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Tell Your Story - Ekev 5781

Yesterday morning, at Annemarie Ain’s funeral service, Rabbi Jana spoke of the stories Mrs. Ain began to tell later in life, imparting wisdom upon each individual she trusted with her words. Through her praise of Mrs. Ain, Rabbi Jana exhorted us all to tell our stories, to preserve our own legacies for generations to come. I carried Rabbi Jana’s words with me throughout the service, throughout the burial, and finally, throughout the ritual I have begun to practice each time I find myself at our cemetery. 

As I often do, I walked through the rows and placed a stone on the grave of each person from whom I’ve learned, whether from stories at synagogue or from conversations with family before a burial. From each of these individuals, I have learned different approaches to love, charity, humor, and family. I stopped at Rabbi Leo and Nan Brener, asked their advice for wisdom and compassion, and thanked them for the Jewish community they nurtured and sustained for four decades and truly, beyond. For those here who have spoken about your experiences of Rabbi Brener and for those who have written about him over the years, I thank you. Through records and memories of him, I have pieced together lessons about what true commitment to community, attention to the needs of the moment, and a passion for getting people involved can look like in a rabbi. Rabbi Brener began his journey at Agudath Achim at age 26, and I began at age 28. Naturally, his stories have taught me about a delicate balance - that of respecting those who have been in this community much longer than I, while still sticking to my convictions. None of this learning could have been possible without that oral and written passing of memory from generation to generation.

Before the children of Israel enter their new land, in Parashat Ekev, Moshe continues to give them a lengthy lecture of cause and effect. If they love God with everything they’ve got and follow God’s mitzvot, all will be well; if not, the people will see the effects in their own well-being and in the well-being of the land they are about to enter. But Moshe warns the people to remember that “it was not your children - who neither experienced nor witnessed the lessons of Adonai your God...but it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that Adonai performed” (11:2, 7). The children of this generation of Israelites will not remember God’s lessons without the help of their parents. More importantly, this generation’s children will not care about Torah without their parents’ firs-thand stories of God’s wonders and even God’s terrifying punishments. Our Judaism would not be where it is today without those oral traditions passed down from parent to child for thousands of years.

When we share stories with the next generation, even today, we teach what has worked and what has not. When we showcase moments in which we have found awe, we inspire adventure. When we share our most vulnerable moments, we inspire both caution and action. Through stories that prompt laughter and tears, we teach our greatest values to those who will carry those values forward. And perhaps, through those stories, we can teach the next generation to make themselves vulnerable - to share their stories with those who come next.

At the Kiddush lunch table today, I invite you to share a story you have not shared with the people at the table before. It can either be a story of your own experience or one that you heard from a friend or family member of a previous generation. And I invite you to ask yourself - what is it that you hope those at the table will learn from your story? As your loved ones’ yahrzeits occur in the coming weeks and months, I invite you to share something about them with the community. As some of you have already, one year, you may share their life’s work and legacy. Another year, you might tell us about their favorite book, movie, or song and how that influenced them. Beyond this synagogue space, after Shabbat, I challenge you to call a child, grandchild, sibling, or close friend, and tell them a memory you hope will never be lost. Just as we have a responsibility to carry our knowledge of God forward through Torah and rituals, we have a responsibility to carry our knowledge of how to live in this world forward to those who will live after we have gone. 

My alternate d’var Torah today would have been a highlight of a statement that appears in different forms throughout our parshah - that God’s teachings are present ta’arikhu yamim or l’ma’an yirbu y’meikhem - so that your days will be lengthened. We communicate our knowledge and experience so that those whom we love can live fuller, healthier, more meaningful lives.

Now, I think back to my Pop-pop’s last years. I would sit in his living room for hours, while he spoke about our extensive family tree and his personal struggles as a Jew in the nascent field of computer engineering. He would speak to me about the importance he placed on education for his three daughters and son, and at the very end, he saw himself as a college student again, splitting his time between engineering school at Drexel and Jewish studies at Graetz College. Through his stories, he let me know about the values he wanted me to keep alive - Jewish continuity, access to education, and family before all. As I have already appreciated hearing your stories the past two years, I hope that we all can continue to share our legacies with one another and with our loved ones, not just here and now, but for the years we have to come. Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784