From its opening parsha, Torah tells us a story


From the start of Genesis, we have been reading one long story extending over many centuries. It began with the creation of man and proceeded with the narrative of the transformation of a small family into a large nation.

For the past several weeks, the plot has thickened and that nation became cruelly enslaved. In this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), the story takes a suspenseful turn. We sense that the redemption from slavery is imminent, but first the narrative is interrupted.

It is no longer a story that we hear, but a set of G-d given commands: “This month … shall be the first of the months of the year for you. Each member of the community shall take a lamb. … Your lamb shall be without blemish. … You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month and … slaughter it at twilight, eat the flesh that same night … not eat any of it raw … not leave any of it over until morning.”

Whereas the novice reader of the Torah is jolted by this drastic transition from the narrative mode to a set of laws, Rashi and Ramban were not surprised by this sudden shift. They wondered why the Torah would focus at such length on storytelling and not proceed directly to this passage of ritual law.

“Is the Torah a story book?” they ask. “Is it not, rather, a set of instructions for ritual and ethical behavior?” They each answer these questions differently, but both conclude that much of the Torah, perhaps even most of it, is one long and fascinating story.

Why does a book designed to teach the reader about proper religious belief and practice take the form of a narrative?

I think the reason is quite simple. The Torah recognizes the power of the story to influence the minds and hearts of men. An author who wishes to profoundly impact his reader will do well to choose the narrative mode over other modes of communication. In secular terms, a good novel is more powerful than the best law book.

Taking note of this important lesson enables us to understand an otherwise puzzling phenomenon. Despite the fact that the Exodus from Egypt was, and remains, the central experience of Jewish history, there were at least two Jews alive at the time — Gershom and Eliezer, the two sons of Moses — who did not experience it directly. They remained behind in Midian when Moses struggled with Pharaoh. They did not witness the ten plagues. They missed the thrilling flight from Egyptian bondage. They did not personally experience the wondrous miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. They were brought back to Moses by their maternal grandfather Yitro, so it is not at all clear whether they were even present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.

The early 20th century Chassidic master, Rabbi Yehoshua of Belz, wonders about this puzzling fact. His answer is instructive: G-d wanted Moses to tell his sons the story of the Exodus. He wanted Moses to be the storyteller par excellence, the one who would model storytelling for every subsequent father in Jewish history.

This, teaches the Belzer Rebbe, is the simple meaning of the verse in this week’s parsha: “So that you (singular in the Hebrew) may tell the story, in the ears of your son and son’s son, of how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them  — in order that you may know that I am the L-rd.”

The singular “you” at the beginning of the verse, explains the Rebbe, refers to Moses himself. He is to tell the story to each of his sons individually, because he is the only father then alive whose sons would hear the story of the Exodus second hand. In this manner, Moses set the stage for all subsequent Jewish fathers. A Jewish father must be a storyteller!

The secret of the Chassidic movement’s success was not its texts or teachings but the inspiring stories it told to its early adherents. To this day, Chassidim maintain the tradition of storytelling in their melava malka, or post-Shabbat repast, every week.

I long ago became familiar with an approach to psychotherapy called narrative therapy, in which the patient uses his or her own personal narrative as the basis for curative change. My favorite mentor would emphasize that when a therapist first encounters a patient, his opening question should not be, “What’s your problem,” but rather, “Please tell me your story.”

As I reflect upon those of my teachers who left a lasting impression upon me, I recall the fact that they all told stories. Indeed, I remember those stories better than the academic lessons they taught me.

I remember a youth group leader named Shmuli who told us stories and gave us cupcakes every Shabbat afternoon. I later learned that he obtained those stories from an early Chabad publication entitled Talks and Tales. Those tales left me with a taste for religion that even surpassed the taste of those delicious cupcakes.

I remember my seventh-grade teacher who read us the stories of William Saroyan at the end of each class, laying the foundation for my abiding love of literature. And, of course, there were the stories my unforgettable Talmud teacher told us about the heroes of rabbinic history, which ultimately inspired me to pursue a career in the rabbinate.

Frankly, I fear that storytelling is becoming a lost art with the rapid changes in our modes of communication. Grossly abbreviated electronic messages have replaced the face-to-face encounters that are essential for storytelling. The absence of the good story will affect personal development negatively and impede the spiritual development of our children and grandchildren.

For me, Torah is but the most outstanding of the many stories which shaped my Jewish identity. I can think of only one modality that rivals the narrative as a basis for emotional growth. That modality is music. But space limits me to describing the narrative nature of the Torah in this column. I will reserve my take on the Torah as music for another column.