Maya Angelou, with whom I was honored to share an afternoon and a meal nearly 30 years ago when we were both living and working in London, encouraged me to “write” my own story in life, experience by experience.
She was not speaking about this as some sort of literary task; instead, she was giving me a charge to choose to live my life fully.
It was not long after this chance encounter (I was gifted a ticket to a play that she was directing), and after further soul-searching while carrying her words with me, that I chose to add becoming a rabbi to my story, beginning the preparations necessary for my application to rabbinical college. This was a huge leap for me, but it involved contemplation and choosing to create a life that would be authentic for me. Perhaps this can be for you as well.
If I had to pick an overarching theme to attach to this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, it would be just that: the struggle to face who we are and to choose the maximization of our life’s potential. Like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, others may have a vision of what our future may look like, they may bless us and they may even curse us, but we have been blessed with free will so that we may participate in the creation of our own lives. In so doing, we are forced to confront who we are in order for future generations to see us as venerated ancestors (more on that later).
After all, it is a common aspect of our humanity that we tend to act at our best when we know that the effort we make matters; in a sense, our being aware that we matter to our children and their children and so on can only help us to focus on what is important in life.
Many years after that memorable day in London, during my quest for an appropriate quotation for a sermon that I was writing, I came across one of Angelou’s truisms — a warning of sorts that felt as if it were directed to me (as I hope you will feel it is directed to you): “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Of course, with the backdrop of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot, these words by Angelou, and the sentiment behind them, take on an even more powerful meaning.
No matter what, the future is coming. Why not be happy to hear the shofar announcing its arrival rather than being filled with dread upon the prospect of yet another year posing as someone we are not?
The perennial lessons of the High Holy Days and Sukkot are that embracing who we are as individuals is the only path to determining who we can be.
The first task, taking a hard look at ourselves, is what we have been doing these last couple of weeks (if not longer). It is not enough simply to examine who we have been recently or over the arc of our adult lives; we must also understand the influences that others have had upon us.
And that leads me to offer my appreciation for the Jewish tradition of welcoming guests (Ushpizin) into the Sukkah — past generations of our family are often included in this custom along with specific prominent ancestors from our holy texts. Having a “mock conversation” with an ancestor while spending time in a Sukkah may seem absurd, but I assure you that it can also be instructive with regard to understanding ourselves. The questions we ask are often more important that the (likely unforthcoming) answers.
The second part of this endeavor is to make appropriate and real adjustments in our lives.
No matter what is predicted for our future, we must be active participants in creating our lives ahead to counter the natural desire to be a passive participant. Just as the Torah portion suggests that we will have setbacks, even big ones, the message is rather clear that we must move forward no matter how slow the progress.
Sukkot is a holiday that emphasizes our fragility and how easily things can go wrong in life. We can take that reminder, days after making new commitments on Yom Kippur that promise our successful efforts at self-transformation, as a forceful statement for the inevitability of failure or, instead, as a firm assurance that, with a modicum of thought and effort, we can transform our past into prologue.
So the question is: What is your “untold story”? What will you choose for yourself? Consider carefully … you just might end up as a rabbi.
Moadim L’Simkha — may you be lifted up in this season of joy as you discover your authentic self and share the blessing with us all.
Rabbi Gerald R. Fox is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine, N.J., and the president of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.