Diane Frankle