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Rosh Hashanah: The New Year of Our Stories

09/06/2013 03:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

People are great storytellers. It's part of our DNA. To make sense of the experiences we have and the world around us, we tell ourselves stories about who we are, what we do, and what our purpose is. There is so much to take in at each moment that we have to organize our realities somehow. And we do so most often through stories we tell, audibly, within our minds, and in the silent backdrop of our subconscious.

These stories are shaped by the experiences we have and also by the stories that other people tell us. As people so engaged by our senses, we take in much of what happens to us each day. As innately social creatures, we are programmed to respond to the stories others tell us and incorporate elements of them into our own. That's how our worldviews come together.

While we cannot control all that happens to us in our lives in the year ahead, nor the stories others tell us, we have the uniquely human ability to shape and reshape the stories we ourselves tell. When we change our script, when we change our stories, we can change the way that we live our lives. In many ways, that is our task this Rosh Hashanah, this Jewish New Year.

What remains so difficult for me as a person, and I would imagine, difficult for many others as well, is figuring out what my story truly is, particularly in moments of anxiety or when so many other stories are being told about an event or experience. As I have learned, at points rather painfully, I have ended up acting out other people's narratives in place of my own. I am thinking in particular of a moment that I experienced in high school.

It was the week after 9/11. The dust was settling, the pain had sunk in, and for us as high school students, we were told that it was time to continue on with our work. While our classes moved forward, our minds were still churning, still trying to make sense of what happened as best we could. The conflicting narratives that others told us about the prior week were working their ways through our minds and only at times burst to the surface -- as they did for me one day.

Sitting in my Spanish class, my beloved teacher couldn't remember a student's name. "Mr... Mr..." With a quizzical look on her face, she turned to me, her trusted student.

I replied with two words, more hurtful than any I had said before or since; a Freudian slip of the worst kind.

The person my teacher was referencing was the only Muslim student in the class. His name was Nima Ossareh, and he was a gregarious tennis player who was nothing but kind. But with stories that others had told me permeating my subconscious, I blurted out, "Mr. Osama."

My classmate turned pale, the other students erupted in laughter, and I blanched, in the realization of what I said.

Worse still, my trusting Spanish teacher thought I might be correct. Perhaps she too had absorbed the kind of stories that I had heard on the news. She proceeded to call my classmate "Mr. Osama" for a few minutes. My classmate continued to shrink back, smaller and smaller in his chair.

While my classmate, Nima, was nothing but a sweet person, I had associated Islam with terrorism and all of its adherents with the actions of a very few. I came to see him as part of a group rather than as an individual. And I gave voice to the story I had been told so many times that week about the harmfulness of that group as a whole. It was a story rooted in oversimplifications and misapprehensions.

I had not intended to hurt Nima. But in amplifying the stories to which I had been exposed in the preceding days on television, in the newspapers, and on the Internet, I had hurt him all the same. I did not give myself enough time for internal reflection, the chance to listen to myself and discern what I truly believed. I accepted wholesale other people's stories, even when they only contained partial truths.

As I learned that difficult day in high school, we owe it both to the people around us and to ourselves to share stories that echo the sentiments of our hearts and values we hold dear. If we seek to do what is right in the world, we need to tell our own stories and make sure that they are the right stories to live out in our actions.

At times, we must also have the courage to give voice to our stories, even when they run counter to the stories that others might tell.

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Hannah in a Haftorah portion of key importance. It shows the power of story to shape a person's life and even legacy. In it, Hannah goes to the temple in Shiloh and engages in silent prayer. She is praying from the heart for the possibility of having a child. She is praying so fervently, so passionately that her lips move -- but she does not utter a sound.

One of the priests, Elli, sees her praying but tells himself a very different story about what she is doing. Perhaps rooted in stereotypes about women in that era, perhaps rooted in his preconceived notion of what it means to pray, he criticizes Hannah and impugns her intentions: "'How long do you propose to carry on drunk like this! Get rid of your wine!'" he shouts at her. But Hannah, humble and devout, defies the story that Elli seeks to foist upon her. Though silent in prayer, she is not silenced when another person misunderstands her intentions and actions. She responds respectfully but firmly: "'You mistake me, my lord... I am a sober woman; I have had neither wine nor liquor, but have been pouring out my heart before the Lord.'"

In defining her own story, Hannah becomes a teacher to us all. She is not harsh or unkind. But she is assertive when another person so misunderstands her intentions. In respectfully confronting Elli, a priest and authority figure, she the extent to which we should be courageous in sharing our own stories with others.

Because of Hannah's calm assertiveness, Elli does come to hear her. Centuries later, so do we. The rabbinic sages draw from Hannah's story and use it to help form the basis of prayer as we recognize it today. Had Hannah remained reticent -- perhaps frightened or unwilling to share her inner narrative of the situation -- we might not have come to so readily adopt contemporary elements of prayer. Her story of prayer, rather than being stifled, came to be shared by Jews who now pray in different ways and modalities, and sometimes without any words at all. Yet it required great strength for Hannah to tell that story in the face of a priest's criticisms.

Sometimes we, too, need to bravely tell our stories. How many times at work or at home, with our friends, or with acquaintances have we been misperceived? How many times has someone thought we meant the worst when we had nothing but the best of intentions? If there is a lesson from Hannah's story, it is that even when others do not understand our good intentions, we need to explain our stories. We cannot fully live them out unless others understand them.

Stories assume a sacred importance in many moments of our lives, but perhaps most particularly on Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate what is said to be the birthday of the world, the anniversary of creation. We recount creation as it is spoken of within the Torah.

Embedded within narrative of creation itself is the story that God tells about it. God is giving voice to story even before human existence and even before the world is fully formed. Story may well be one of the first things that God creates.

As we read in Genesis 1:1, "When God was about to create the heaven and the earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters' face there was darkness. Then God's spirit glided over the face of the waters..." The chaos described the Torah's narrative of creation does not lift until God spoke. We read on, "'And God said, 'Let there be light!' - and there was light. And when God saw how good the light was, God divided the light from the darkness; God then called the light Day, and called the darkness Night, and there was evening and there was morning, [the] first day."

That which separated day from night, that which separated chaos from light, that which made the world recognizable was speech. Not simply isolated words, but descriptive terms that tell the story of the universe as it is coming into being. In the process of creation itself, God tells us a story about the world. Story is part of the unfolding act of creation itself. It is unclear to whom God is speaking. Most likely, God is speaking to God's self. As our ultimate exemplar, God shows us the importance of finding and sharing our stories, even when no one else is around to hear. For the stories we tell shape the actions we take.

How fitting that we recount Genesis and the story of creation on Rosh Hashanah. How fitting that we study the original story of all stories. For it is a holiday all about stories and the potential that we have to create and refine them.

We cannot control all of the events that will take place in our lives in the year ahead. We cannot control all of the stories that others will tell about them. But our greatest gift, our greatest strength as humans is our ability to shape and reshape the stories that we ourselves tell; the stories that help guide our lives. We are not bound to the same old stories but can tell entirely new ones - ones that empower rather than undermine, that give hope rather than cast doubt, that compel us to do what is right rather than enabling us to shirk responsibility. Our stories must be better if we are to better; our stories more righteous if we are to be more righteous.

Even right here, right now, at this very moment, we are creating new stories in our minds. Weaving together sensory perceptions, we are telling ourselves a story. And I wonder, what stories we will tell each other today, tomorrow, and this year? Whether alone or with a large group, what will you tell? Will you tell stories about yourself that nobody has heard before; entirely new stories? Will you sit quietly in reflection, telling yourself a story that existed in your life, but which you had not before realized?

Even within our limited abilities to control the events that take place in our lives or the stories that others tell about them, we are endowed with the power to craft the stories that we tell; the stories that guide our lives. In connecting mind and heart, action and reflection, stories guide our step and help us to become better people. May our steps in the year ahead be strengthened through the sacred process of creating and sharing the stories of our lives. May we be brave and bold in telling our own stories, so that we play an even greater part in shaping our own lives. May we live out stories that are worthy of our innate holiness as human beings.

This article was adapted from my Rosh Hashanah sermon this year. Shanah tovah!