Storytelling as a Tool for Shaping Identity, Sharing Meaningful Messages and Healing Deep Wounds
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
It is written at the beginning of this week’s parashah: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Sh’mot 10:1-2)
It is interesting to highlight that the people of Israel were not yet liberated but God asked Moses to tell their sons about what is going to happen in Egypt.
Moses’ sons, Eliezer and Gershom, were not with him during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. They reminded in Midian with Yitro, their grandfather on the side of their mother, when Moses struggled with Pharaoh. They did not witness the ten plagues. They missed the thrilling flight from Egyptian bondage. They did not personally experience the wondrous miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. Maybe for this reason, God asked Moses to recount this story to them.
According to the Chasidic master, Rabbi Yehoshua of Belz, Gershom and Eliezer were not present during the Exodus because God wanted them to serve as the first Jewish children who would only hear its story; who would not know the real-life experience of the Exodus but only hear its narrative told to them by their father. God wanted Moses to tell his sons the story of the Exodus. He wanted Moses to be the storyteller par excellence, the one who would model storytelling for every subsequent parent in Jewish history.
These sources show us how important storytelling was considered for our tradition. Before the story of Exodus has ended, God wanted to make sure that Moses would pass down that story to his sons and grandchildren.
Without a doubt, storytelling is a very important aspect of the Jewish tradition. We can affirm that the history of storytelling, as an essential part of moral education, begins in this week’s parashah.
In addition to the first verses of this week’s parashah, we can find more references of the importance of storytelling throughout the whole parashah. Moses turns to the future and to the duty of parents to educate their children three times about the story that was shortly to reveal:
“When your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’ you shall answer, ‘It is the Passover service to God. He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians, sparing our homes” (Sh’mot 12:25-27).
“On that day, you shall tell your child, ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt’” (Sh’mot 13:8).
“Your child may later ask you, ‘What is this?’ You shall answer him, ‘With a show of power, God brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery’” (Sh’mot 13:14).
Again, it is interesting to note that storytelling is addressed in this week’s parashah, when the people of Israel were still slaves and were not liberated from Egypt. Before the story ends, Moses is teaching the people of Israel about the importance and the responsibility of passing on their story to the following generations.
Why was it so important to talk about the telling of the story of Exodos at that moment and not later?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l responds to this question in a beautiful way: “Because freedom is the work of a nation, nations need identity, identity needs memory, and memory is encoded in the stories we tell. Without narrative, there is no memory, and without memory, we have no identity. The most powerful link between the generations is the tale of those who came before us – a tale that becomes ours, and that we hand on as a sacred heritage to those who will come after us. We are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and identity begins in the story parents tell their children.”
In other words, God and also Moses had wanted to make sure the people of Israel understood, since they became free people, about the importance of the shaping of their identity as a people through their memories and the passing on their stories to the next generations.
We need to tell our stories to the next generations in order to help them to shape their identity. Besides this, storytelling is a great tool to transmit in a clear way important principles, values and messages which can endure in our minds and behaviors forever. Dozens of preaching lessons are not so powerful as the impact of a beautiful story. Maybe, for this reason, we have plenty of stories in our tradition from different times.
In addition, considering our inner and psychological aspect, storytelling comprises incredible powers of healing. When you are able to tell your story to someone, even if it is so sad and painful, it means that you are ready to heal your wounds, feel confident, and change the course of your life. The storytelling itself is a great tool of healing and transformation.
Thus, following the teachings of this week’s parashah, let’s become good storytellers, retelling the story of our ancestors to our children and grandchildren in order to help them to shape and strengthen their Jewish identity. Let’s tell stories in order to transmit meaningful and powerful principles and messages. Let’s share our personal stories in order to heal our wounds and see our lives in a resilient and meaningful way.