Thursday, January 17, 2013

Life as Storytelling: Exodus and the Power of a Novel

What matters in life is not what happens to you
but what you remember
and how you tell it.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living to Tell the Tale

In the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion God makes a scandalous statement regarding the reason for the calamities of slavery, suffering and plagues in Egypt:

God said to Moshe:
Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials,
in order that I may show these signs of mine among them,
and in order that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the Lord.
Shemot 10
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה:
בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ
וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו
לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ.
וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ
אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם
וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם
וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה'.

These verses raise many ethical and psychological questions – the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, the campaign of plagues to show God’s power over Pharaoh -  but it is the emphasis on storytelling which is most fascinating to me in this verse. לְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר - In order that you may tell”  - what is the power of this commandment that it is described as the raison d'être of the exodus?
The first chapter of Exodus posits that Pharoah’s first sin was not remembering. He is the King who “did not know Joseph”. The inability of Egyptian culture to hold onto its stories was the beginning of the slippery slope to an oppressive society. For the Torah, not remembering is original sin. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zachor: (and Yehuda Kurtzer’s Shuva) put it: What matters in Judaism is not history – a word that doesn’t even exist in Hebrew – but memory, zikaron. I would claim, following Gabrial Garcia Marquez: what matters in life is not history, but storytelling – “not what happened, but what you remember and how you tell it”.
As an antidote to Pharoah’s memory loss, the Exodus is framed first of all as an act of storytelling. Indeed, our parasha flips the usual order of things: Rather than claiming that history “happened”, and now we are faced with how to tell its story (most accurately and objectively?), the Torah claims that history happens in order that we have a story to tell: “I have hardened his heartin order that you may tell”. History happens for the story.  
It is becoming increasingly clear across academic fields that the stories we tell – to our friends, our children, ourselves –  are the determining factor in our worldview, decision-making and happiness. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the basic narratives we tell (the “sacred stories”) explain our political and social instincts (and he’s good at telling that story in all the formats of contemporary storytelling: book, OpEd, TED talk). Stories determine political choices, but also intensely personal ones: figuring out our own story, and the stories we tell of the world, are a crucial factor in the professional and intimate choices we make in life.
Nowhere is the need for storytelling felt more than in parenting. Storytelling is the central drama of the Exodus story, and it is brought to the fore at the Passover Seder, with its stress on the mitzvah of והגדת לבנך -  what story will we tell our children? The Haggadah, like the act of storytelling – and like parenting -  must be dynamic, never frozen. The Rabbinic authors of the Haggadah wanted parents to each write their own “Haggadah”. History has proven them right: the Haggadah is the book with the most editions in world history (I cheated by writing a Haggadah with my father, which I’m still not sure what my children will do with. Jonathan Safran Foer beautifully described storytelling to his child as the reason for making his own Haggadah. Edgar Bronfman is publishing his version this year, and invites each of us to DIY. It’s never to early to prepare for Pesach…)
Storytelling is not only distinguished from objective history or passive memory, it is also distinguished from one-dimensional ideology. Stories are vessels for questions, not certainty. In the annals of Jerusalem intelligentsia it is told that Gershom Scholem would fume about the fact that SY Agnon, the Nobel prize winning novelist, would never answer a question head on, especially questions regarding his religious belief.
“Whenever I would ask him about his faith, or any other pointed question for that matter, he would always evade giving a straight answer and instead smile and say: ‘Let me tell you a story!’
What does it mean when one answers a question only with a story? Milan Kundera, another great storyteller, suggests that the choice of genre – story/novel, over assertion/manifesto - is an ideology in itself:
Milan Kundera
A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions  I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything...
The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.
In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.
Milan Kundera, from Afterword: A Talk with the Author an interview by Philip Roth reprinted in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Penguin,  1981, page 237
The commandment of “לְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר - In order that you may tell” rings loud and clear in my ears. As we grapple with the questions of our own lives, and equip others with the tools to do the same, storytelling is in itself the most powerful answer. Talmud Torah, the central Jewish practice of learning, is in essence engaging in the act of constant storytelling – to ourselves and to others. The memories, the narrative schemes, the twists of plot and the conflicts through which questions are asked in stories, hold the key to redemption. It is through storytelling that the Promised Land is achieved.