Sharing ideas on Education, Leadership and Life

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Power of a Story


Each week a get a an email with Rabbi Sacks thoughts on the weekly Torah portion. When I read this week's article and he opens by quoting Howard Gardner I knew I needed to read this and blog about it.

 In Rabbi Sacks article , "A Nation of Storytellers" he talks about the power a story can have. Below are some of his thoughts:

"Howard Gardner, professor of education and psychology at Harvard University, is one of the great minds of our time. He is best known for his theory of “multiple intelligences,” the idea that there is not one thing that can be measured and defined as intelligence but many different things – one dimension of the dignity of difference. He has also written many books on leadership and creativity, including one in particular, Leading Minds, that is important in understanding this week’s parsha.[1]

Gardner’s argument is that what makes a leader is the ability to tell a particular kind of story – one that explains ourselves to ourselves and gives power and resonance to a collective vision. So Churchill told the story of Britain’s indomitable courage in the fight for freedom. Gandhi spoke about the dignity of India and non-violent protest. Margaret Thatcher talked about the importance of the individual against an ever-encroaching State. Martin Luther King told of how a great nation is colour-blind. Stories give the group a shared identity and sense of purpose.

A large part of what Moses is doing in the book of Devarim is retelling that story to the next generation, reminding them of what God had done for their parents and of some of the mistakes their parents had made. Moses, as well as being the great liberator, is the supreme story teller. Yet what he does in parshat Ki Tavo extends way beyond this....

Here for the first time the retelling of the nation’s history becomes an obligation for every citizen of the nation. In this act, known as vidui bikkurim, “the confession made over first fruits,” Jews were commanded, as it were, to become a nation of storytellers.

This is a remarkable development. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi tells us that, “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.”[4] Time and again throughout Devarim comes the command to remember: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” “Remember what Amalek did to you.” “Remember what God did to Miriam.” “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”

The vidui bikkurim is more than this. It is, compressed into the shortest possible space, the entire history of the nation in summary form. In a few short sentences we have here “the patriarchal origins in Mesopotamia, the emergence of the Hebrew nation in the midst of history rather than in mythic prehistory, slavery in Egypt and liberation therefrom, the climactic acquisition of the land of Israel, and throughout – the acknowledgement of God as lord of history.”[5]

Jews were the first people to write history – many centuries before Herodotus and Thucydides, often wrongly described as the first historians. Yet biblical Hebrew has no word that means “history” (the closest equivalent is divrei hayamim, “chronicles”). Instead it uses the root zakhor, meaning “memory.”

There is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is “his story,”[6] an account of events that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is “my story.” It is the past internalised and made part of my identity. That is what the Mishnah in Pesachim means when it says, “Each person must see himself as if he (or she) went out of Egypt.”[7]

Throughout Devarim Moses warns the people – no less than fourteen times – not to forget. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.

 The great leaders tell the story of the group, but the greatest of leaders, Moses, taught the group to become a nation of storytellers.

You can still see the power of this idea today. As I point out in my book The Home We Build Together, if you visit the Presidential memorials in Washington, you see that each carries an inscription taken from their words: Jefferson’s ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .’, Roosevelt’s ‘The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural, ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .’ Each memorial tells a story.

America has a national story because it is a society based on the idea of covenant. Narrative is at the heart of covenantal politics because it locates national identity in a set of historic events. The memory of those events evokes the values for which those who came before us fought and of which we are the guardians.

A covenantal narrative is always inclusive, the property of all its citizens, newcomers as well as the home-born. It says to everyone, regardless of class or creed: this is who we are. It creates a sense of common identity that transcends other identities. That is why, for example, Martin Luther King was able to use it to such effect in some of his greatest speeches. He was telling his fellow African Americans to see themselves as an equal part of the nation. At the same time, he was telling white Americans to honour their commitment to the Declaration of Independence and its statement that ‘all men are created equal’.  

England does not have the same kind of national narrative because it is based not on covenant but on hierarchy and tradition. England, writes Roger Scruton, “was not a nation or a creed or a language or a state but a home. Things at home don’t need an explanation. They are there because they are there.”[8] England, historically, was a class-based society in which there were ruling elites who governed on behalf of the nation as a whole. America, founded by Puritans who saw themselves as a new Israel bound by covenant, was not a society of rulers and ruled, but rather one of collective responsibility. Hence the phrase, central to American politics but never used in English politics: “We, the people.”

By making the Israelites a nation of storytellers, Moses helped turn them into a people bound by collective responsibility – to one another, to the past and future, and to God. By framing a narrative that successive generations would make their own and teach to their children, Moses turned Jews into a nation of leaders.

I think storytelling is a great tool as both Rabbi Sacks and Gardner mention it is a way for leaders to convey a powerful message and show clearly their vision and purpose. 

Not that I could add to the words of Rabbi sacks and Gardner and perhaps what I am going to say is implied in their words but for educators storytelling is powerful for another reason. 

When a teacher or any educator shares a story they allow their students a glimpse into their lives and they let their guard down for a brief moment and are able to connect with their students on a whole new level. It also shows a teacher's willingness to be open and transparent. Teaching the material is important, but real learning takes place when we connect. 

I had just moved to a new community and a new school and we had an opening retreat. Not  many of the students knew me and i was asked to speak. It was this time of year around the Jewish  High Holidays and I wanted it  to be inspirational. I had a whole speech planned at the very end, I scratched it, and told the following story :

There was a young woman who had a very normal life two kids a loving husband and was just a regular nice friendly person. One day she was having issues with her eyes saw spots and went to the eye doctor. They had just moved and finding a doctor was not so easy. She was able to make an appointment and saw the DR.The Dr said I want you go for an MRI tonight and scheduled one at the hospital that night around 9:30. They found a babysitter, but as luck would have it there was a storm that night and the roads were flooded and they couldn't pick up the babysitter so they asked a neighbor instead. It was dark and gloomy and in a new city it was literally a perfect storm.
The MRI was so late that they needed a security guard to take them to their car and open the parking lot for them. You could imagine what was going through their minds at the same time this was the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 
The eye doctor called the next day and over the phone with no warning or details told this young couple that the wife had a brain tumor. Shock! It was the last thing anyone expected. They asked a barrage of questions to which he had no answers he told them that he made an appointment that afternoon with a neurosurgeon who would be able to answer all the questions. It was Friday and the couple had no idea what would be the  fate that awaited after they saw the surgeon. They called their family and both the woman's mother and mother-in-law came for shabbat  not knowing what the surgeon would say. 
All of these days before Yom Kippur. They met with the surgeon, and it was a tumor, but it wasn't cancerous thank G-D and very operable. 
However, the davening that Yom Kippur was probably very different and one never knows and we have to be thankful for everything we have. 
That was the end of the story. However, I added one final line. I said the women in the story is my wife. 

I told the story because it was appropriate for the time  of year, but by opening up and making a personal connection I had a very good relationship with all of those students and over 10 years later still connect with some of them. 

Just like we teach students  not subjects and we need to  know their story we can also connect by telling them parts of our story as well. 

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