Storytelling is what makes us human. Interpreting events and constructing narratives about what happens to us in our lives is something that we all do. Things happen to us – the basic, factual elements of a story – but as humans, we have unique perspectives, which shape how a story is relayed, that give shape and meaning to the experiences we go through.
And this perhaps is why our sages refer to the human being as the Mdaber, “the speaker”. Animals also communicate with one another through sounds and gestures, but it is human beings alone who construct narratives, interpret events.
We see a stark illustration of how central constructing narratives is to Jewish identity in this week’s Torah portion. Ki Tavo opens with the requirement of a farmer to bring his first fruits to the Temple and make a declaration in the presence of the Kohanim dedicating the first fruits of his field to G-d. The wording of that declaration is precisely spelled out by the Torah and includes a significant word, “higaditi” – translated as “And I have told…”. The farmer is telling a story.
What story is this farmer telling? There are the objective facts, the physical events, that led him to this point in time. He ploughed and planted and irrigated and harvested, and reaped produce from his land. But there is also a narrative running parallel to these events. There is metaphysical shape and meaning to be found nestled in these physical details. Because bringing the first fruits to the Temple and dedicating them to G-d is a gesture of gratitude to the Creator. In acknowledging G-d’s blessings – G-d’s crucial role in bringing all of those processes quite literally to fruition – the farmer is situating his agricultural endeavours within the context of a much grander narrative. A narrative that frames his entire farming experience in the context of spiritual meaning, connection to G-d, and deep appreciation.
In fact, this narrative of the farmer extends further – connecting his own individual experience to a national narrative, situating his own farming efforts within the context of the Jewish people and land of Israel as a whole. As part of his declaration, the farmer tells the story of how G-d gave the Jewish people the land of Israel, but also how Jewish history is intertwined with our relationship with G-d, and How he brought us into being as nation through redeeming us from the slavery of Egypt. The farmer’s declaration traces the story of how the Jewish people landed up in Egypt, how we were afflicted by the Egyptians, how we called out to G-d, and how He answered our cries and redeemed us with signs and wonders. And so from this mitzvah we learn how to narrate the story of Jewish identity – a story rooted in the historical facts of the Egyptian slavery, our redemption from that slavery, the Divine mission we were given, and the gift of the land of Israel.
Narratives are important because they frame the context and the meaning of our lives. This particular narrative – the story of the foundational episode of Jewish history – is important because it frames context and meaning of Jewish history. And of course, it’s a narrative we tell over during the Pesach seder. It’s instructive that the name given to the book we read from on Pesach night is the Haggadah. which itself means the “the telling of the story”. Again, there are the historical facts of our slavery in Egypt and our redemption, and all that follows – but the night of the seder gives us is an opportunity to frame those events with a particular understanding and interpretation that helps us discover our very essence as Jews.
And that’s why the centerpiece of the seder is the interaction between parents and children, because it is the platform to hand over the meaning of Jewish identity and Jewish history and Jewish mission to the next generation by telling the story of who we are and where we come from and why we are here. In relating the facts and telling the narrative of how, through G-d’s miracles, we came into existence as a nation and that He gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai and that He brought us into the land of Israel and that He gave us a Divine mission to live in accordance with His will and to spread his light in the world, we transmit the essence of the Jewish story from one generation to the next. It’s a narrative which defines us both as individuals and as the Jewish people.
The Torah itself is a framework for understanding the mission and meaning of our lives. Why is the mitzvah of learning Torah so important? Why is it referred to by our sages as the gateway to all of the other mitzvot? Why is it that our sages declare that the merit of learning Torah is equal to the merit of all the mitzvot combined? It could be because through the mitzvah of learning Torah we understand the story of our lives and the context and the meaning of all of the mitzvot. Through Torah learning we discover the framework to understand the purpose and meaning of our lives. It also gives us the insight to understand the mitzvot we do. The mitzvot are not simply actions that we have to perform. With every mitzvah, there is an an accompanying narrative. Only through learning Torah can we understand, for example, that Shabbos is not only about what we can or can’t do on a particular day of the week, but it’s about a day which reminds us of the fact that G-d created the world and that He took us out of Egypt and that we owe our allegiance to Him.
When we give our money to charity it’s with an understanding of the narrative that all blessings and material prosperity come from G-d and that He gives us this prosperity in order to be able to give to others and to share it with the world, and that when we are giving away money it is not our own money that we are giving away, we are merely allocating it in accordance with the wishes of the One who gave it to us originally, G-d Himself. When we learn Torah we understand that every person is created in G-d’s image and that requires of us to treat everyone with sensitivity, with kindness, with compassion, with dignity and with respect. So many of the mitzvahs relate to how we treat one another and the ethics of these interpersonal relationships. These are not just actions. There is a narrative which surrounds it, a narrative of understanding and meaning of what it means to be a human being. Through the halacha we are constantly framing our reality, and so for example when we say a blessing on a fruit we are framing the reality that G-d created it and that when we enjoy it we do so as a gift from Him. When we wake up in the morning and say thank you G-d for having returned our souls, we are acknowledging the gift of life and the very fact that we are alive and can breathe and function is a gift from G-d which we can appreciate and rejoice in.
This idea of constructing narratives also touches on the essence of leadership. One of the words for a leader in the Torah is “nagid” (Samuel 2:5:2). The Radak says that nagid comes from the Hebrew word neged, which means “facing” – the idea is that people face the leader, looking towards them for guidance and support and direction. But perhaps there’s another meaning of nagid, based on the word “higaditi” from our parasha, “to tell the story”. One of the responsibilities of leadership is to provide the narrative and tell the overarching story of our lives. To frame the times we live in and place them within a wider, meaningful context.
Each of us can be a nagid. Each of us is called upon to play leadership roles in one way or another. Some people have official positions within society but everyone is involved in influencing and leading the people around them in some way. We play leadership roles in our families, amongst our friends, in our communities, in our business or other kinds of organisations and in society in general.
Parents, especially, are leaders, who frame the meaning and values of the children’s lives. Providing the narrative for life is one of the most sacred dimensions of parenting. Whether it’s among our children, our peers, our communities, our places of work, each of us has the opportunity to create the narrative, to frame experiences, to provide shape and meaning and context to our own lives and the lives of those around us – to lead by example and inspire virtue in others. The story is ours to tell.