Retelling

Sermon delivered August 6, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


When my father married Dottie, they made a deal: If either of them tells a story for the second or the third or the fourteenth time, the other pretends to be hearing it for the first time. Unfortunately for my father and his wife, their children are not bound by this agreement. We may roll our eyes, but Gus and Dottie go along blissfully as though telling, and hearing, the well-worn tale for the very first time. I suppose we’ll have to admit a method to their madness. However tiresome their stories may be to the rest of us, the couple in question has endured the retelling for a quarter of a century now.

When my children were very young, I was often mystified at how Robert and then Daniel could watch the same video repeatedly, even Barney episodes. The experience could be painful for Toni and me, the repetitious background noise could be excruciating. The boys, however, were riveted to the television screen, as though waiting to see what would happen next, perhaps for the 200th time.

Not having ever lived with other children, Toni and I imagined that only our boys watched the same videos repeatedly. Around that time, though, Toni happened across a scholarly article explaining this behavior. As it turns out, young children crave watching or listening to the same show or musical recording, over and over again. As the scholars explain, the child’s mind takes in different details each time the story or song is seen and heard. The developing brain is eager to comprehend fully. Repetition facilitates learning.

In significant ways, the life of the Jewish people is an ever-repeated series of retellings. Well past early childhood, the active Jew hears the same story repeated innumerable times. Learning from repetition enhances our knowledge of our faith. Retelling sanctifies us as a holy people.

At this season, in the later summer and until the High Holy Days, Jews throughout the world are reading weekly from the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. The name of the book, based on the Greek, means “repetition.” The Children of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. Their leader, Moses, is not to accompany him. Deuteronomy is Moses’ last chance to instruct the people, to impart to them the important lessons of their journeys, the old lessons he hopes they will take into their new Land.

Precious little of Deuteronomy is new material. The Ten Commandments are repeated, with only minor variation from the version in Exodus. Several of the stories seem to be carefully chosen. Moses reminds the Israelites of some of their most despicable faithlessness, and the consequences of their bad behavior. He hopes that, when they hear those painful stories again, they will be firm in their resolve not to repeat their sinfulness.

Deuteronomy is a microcosm for the retelling that characterizes Judaism as a whole. After all, we read the Torah – the same Torah, with the same stories – every year. The holidays do not change from one year to the next. The words in the prayerbook do not change; even if we acquire a new one, and we have, the English interpretations are based on the same, repeated Hebrew prayers. Every year, we hear the Shofar calls on Rosh Hashanah and we fast on Yom Kippur. Every year, we spin the dreidel by the light of the Hanukkah Menorah. Year after year, we dress up for Purim and we taste the matzah on Passover. We tell the same stories; we teach the same lessons.

Maimonides, the greatest Rabbi of all times, who lived some 800 years ago, noted this repetition in Jewish life. He counseled that we should repeat our good words and our positive actions, over and over again, until repetition turns into habit. “Habit” has gotten a bad name in our modern world. Indeed, probably more than any other word, “bad” is associated with “habit.”

Some in our society, though, have embraced habits – retelling, repetition – as secrets to success. Most of us are familiar with Stephen Covey’s best-seller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book has spin-offs, of course, but the point is always the same: In order to achieve the results we desire, we must make a habit of doing the work and saying the words necessary to reach our goals.

Max Westheimer here knows exactly what I’m talking about, as does anybody who has studied for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. He has repeated the same words – the verses of his Torah and Haftarah portions, the prayers that he will lead tomorrow morning – hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I suspect that his parents have heard him read those Hebrew selections so many times that they can recite them, even if they would claim not to know any Hebrew. Repetition is a tried and true pedagogic tool, and it has worked for Max, solidifying his learning, as it functions in educational settings of every kind at every level.

Tonight, I read a selection from the Torah a selection in which Moses delivers God’s command that the Israelites set aside one-tenth of their produce each year. Let us note that our ancestors were enjoined to repeat the same action annually, and a slightly different act every three years, to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and to care for the needy in their midst. Just as we re-read the stories of the Torah, we repeat the rituals and requirements of Judaism, however different from the ones our ancestors performed in Temple days. Their obligations to honor God and to care for the poor never ended, nor do ours. Therefore, they repeated their rituals and we reenact ours. Therefore, we reread this commandment in Torah every year.

Tomorrow, when Max reads from the Torah, he too will speak of God’s command to open our hands to the needy. His lines from Deuteronomy are not the only ones in the Torah that command us to reach out to the poor; indeed, the selection I chose for tonight alludes to the same theme. The requirement bears repeating, so that being charitable will become a habit. Repetition isn’t boring if it forms positive behavior.

Even Max’s name – his full name, Maxwell Joseph – illustrates the significance of repetition in our heritage. In accordance with the Jewish custom, Max was given names that have significance on each side of his family: Maxwell, after his maternal great-grandfather; and Joseph, after, well, his entire paternal line. Talk about repetition. When a baby is born, and he is offered these names, parents and grandparents embrace warm memories of loved ones now departed. As the child grows, he learns of the people for whom he was named. He hears their stories. The more he knows of their lives, even hearing the same stories repeatedly, the more he identifies with a past he is eager to honor.

When we hear the calls of the Shofar next month, the sound may be nothing new. The same notes are intoned every year. Hearing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is not merely a commandment; it is a habit. If that habitual action of hearing leads us to ever-intensifying examination of our actions, then the habit begets even more repeated goodness.

Our ancient Rabbis taught, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: “One mitzvah leads to another.” If we are habituated to the performance of religious obligations, we will do still more of them. If we constantly repeat our good deeds, God’s work will be done here on Earth. If we retell our fidelity to God and our faith, we perpetuate our heritage.

Some months ago, Max told me that he is the first in his family to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. What he means, of course, is that his father, his uncle, and his grandfather grew up at times when Bar and Bat Mitzvah were relatively uncommon at Temple Beth-El. Those generations have had their own meaningful ways of retelling our Jewish story, of perpetuating our faith.

As we talked, Max acknowledged that, his immediate family notwithstanding, he is not really the first Bar Mitzvah boy in his family. Many of his ancestors, perhaps including his great-grandfather, but also ancestors he never knew, each observed his Bar Mitzvah in ages gone by. They offered Hebrew prayers in places like this one, and in very different ones. They accepted the mantle of Jewish adulthood, as Max does. They received the Torah from their parents and the generations before them, as Max will tomorrow morning.

Our lineal ancestors and our spiritual ancestors read stories from the same Torah, retelling the great narrative of our tradition, over and over, across the generations and through centuries, from one land to the next, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, in glory and in persecution, but death did not part this people from this Torah and its repetition. Reading the repeated stories and commandments of our tradition, Jewish people have made a habit of fidelity. Retelling has enhanced our learning and has reinforced our heritage.

Let us ever retell our story, honoring God.

Amen.