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What Story Do You Tell?

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

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If someone asked you to summarise your life in a few sentences, how would you do it? What if you had just one sentence in which to do it – what would you say?

The truth is, these days, the scenario is not just hypothetical. People give pithy accounts of themselves all the time on social media. But that's more of a marketing blurb than a forthright answer, which we search for deep within ourselves.

If we're really honest, thoughtful and reflective about this, what is the story we'd tell of our lives?

It's an interesting question to contemplate because it touches on one of the central aspects of the human condition: storytelling. In fact, in many ways, storytelling is what makes us human. Our sages refer to the human being as the medaber, "the speaker". Animals also communicate with one another through sounds and gestures, but it is human beings alone who construct narratives and interpret events. This could be what our sages meant when they described the human being as the medaber – the speaker.

Interpreting events and constructing narratives about our lives is something we all do, all the time. Things happen to us – the basic, factual elements of a story – but as humans, we have unique perspectives that determine how a story is relayed, which give shape and meaning to our experiences.

Of course, the plain facts, the raw data, what actually took place, cannot be changed. But what is in our hands is the narrative we draw on to interpret those facts, the story we tell to ourselves about what took place.

Positive and negative experiences happen to us all the time, but it is within our power to construct the narrative around these experiences. We make a choice every day about how we tell the story of our lives, whether we construct a narrative that is pessimistic, or choose to be optimistic in how we see life. To construct a positive narrative is not to deny the pain or the difficulties – it is to frame those experiences in a broader context, appreciating our blessings and finding meaning even in the darkness.

The sages of the Talmud highlight an episode from this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, to emphasise the importance of constructing a positive narrative. In the wake of famine, Jacob and his family journey to Egypt where they join Jacob's son, Joseph, who has risen up the ranks to become viceroy of Egypt, and is shepherding the country's economy through the years of famine. The episode in question sees Joseph introducing Jacob to Pharaoh. When Pharaoh asks him about his life, Jacob responds: "Few and bad were the days of the years of my life." (Bereishit 47:3)

The Talmudic sages are critical of Jacob's negativity. Of course, Jacob was greater than we can begin to understand, but let's understand this. Jacob indeed objectively had a very difficult existence. He had to uproot his life and flee from his vengeful brother, Esau. He lands up in the household of Laban, who deceives him and manipulates him in countless ways. He gets married and has children, but then on his return suffers the anguish of losing his beloved wife, Rachel, the abduction of his daughter and the complete disappearance of his dear son, Joseph. His entire life is a study in trauma, so you could say he is entirely justified in reflecting on those experiences with an element of sadness.

Yet our sages say that even under such circumstances, we need to find a way to maintain a positive outlook. This does not mean repressing the pain and difficulty we've endured – it's important that we let it out, relay it and not bottle it up. But maintaining a positive outlook means seeing the big picture, counting our blessings, appreciating our lives in a holistic sense – not allowing negativity to overwhelm the narrative. Obviously, the sages of the Talmud make this point not to be critical of Jacob, but rather to teach us how to live.

The counter-example is that of King David, who also endured many trials and tribulations – he was pursued by King Saul, and later by his own son, Avshalom, who attempted to overthrow him. He also lost a child at birth. And yet, despite these unimaginably difficult circumstances, King David writes: "How can I repay God for all of His kindness to me?" (Psalms 116:12) Granted, it's an incredible level – to maintain that poise and positivity, that serenity and tranquillity, and that sense of simple appreciation for the gift of life. Nevertheless, it's something we can strive for, something we can choose to do if we meditate deeply enough on it.

But the power of narrative goes beyond positivity and negativity. Storytelling has the capacity to transform our lives, to make everything we do meaningful; it can tell us who we are and why we are here. And this is the true power of the Torah.

The Torah tells the story of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be a Jew, what it means to live with purpose. Through the narrative of the Torah, we can infuse every moment of every day with meaning and inspiration. What does this mean?

The Torah tells us that the world we live in is not a random accumulation of molecules that came about in an ad hoc and haphazard way. It tells us there is structure and intentionality to reality, that an all-knowing, all-loving Creator created everything with purpose. That there is a grand design to the world and grand meaning to our existence.

God created each of us with a purpose. He created us for the purpose of doing good, doing mitzvot, making the world a better place. Living in accordance with our higher calling means living a life that is ethical and upright, a life filled with compassion and kindness, a Godly life in which everything we do – even the most mundane undertaking – is infused with sanctity and significance. This is the life set out by the Torah.

Our sages coined the phrase: "leshaim shamayim – for the sake of heaven" – and state that everything we do should be guided by this ideal: we should eat in order to have the energy to do good deeds; sleep in order to refresh our minds and bodies so that we are able to go out and earn an honest living, support our families, pay for a Torah education for our children, and give charity; use our God-given mental faculties for learning Torah; and our God-given soul for pouring out our hearts in prayer.

The idea of the narrative also frames Jewish identity. What does it mean to be a Jew? The Torah tells the story of who we are, where we come from and why we are here. The story of how, through God's miracles, we came into existence as a nation and that He gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai and brought us into the land of Israel, and that He gave us a Divine mission to live in accordance with His will and to spread His light in the world. It's a narrative that defines us both as individuals and as the Jewish people. All of Jewish history, with all of its tragedies and triumphs, has been part of this Divine mission and destiny. And so this narrative gives meaning to the experiences of Jewish history and meaning to the project of continuing to ensure a vibrant Jewish future for generations to come.

The Torah itself is a framework for understanding the mission and meaning of our lives. Why is the mitzvah of learning Torah so important? Why is it referred to by our sages as the gateway to all of the other mitzvot? Why is it that our sages declare that the merit of learning Torah is equal to the merit of all the mitzvot combined? It could be because, through the mitzvah of learning Torah, we understand the story of our lives and the context and the meaning of all of the mitzvot. When we learn Torah, we learn to understand our world, our society and ourselves. When we learn Torah, we learn to see the world through a Divine lens, through the eyes of God Himself.

The Mishna says: "Turn it [Torah] over and over for everything is in it." (Pirkei Avot 5:26) The Midrash says God used the Torah as the blueprint for the creation of the world. This means that every aspect of creation is contained within the framework of the Torah; that the Torah gives us the framing narrative for how to understand and relate to the world, and how to locate ourselves within the context of creation.

That is the power of learning Torah. That is the incredible gift that we have – the vocabulary, the philosophy, the conceptual framework that tells the story of our lives. The Torah – God's blueprint for life – lending direction and guidance and purpose to our existence.

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