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5777 RH2 - A Myth is as Good as a Mile
What’s your story? Everybody’s got one, so what’s yours? This question could be answered in several ways, but here’s just two: One, some people answer the question as, “What’s your history?” So they start with, “I was born a poor underprivileged child, grew up walking to school in the snow all year round, uphill, both ways. I got a job and I got married and I had kids. This, that, and the other thing happened.”
Or, some people answer the question, “What’s your purpose?” God put me on this earth to fulfill a destiny.”
Narratives are a kind of back story that encompass history, factual or otherwise, and purpose. “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I crossed the mighty rivers and I crossed the hot sands until I became who I had to be.”
When you are part of a religious, or an ethnic or national group, a lot of narratives come into play. Narratives form the very foundation of religions. They help us understand who we are as a people, and what is our place in the world.
Often the narrative tells of a journey: Abraham set forth from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans. Rebecca sent Jacob to Padan Aram so his brother wouldn’t kill him. An entire people wandered for forty years in a wilderness, under Gd’s protection. The more stories, the richer the narrative. Sometimes these narrative stories take the form of national myths.
A myth is usually an origin story, set in a timeless past. “A long time ago in a galaxy far away…” It often tells the story of the birth of a god, and then of the world that was made by the gods. Sometimes myths tell the story of the relationship between the gods and humanity, usually an adversarial relationship. When the gods up on Mt. Olympus fight, that’s the cause of natural disasters, or discord between people on earth.
Myths are meant to convey a deeper meaning about life. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and co-author with Bill Moyers of The Power of Myth, talks about this. Campbell pioneered this field of national stories. He noticed there were similarities in all the world’s major stories, and claimed once that he felt sorry for the Jews because we had no myths. And you know what? On a certain level he’s right. Our stories don’t really do what the Greek, Roman, Babylonian and other myths do. Yes, they explain the conflicts in the world, from the tension in the garden on. But they don’t tell the origin of Gd. In our story, Gd was always here, since before the Beginning.
If other myth systems explain natural disasters by saying the gods are in conflict, we see, by a careful reading of the biblical text, that the world is created by Gd out of chaos. In Genesis it’s called “the Deep,” the primordial waters. I spoke about this on Rosh HaShannah a few years ago, how, according to this reading, because Gd used imperfect building materials, chaos sometimes rears its ugly head, and natural disasters take place: earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and a host of other things. Now, I spoke yesterday of our role and responsibility, since so much disaster is not natural. But my point here is that, in our belief system, there are no conflicts on high that affect us in our world. We know the world is not perfect and can be a dangerous place. But there is no origin story for Gd.
My colleague Michael Gold says that sometimes he believes that the problem with contemporary America is that we no longer have any narrative, any sacred story. He may be right. Even the most cherished legends we learned about in our childhood are dismissed. Nowadays, we look for the faults even in our legendary founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson, Ben Franklin, etc. Some of this is positive. What, after all, could be a higher value than Truth? But there’s a loss, too, when even politicians just aren’t inspired by that story where little George Washington says, “I cannot tell a lie.”
So when you get a story like chopping down the cherry tree, about a particular person who actually lived, who did something amazing or heroic, and then embellish that story to stress the values it contains, that’s called a legend. In our tradition we call it Agadah. Our Aggadic literature, found mainly in the Midrash and the Talmud, takes the characters from scripture and weaves a moral lesson around them. But here’s the problem: whether we are dealing with a myth or a legend, we tend not to pay much mind these days. We stop after asking the basic question, “Are these stories true?” We don’t ask, “Is there truth in them?” I’ll give you an example.
Some years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe sent shock waves through the Jewish community by making the statement that the exodus from Egypt didn’t happen in the way it’s described in the Torah. The Jewish press tore into him. I was just at the beginning of rabbinical school, and the question going around was, did we agree with Rabbi Wolpe? Was the Passover story true or not? And the answer is, that it doesn’t really matter. And the reason it is irrelevant is that it isn’t important that our stories be factual, as long as they are true.
Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler says, “There are many kinds of truth. A good way to get in trouble is to mis-assess the kind you are looking at. I don’t claim Aesop’s Fables are untrue because hares and tortoises speaking ancient Greek and running races are biological impossibilities. That’s not the kind of truth Aesop teaches. Similarly, when I read the beginning of Genesis, I don’t protest a snake speaking Hebrew, a world created in six days, or two archetypal humans in a garden. The Torah is not a science book.” We talked about this yesterday.
Some narratives stand the text of time. On the other hand, when it became obvious to the ancient Romans that Jupiter and his crew were not real, their religion fell apart. Interestingly enough, it led to a free market of religious ideas that were circulating at the time. People began to see the “truth” of the Jews, to the extent that at one point one in every ten people in the Roman Empire identified as a Jew. It would have been more but there are some carefully placed obstacles in the way to joining our tribe, especially for the men. If you take the factual element away from the Roman pantheon, their religion doesn’t hold up. Jewish legends don’t need to be factual because Judaism’s truths are greater than that.
The Passover story, the foundational legend of the Jewish people, tells us that a group of slaves oppressed by the most powerful dynasty on earth can be freed. That a people does not have to remain enslaved forever. That history does not have to be destiny. Change, rebirth, redemption are all possible. So what if the exodus story didn’t happen exactly the way the Bible spells it out? No matter what he believes really happened, I am sure Rabbi Wolpe sits every year at a Seder and reads from the Haggadah.
History is not destiny. There’s an old Disney TV show called Dinosaurs, which was kind of like the Flintstones or the Honeymooners, with all the parts played by stop-action animation dinosaurs. In one episode the young teenage dinosaur comes of age and looks forward to the dinosaur elder telling him what his place in dinosaur society will be. That was their tradition; the oldest dinosaur gave purpose and meaning to the lives of the younger dinosaurs. So the teenage dinosaur comes before the elder full of hope and anticipation, and the elder asks him, “What does your father do?” and the kid says, “He’s a tree-puller.” “OK, so you’re a tree-puller. Next!” and the kid says, “That’s it? One question? No finding out what my true inner essence is? No looking into my soul to see what I’m capable of and would feel fulfilled by?” and the weary elder says, “Yeah we used to do all that, but it got to be too much. Your father’s a tree-puller, you’re a tree-puller. Next!” And the kid is shattered.
The philosopher Nietzsche called it “eternal return.” However you live, your fate is to live it over and over again. Nothing can really change. The Greeks, like Aristotle, thought that way, too. If you were born a slave, you were fated to die a slave. If you were born poor, you were destined to stay poor. Fate was unchangeable. This is a really non-Jewish concept.
When we believe that history is not destiny, that slaves can be freed, that Gd can redeem us from our shackles with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, then there is hope. And coupled with that hope, we must accept the responsibility of freedom. That’s part of the narrative too. That mighty hand at the end of the outstretched arm? It’s not a fist. Gd releases his grip and lets us go. But we have Torah to guide us.
Our story, for these ten days of repentance, is that we come before Gd to be judged. If we were slaves, with no free will, Gd would just have little to judge. Our fate would be to keep doing what we are already doing, like the dinosaurs. Freedom of will is freedom to change. It’s like Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “We must have free will. We have no choice.”
Look at how many revolutions we’ve been involved with, with our foundational narrative as the prototype. Major upheavals in the social structure were inspired by the exodus, such as the American Revolution, and, later, the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. There were even some Jews involved. Two vocal Jewish abolitionists were Ernestine Rose and Rabbi David Einhorn. From Hyam Solomon, financier of the American Revolution, to the contributors to the scientific digital revolution that holds promise for giving us energy independence, there are Jews, many of them Israelis, at the forefront. So many secular messianic movements were influenced by people who had in their background the myth that Gd does not want us to be powerless slaves.
Key to our “Judgement Narrative” on the High Holidays is the Unetane Tokef prayer in the Musaf service that says we pass before Gd “kivnei maron.” That’s usually translated as “like sheep.” The sheep pass under the shepherd’s staff as they are counted. Israelis hate this interpretation, because it implies non-thinking compliance, like, well, sheep to the slaughter. But the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a) gives two additional explanations for kivnei maron :
Resh Lakish says it refers to the ascent of B’nei Maron, a place mentioned in the Bible and other sources, and later commentators argued that what was meant was B’nei Horon, another location with a very narrow pass that only one person can go through at a time. And there were tremendous military risks to doing that.
The third Talmudic explanation [Rav Yehudah said in the name of Samuel], that kivnei maron means “like the troops of the House of David,” baffled scholars for years. It doesn’t seem to be based on anything. But thanks to the discovery of some very early manuscripts, it can now be argued that kivnei maron is a corruption of ki(vi) numeron. Numeron is a Greek (and Latin) word which means "a cohort, a legion, a troop of soldiers." In other words, the Talmud says that God counts each of us on Rosh Hashanah as soldiers are counted, one at a time, to see if we pass muster.
This is the interpretation I like the best. Sheep are passive, being led to who knows what? And the narrow pass at B’nei Horon speaks only of uncertainty and danger. But “like soldiers:” A soldier comes prepared to meet the challenges of the day. Soldier comes prepared to work together with their cohort, their platoon, their division. Soldiers rely on each other. It’s about so much more than conflict and weapons. That’s probably why Chabad calls its youth groups Tzivos HaShem, the Gd Corp, as it were. Onward Jewish soldiers.
The Unatane Tokef tells us that we can come before Gd armed and prepared with t’shuvah, repentance, t’filah, introspection and prayer, and tzedakah, the desire to do the right thing. We pass by Gd like a soldier passing inspection. We come, bringing our best game, before a legendary commanding officer who knows our fate. Whether or not the particulars of the myth are factual, we confront the truth of our actions. The value of tzedakah, t’fillah and t’shuvah is true, whether or not there is an actual spoken or written decree.
They say that these holidays are like a dress rehearsal for our deaths. We may wear a kittel, as we are to be buried in one. Perhaps Shimon Peres was buried in one last week, one of our finest soldiers and leaders. May we be worthy of him and the other heroes of our legends, ancient and modern, mythic, embellished, or factual. None were perfect, but all had truths to teach.
Our stories, legends, myths and narratives can help us cope with the vicissitudes life throws our way and steer us to reflect on how we’ve led our lives. My holiday wish for you is that you be written and sealed in the book of life for a long time to come. And that’s the truth.