Who doesn’t like a good story?
In my many years of pastoral leadership and customer service, I have been the beneficiary of anecdotes, testimonials, and rants. Most have been delivered with a potent dose of rhetorical energy, namely with wit, anger, or sadness. Many have been “over the top” in their length, hyperbole, or melodramatic tone. All have been lessons with important take-aways for my understanding of others and myself.
This week, as Jews around the world study and prepare for the reading of the Portion of Behaalotecha, we anticipate the resumption of the storyline of the Biblical narrative, which has been parked - just as the Israelites have been parked at the base of Mount Sinai - for nearly 45 chapters. While the lessons of sacramental and interpersonal laws have sustained us during the intervening passages of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, I for one am anxious to see some forward movement in the life experiences of the people whose journey through the wilderness has hardly begun. While cognizant of the imminent failures that will keep them wandering for an entire generation, I look forward each year to reading of how the wilderness journey washes over the characters.
The Torah is not a body of arbitrary rules. Rather, it is a set of laws that is aligned with our deepest essence, that reflects our collective history as a nation, is a response to our experiences in Egypt, and is designed to help us bring out our best selves as individuals and as a nation (Turetsky). Moreover, through their triumphs and tribulations, we might relate to our own hash marks through the wilderness that we call “life.”
The idea that telling our stories can bring us to a place of wholeness holds currency in yet another sphere of activity. This week, coincidental with the aforementioned Portion of Behaalotecha, Senior Housing Options is rolling out a new project that will enable us to understand the life changes made possible by subsidized, affordable housing. We are aware that both our independent and assisted living communities have functioned as a “vaccine” against the perils of homelessness and food insecurity, but we aspire to learn more about the steps along the way. We have engaged an intern to spend time with the residents and to elicit from them their personal narratives of transformation before, during, and after their respective moves to our nine properties. Our stakeholders are eager to receive the data which, if successful, will be viewed less as statistics and more as stories.
“All of us tell stories about ourselves,” explain Ibarra and Lineback. . "Stories define us. To know someone well is to know her story—the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested her.”
Here’s to a summer of discovery and growth, fueled by the power of personal narrative.
Ibarra, H. and Lineback, K. “What’s Your Story?” Harvard Business Review, January 2005
Turetsky, I. “Rules That Set Us Free”, YUTorah Online Shavuot To-Go, May 2021