Nitzavim- Our Stories of Plain Old Ordinary Holiness


 Our Stories of Plain Old Ordinary Holiness

By Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

Delivered on Yom Kippur Morning

10 Tishrei 5777/ October 12, 2016



Atem Nitzavim Hayom— You stand here this day…


These words which open our Torah portion, capture our attention— past and present converge as we stand shoulder to shoulder with all the wilderness wanderers, amassed on the border of a new land of promise— our heads of tribes, our elders, our officers, all the men of Israel, our youth, our women, the non-Jews who are part of our community; from the hewer of wood to the water drawer; those who lived in Biblical times and those of us alive today.  



This throng of community remains etched in my imagination.  And, quite honestly, I often allow myself moments in this grand throng of community—in this sanctuary—to connect with the thousands, millions of individual prayers that have been offered in this space; the millions of hands held, smiles shared, hugs enjoyed, tears shed in this space.  Yes, I think of the grand moments—when this building was dedicated in 1929, when Rabbi Louis Binstock preached his first sermon here in 1936, when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke here on “The Future of Integration” in 1964. 


But more compelling to me are the stories behind and between those big moments.  When the Jewish community was bustling on the south side, how did a small band of men have the foresight and bravery to begin a congregation on the north side of Chicago in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War?  After the 1871 Chicago Fire consumed so many members’ homes as well as their Temple’s first location and their Rabbi Aaron Norden left, how did this congregation have the courage, the gumption to go on?  Under crippling debt of the Great Depression, how did we have the will to carry on?  What were the conversations like when Rabbi Binstock and then Temple President Lester Stone invited Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak here? 


I’m not the only one interested in the answers, the stories of our congregation’s history.  You are, too, right?  We all are.  That’s why we have begun a campaign called “Two Minutes to Tell” in which we ask you to share your families’ stories involving Temple Sholom.  We hope that Shirley Fleischman and Nancy Borzak will tell us more about their father and grandfather AJ Clonick also known as Mr. Temple Sholom about how he worked with a small group of people to save our Temple from the brink financial ruin. We hope that Suzie Golub, who listened to Dr. King from inside her mother’s womb will tell us more about her grandfather Lester Stone’s experience of bringing him to speak at Temple Sholom.   We want to hear your stories because there is a certain Divine magic in the stories we tell. 



In his introduction to Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained, Rabbi Rami Shapiro tells this story about the power of telling stories:


When faced with a particularly weighty problem, the Baal Shem Tov… would go to a certain place in the woods, light a sacred fire, and pray. In this way, he found insight… His successor, Rabbi Dov Ber…, followed his example and went to the same place in the woods and said, “The fire we can no longer light, but we can still say the prayer.” And he, too, found what he needed. Another generation passed, and Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov went to the woods and said, “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer remember; all we know is the place in the woods, and that will have to suffice.” And it did. In the fourth generation, Rabbi Israel of Rishin stayed at home and said, “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor do we remember the place. All we can do is tell the tale.” And that, too, proved sufficient.


Rabbi Shapiro goes on to ask:


But why? Why is it that telling the story carries the same healing power as the original act? Because the story recreates the act in such a way as to invite us into it. We don’t simply listen to a story; we become the story. The very act of giving our attention to the story gives the story a personal immediacy that erases the boundary between the story and ourselves.



The sages have known this since ancient times.  That is why each tiny clue or remez in the Torah opens to a fuller story or drash.  We want to understand the story behind why God chose Abraham to follow the path that led to Judaism.  “Well, you know”, the midrash tells us, “he smashed his father’s idols.”  And how did the Sea Part finally part?  The midrash tells the story about Nachshon’s first steps.  We all want to know the story behind the story.


And this is true even today— in the Jewish world and the secular world alike.  Think of Anita Diamant and the Red Tent illuminating our foremother’s experience; Tom Stoppard providing the fuller story of two minor characters in Hamlet through Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; and, of course, understanding the motivations of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.  Before now, who could imagine caring so much about the Ten Dollar’s Founding Father?


There’s a profound human connection that happens when sharing stories.  Moses knew this, our sages understood it, and we recognize the power of stories today.   We are our stories— the experiences that bring us pain and those that bring us joy, the moments whose lessons are almost imperceptible and those that obviously transform us.  We are our stories and our stories make us holy. We have so many stories to share, because here is the truth:


Sharing our stories allows us to share with others what makes us holy.


And listening to others’ stories allows us to connect with what makes them holy.


And in sharing our stories, we realize that we, in fact, are holy.




In Sharing Our Stories, We Realize That We, In Fact, Are Holy:


25 years ago, Auburn Sandstrom was completely lost. At 29 years old, she had been addicted to drugs for five years. At her lowest point, she had brought her young son in the car—in a car seat covered with candy as a distraction—on a drug run.  Her parents—who had raised her with all kinds of comforts, access to good education and great values—had long since cut off communication.  Yet, Auburn’s mother had sent her the number of a Christian counselor some years before, and that folded piece of paper remained in Auburn’s wallet since.  Broke, unable to get any drugs, going through withdrawal, she decided to take out the piece of paper and make the call to the counselor. 


When she called at about two in the morning, she could tell that she had woken this man up from a deep sleep.  Yet, almost immediately he became present and attentive.  Throughout the night, until the sun came up, Auburn shared with him her stories from the past several years, the stories of desperation, shame, and trying still to make things work.  All night, as he listened, she never felt judged.  He would say things like, “Tell me more,” and “that must hurt…”   As the sun came up, she splashed water on her face and felt like she could see this new day more clearly.  So, as their phone call drew to a close, she asked him, “So do you have some Bible verses to read or something?”  He laughed.  Then she said, “You’re really good at this.  How long have you been a Christian counselor?”  To that he responded, “I’m going to tell you something and I don’t want you to hang up.  You know that number your mom gave you? Wrong number.”

That act of chesed, of compassion on the part of just some ordinary guy, resulted in transformation of an entire life.  By telling her story to this man, Auburn realized that her life, in fact, was holy.  Because that night she realized that there was random love in the universe and some of it was unconditional some of it was for her.  As she tells it, “[I]n deepest blackest night of despair and anxiety— it only takes a pinhole of light and all of grace can come in.”


As the midrash on Shir Hashirim teaches: “The Holy One said, ‘Open up for me an opening like the eye of a needle and in turn I will enlarge it to be an opening through which wagons can enter.’”


While she didn’t get her life together in that one night, it did begin a process of recovery. And just three years ago, that little boy who once road in a car seat filled with candy graduated with honors from Princeton. 



So what made that man stay on the phone?  Why didn’t he just let Auburn know that she had the wrong number right away so that he could get a good night’s sleep?  Well he intuitively understood an ancient Jewish teaching, even before the sun rose that morning…


You see, our sages tell of a Beit Midrash, a House of Study in which the rabbi asks his students: how a person can tell that morning has come.  One by one the students offer answers.  Finally, the rabbi explains, “You can tell the morning has come when there is enough light for you to notice the person in front of you and see the Divine light reflected in their eyes.”  By listening to Auburn’s story, the man noticed the Divine light within her—he connected with what made her holy and by recognizing that light, that holiness, they were able to open their eyes to the light of a new day, because:


Listening to others’ stories allows us to connect with what makes them holy.



Sometimes this can happen in the darkest moments of the night and the darkest corners of our society. 


David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, made a documentary film in 1998 about the last flop house hotels on the Bowery in New York City.  These men stayed for decades in tiny rooms with chicken wire around them to keep people from jumping from one room to the next.  Later Isay wrote a book about the men.  He went into the flop house with an early version of the book and showed one of the guys his page.  At first the man stared at the page silently.  Then he took the book and started running down the narrow hallways waving the book and yelling, “I exist!  I exist!”


When we listen to others’ stories, we connect with what makes them holy.   Their existence is affirmed and our lives are enriched by this connection.


This happened to some members of our congregation when we began writing to people in Solitary Confinement.  Some of these people have no interaction with a single person for days, months, or years on end.  When Allan Mills from the Uptown People’s Law Center suggested this to members of Temple Sholom of Chicago and Evanston’s Second Baptist Church in Evanston, we set up a PO Box for this purpose and started writing. 


The results for all involved have been transformative as you will hear in the words of a letter from a prisoner named Percell to our Sisterhood President Julie Paradise.  In a previous letter, Julie had shared a bit about her family background and her experiences with religion.   Percell thanked her for sharing her background and responded by sharing his experiences of growing up in Chicago. 


Then, he writes: “Julie, you said that ‘Each day you have a chance to start over, to begin anew.’ and I’m in full agreement with you.”


He continues: “[T]hrough an African concept called ‘Sankofa,’ a call to ‘Remembrance’… I found a path to redemption…  We must know and understand our past in order to move forward…”


He concludes:  “Every Friday night I will be with you in spirit: thank you for your prayer of ‘refuah shleimah’.” 


Percell’s letter captures the spirit of today—to reflect on our past to move forward in search of our best selves in this sacred community to gain greater humanity.  This deep connection reminds us that:


Listening to others’ stories allows us to connect with what makes them holy.


And in so doing, something is awakened in us… You know how when you sit together with someone and they start to cry and you find yourself crying with them or when someone starts laughing while telling a story and you start laughing with them?   You have a spontaneous emotional connection and you think: We must be on the same wavelength.  Well, in fact, you were. 


Dr. Uri Hasson and a team of scientists from Princeton have been mapping people’s brains as they listen to and tell stories. His team discovered something rather remarkable when monitoring the blood flow to certain brain regions of a story teller and her listeners. 


When [the storyteller] had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.[1] 



We can look at this physical manifestation metaphysically, as a rabbi is want to do and see in this a Divine Light. 


You see,

Sharing our stories allow us to connect and share with others what make us holy.



One of the greatest humanitarians who ever lived and who passed from this earth a few short months ago reminded us of this lesson again and again through his own sharing of story.   Elie Wiesel encouraged all of humanity to see a person beyond the surface and get to know them through their stories.  He wrote: “We must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” One of the most powerful ways that I have experienced doing this in the past year is listening to stories in Restorative Justice or Peacemaking Circles.


These circles are part of a process to develop relationship among participants, and when in conflict to repair harm, through sharing stories about one’s authentic self and listening deeply to others participating. It is the authentic story that lives in us all that allows the process of the circle its incredible restorative power. 


In early June, about a dozen members of our community went to a neighborhood called Back of the Yards (adjacent to Englewood) to sit in circle with youth from vulnerable neighborhoods. Father Dave Kelly of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation set the tone for sacred listening and sharing.  He asked one question and then another for each person in the circle to answer.  The first: “Talk about a mentor you’ve had in your life.”  The other: “When you are in a difficult situation, what’s the one value you hold onto?”  One by one each person answered the questions. And, one by one, we glimpsed some of the struggles and triumphs of each circle member. One young man named Kristopher—an artist and a poet—spoke of the tension in simply walking around his neighborhood. He constantly feels on guard and is compelled to act tough just to survive. Another participant, a beloved member of the extended Temple Sholom family—Dave, who spends many days working security at our synagogue and spends most nights as a detective next to Back of the Yards—voiced his sorrow at arriving in this area to attend to the details of one senseless killing after another.  Both of these men felt caught in a cycle of hopelessness. After sitting in circle together, they each saw more light, what I would call a reflection of the Divine light.  Afterward, Dave offered a ride home to Kris. They drove off together continuing to share more stories with one another, learning more about their sources of anguish and measures of triumph.  It takes courage, in a world too quick to shut people up and shut people out, to share a vulnerability that makes us human and makes us holy.


And, as you’ve noticed, these aren’t grand moments of storytelling, when the heavens part and the angels sing.  These are just plain, old, ordinary moments that contain the sacred.


That’s what David Isay wanted to capture when he started Story Corps nearly 13 years ago.  He had this wild idea to set up a small booth in Grand Central Station where, in his words, anyone could honor another person by interviewing them about their life. 


David says that he hears from a lot of people that they cry when they hear StoryCorps stories, and it’s not because the stories are sad. Most of them aren’t.  He goes on to say: “I think it’s because you’re hearing something authentic and pure at this moment…It’s simply an act of generosity and love. So many of these are just everyday people talking about lives lived with kindness, courage, decency and dignity, and when you hear that kind of story, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on holy ground.”[2]


Stories, authentically told to someone who genuinely listens allows us to walk on holy ground.  And that’s what we intend to do in this sacred community with so many people who live lives filled with kindness, courage, decency, and dignity.  We want to hear your stories because we know that in:


Sharing our stories, we realize that we, in fact, are holy, walking on holy ground.


So take Two Minutes to Tell—our Temple Sholom version of StoryCorps.  We invite you to begin tonight, at your break-fast.  Without any fancy recording equipment, you can start the story sharing.  Here are some questions to get you started:


Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about them?


What are you proudest of in your life?


How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?


How would you like to be remembered?


Later, when you’re ready, record some story sharing, just on a smartphone, and send us the conversation.  In the coming weeks you’ll hear much more about this process as we begin preparations to celebrate Temple Sholom’s 150th anniversary.  But for now, we invite you to simply begin sharing stories.  They don’t have to be grand, they just have to be real. 



As poet Mary Oliver writes:


It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch


a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway


into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.


Just plain old ordinary holiness.  So, one last story—for now.   Months ago, I was having a plain old, ordinary moment.  I was in a cab returning to the synagogue from the Federation Building.  I was having a great conversation Bill, the man driving the car.  We were talking about our mutual love of learning and my love of teaching.  As we got close to our destination, he realized that we were headed to Temple Sholom.  He inquired: “Do you work there?”  “Yes,” I responded.  He asked, “Do you remember what year Martin Luther King was there?”  I was surprised that he had heard of the visit.  At the time I didn’t know.  “Maybe ’67, ’68?”  I offered.  “No.  It was definitely earlier.  I think the year was 1964.” “How do you know about his visit?”  He looked at me through his rear-view mirror and said, “I had just gotten my draft papers.  I felt scared and alone.  I needed a place to find comfort.  I heard that he was speaking at this Temple and I felt like I needed to be there.  I came and I was comforted.”


I was blown away.  This place that has been a beacon of hope, a place of love and solace to me, to my family, to you, and your families… We may never know just how many people’s lives have been touched, how many souls have found the love and comfort they needed by coming through these doors.  Yet, this space itself is not holy.  We who inhabit it are.  And our stories that tell about our ideas big and small, our diligent pursuit of the good and sometimes the ridiculous, our quest for kindness remind us of the holiness in ourselves and our plain old magnificent lives.  


[1] As cited by Joshua Gowin, PhD in an article on the website of Psychology Today entitled ”Why Sharing Stories Brings People Together,”