Back to the Beginning: The story of Torah

October 16, 2015

Torah Thought

You are putting your children to bed, and the transition is made easier for them by the soothing ritual of the bed-time story. Perhaps a bit restless, you attempt to modify the oft-told tale, but your children bring you up short. “No, Daddy, tell it the right way!”

We outgrow childhood—at least partially!— but hopefully we never stop cherishing the value of stories to make our world familiar. These stories are not just about well enjoyed characters, fictitious or historical. They make the world navigable.

In our synagogue cycle of Torah readings, we have returned to Genesis, and we are re-encountering the stories of Creation and Eden, Flood and Fresh Starts, the folly of Babel, the courage and vision of Abraham, the poignant struggles of Sarah and Rachel to have a child, the maturation of Jacob, the line-jumper, into Israel, a man worthy of blessing and the direct ancestor of our people.

We should ponder why the Bible chooses to present religious truth in story form. The Bible is not a philosophical treatise. It is a law-code embedded in a story: the epic of God, very like a loving parent, reaching out to us, to give us good and meaningful lives, and teaching us the discipline that makes such lives possible. Why does the Bible opt for that mode of presentation?

One traditional Jewish theory is that the stories are a surface manifestation of the deeper truth of the Bible. Many centuries ago, the mystical classic, Zohar, pointed out that just as a person wears clothing, but clothes are not the person; has a body, but the body is still the exterior reality, and ultimately has a soul, the very essence of the person’s life, so too, the Torah has clothing, a body, and a soul. The clothing is the story. The body is the law. The soul is the relationship of God and the world.

In the past two centuries, insights into the human condition drawn from fields of study as diverse as psychology and folklore have created a new basis for appreciating the value of the story. The human mind is always turning reality into a personal story. When we dream, we revisit life, without the realistic filters that constrain our wakeful story-telling, and the result is often a fantastic jumble—but still a story. We are hard-wired to translate experience into narrative.

This is not only true for us as individuals, but also works at the level of culture and society. Stories are how we rehearse and maintain our group identity, our shared values, our ideals. The point of these stories is not primarily to entertain, but to enlist. Become part of the story, by identifying yourself with it and internalizing its lessons.

Understood thus, we can realize that it is not dismissive to recognize the story quality of Torah. The question, “is it a story, or did it really happen?” is the wrong question. Ask instead, “what does this story say to me?” Make the story come alive in your own life. The payoff is that your life will find shape and purpose.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel

Letter to the Editor