We Love to Tell the Story
by Bill Musser, Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
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Out of the deep forests and small villages of 18th century Eastern Europe, from the lively heart of the Hasidic Jewish tradition, come rich and revealing stories dotted with humor and dashed with miracles. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, a visitor to Decorah in 1986, grew up hearing these Hasidic tales, and in his book, Souls on Fire, he shares a particularly delightful story that has stayed with me for the past 25 years since I first read it. In it, we are introduced to the joyful, robust, charismatic founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Mezbizh, known as the "Baal Shem Tov" ("Master of the Good Name"), born in 1700. Here is the old story from the Hasidic tradition (as told by Elie Wiesel) about why we love to tell the story:
"When the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel [Baal] Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted."
"Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: 'Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,' and again the miracle would be accomplished. "
"Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, 'I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.' It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished."
"Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: 'I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.' And it was sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories."
Whether we are Jew or Christian, Muslim or Buddhist,
Hindu, Wiccan, or atheist, we are inclined to tell stories over and over again
that accomplish some miracle, that avert some danger, that heal us and our communities
and bring us hope. When we are forced to witness the worst inhumanities-as was
the case for Elie Wiesel in Auschwitz during the Holocaust -we can only escape
the killing power of the experience by finding ways to speak the unspeakable.
We manage the unmanageable with language, we give form to chaos by shaping it
into words, just as the first chapter of the book of Genesis describes God creating
with speech. Words give us power, and whole stories - our whole stories-- can
Powerful stories like the one above are always "true" (whether or not they are factual) because they make something happen within and among us. They work miracles. That is why we love to tell the story.
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