Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Have I got a story for you! / Vayakhel-Pikudei

Narratives are composed of details. Lots and lots of details that our brains sort, organize, and combine to produce a narrative story we call memory. Sometimes that sorting and combining goes perversely awry:

Recently Rush Limbaugh audaciously declared over the radio that Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke (he referred to her as a “Feminazi”), who last week told Democratic members of congress that the requirement that health insurance provide coverage for contraception is critical for women’s health: "What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute."

Note that Rush did not use the same details to tell the story this way: she must have contraception so men can have sex.
Politicians know that “either you control the story or the story controls you.” So do neurologists and psychologists. Our most intense and vivid memories are stored in our reptile brain, the amygdala, which consists of clusters of neurons in the medial temporal lobe. How we order and ascribe meaning to those memories -- the narrative story we create from them -- happens in the higher brain functions. Our life narratives begin with details that we assemble, order, and to which we ascribe meaning.

Passover is coming -- in less than a month. It’s easy to get caught up in the intense nitty-gritty of preparation and then the myriad of detail of the seder itself. Yet those very details can bring our narrative memories into sharp focus. Since it’s time to start cleaning, two apropos examples (and given the one with which I started, I’ll give you only light ones here): Years ago my kids assembled a long playlist on my laptop of high energy pop and rock tunes for Pesach cleaning. When Jonah and I together take the refrigerator apart to clean it everything each year, I carefully note how the drawers and shelves fit back together, but then completely forget when it comes time to put them back an hour later. Each year Jonah laughs and says, “No problem, Ema, I’ll take care of it this year.” Year after year. Second example: Jonah played endlessly with Lego as a child, and every year, when we pull the stove out from the wall to vacuum behind it, we find pieces of Lego. Every year. But Jonah is nearly 20 now. As impossible as it seems, we found a piece behind the stove last year, evoking a flood of memories of years past and Jonah’s building projects when our house was drowning in Lego. Both of these memories -- trivial details in the scheme of things -- are part of my narrative about how much fun Pesach cleaning can be when you do it with your kids.

Our double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pikudei similarly includes an intensely detailed description -- this one of the Wilderness Tabernacle. Every plank, pole, socket, and tenon of the Tent of Meeting; every piece of yarn, cloth, and animal skin used in the curtains and coverings; every exquisite detail of the ark, altar, menorah, and incense altar; precisely how much silver and copper were used; all are recorded in minute detail. Why so much detail? Why should we, standing in the 21st century, care?

Why so much detail? From the perspective of those who built the Tabernacle and brought sacrifices to God there daily, the Tabernacle was a reflection or replica of the heavenly realm. For our ancestors, the Tabernacle was their portal to God and everything beyond their immediate lives: purpose, meaning, immortality. But we who live 3200 years later have neither seen nor experienced the Tabernacle and its elaborate rites and rituals. Why recount the details? The Tabernacle -- precisely in its details -- evokes national memories of our beginnings, our purpose, our mission.

The details of Passover create a national narrative about redemption and covenant. Each year we re-enact the experience of our ancestors to create memories from our re-enactments. The details -- bitter herbs of slavery, recitation of the plagues, sweet charoset of freedom, opening our doors to welcome Elijah -- coalesce into a narrative about redemption and covenant. Each time we are reminded of the details, we have another opportunity to derive from, or ascribe meaning to, the story.

Each of us has narratives that explain how we have come to see our lives. Each narrative is composed of a myriad details. It is we who weave the details into a narrative tapestry of how we see our lives. At times, our tapestries depict a life of abuse, neglect, lost opportunities, failures… and these lead to great pain, and often paralyze us. We cannot grow, we cannot change, we cannot move forward because our narrative (the story of our lives as we tell it to ourselves) holds us back. Remember Rush? The same details can tell a very different story. Abuse can be a story of resilience. Neglect can become a story of self-reliance. Lost opportunities can become a story of caution, sometimes wisely exercised and sometimes not. Failures can become a story of courageous risk-taking. It’s all in the details and the story we have them tell.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


  1. We cannot grow, we cannot change, we cannot move forward because our narrative (the story of our lives as we tell it to ourselves) holds us back.

    An important lesson as we move to clear the chumetz from our homes and hearts.

  2. So true!!! Yet at the same time, the right narrative can prod us forward. Thanks for your comment!

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