Va-et’chanan: The Stories We Tell

After my mother died in 2015, I moved the 76 years of accumulated memories she’d somehow fit in her small apartment to my house in Brooklyn. Since I lack her organizational skills, her stuff quickly took possession of a space far larger than its former home. I emptied a bureau to make room for hundreds of photos and the 40 years’ worth of greeting cards she’d exchanged with my father, including one for every month of their first year of marriage. I stashed her teenage diaries next to my own. (“I had a date with that boy Phil,” she wrote on a spring day in 1956. “I think he may be the One.”). Odd items like the receipt from Carson C. Peck Memorial Hospital (when she gave birth to me) and her Howdy Doody Club and Lincoln H.S. Senior buttons are in a box under my bed.

All these years later I still can’t seem to throw anything out, and I don’t feel at all bad about that. This is my family history. If I part with the evidence, what will become of the stories behind it?

I was thinking about family stories and the role they play in our lives when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan (meaning “I pleaded”), the second parsha in the book of Deuteronomy. This parsha continues Moses’ first-person speeches to the Israelites and includes the second recitation of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. (The first recitation is in Yitro in Exodus.) The Commandments deal not with the nuts and bolts of governance but with family dynamics: Honor your father and mother. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Remember the God who brought you out of Egypt (and who won’t hesitate to punish you for the sins of your parents). These are hopeful instructions designed to engender a civilized and respectful community. They are at the core of who we are as people seeking to live harmoniously with other people. The Ten Commandments guide us on how to be human.

There were practical reasons for re-stating the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy; their precepts encourage the Israelites to sustain the family unit and uphold the law. Additionally, the Israelites hearing these words in Va-et’chanan had a different relationship with God than the generations that preceded them. They weren’t present at Sinai. They experienced neither the intense wrath of God nor the awe-inspiring moments that their forbears did. Their daily existence is focused on the mechanics of becoming a free people.

The oral history that this generation of Israelites is receiving from Moses throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy is brand-new to them, and they’re hearing it at exactly the point when they will benefit from it the most. Certainly, they face some challenging and frightening times ahead. Although they’ve been assured that they have God’s support, they are also well aware that the generations that perished in the desert was habitually disobedient and often unappreciative of its God-given blessings. This generation knows that they must do better if they’re going to succeed in governing themselves.

It’s during perilous times like these when we most need our family stories to give us stability and a sense of control over our circumstances. For the Israelites, and for us, our family stories remind us that we’re part of something greater than we are. We’re reminded of our interconnectedness and the strength that comes with being interconnected. There’s a real sense of comfort in knowing there’s a roadmap to guide us, especially when things get treacherous.

As the carriers of our family stories, we’re responsible to those who came before us. We’re the ones entrusted to carry the stories forward and add our own stories to the mix. Depending on the audience, we may choose to reinterpret the stories we tell, just as Moses tweaked the narrative that he gave the younger generation of Israelites. We may want to teach a lesson by telling a story, so that means shifting a perspective. We may want to edit out a behavior that we feel doesn’t need to be part of our family’s legacy.

Memory is notably imperfect. We all forget things. A few years ago, I watched a wonderful documentary called Obit, about the people who write obituaries for The New York Times. (For those who don’t read obituaries regularly, they contain some beautiful storytelling.) One of the obit writers spoke about the importance of double- and triple-checking the information that family members provide about a loved one. Someone’s son, for instance, will tell you that his father was a football hero in college — and you’ll find out that the father never left the bench. Stories tend to be embellished. Often we want to make events more interesting or make people seem more accomplished or heroic than they were.

Sometimes we also reinterpret our family stories to mitigate old hurts and eliminate painful episodes. Other times there may be hurts that can’t be mitigated — or we choose not to mitigate them — in our stories. This, too, serves a purpose. Just as Moses wanted the Israelites to stay on the right path as they made the leap to freedom, we don’t want the generations that follow us to repeat our mistakes. We want them to learn from our missteps. We want them to use what came before them as a foundation and build a life that is uniquely their own.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites the following:

“See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.

“Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.

“For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is our God whenever we call? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this teaching that I set before you this day.

“But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children — and to your children’s children…”

May we all appreciate the value of our own family stories. May we use our words to teach, to inspire, to bring people together, to connect our past with our future. May we have a safe week, and a week filled with contentment and experiences that bring us joy.

Shabbat Shalom.