Tim Gunn meets the Prophet Elijah
April 3, 2010
This morning in place of biblical exegesis, never my strong point, I’d like to share with you some Passover musings: why is this holiday so important to so many of us, even those who barely nod at the other Jewish holidays? Sure, it’s time for family to gather, though that may or may not be a good thing. A time to share traditional foods, experience familiar rituals, but it strikes me that what’s really going on here is the telling and sharing of stories. We seem to have a primal need to tell stories repeatedly, as a way of creating individual and group identity, making sense of the world, remembering, teaching our children, reliving past experiences. They provide continuity for sure, but stories can also blind us to a certain reality; we often accept the premise of a story simply because it’s familiar, even though it’s not necessarily true. How many of us have had the experience of recounting a story from our childhood that we remember so vividly, with all its attendant emotion, only to be confronted with a family member who remembers things differently?
At my second seder this year the question arose of what would we do if someone actually came to the door seeking food. Would we invite him or her in to share in our feast? The idea of Elijah appearing at the open door is slightly magical for kids (a bit like Santa Claus, another good story) and the children at my table were eager to invite him in. The adults of course were a bit more cautious. What exactly do we want to teach our children about reaching out to those in need, and what happens when the one in need is standing at your doorstep asking to be let in? Under what circumstances might we actually consider inviting strangers into our home? Is a woman ok, or an old person, a child? Do they need to somehow show that they’re “deserving” of our help, or do we take them at their word? What story do they tell us with their words, their clothes, their demeanor? I have to admit that the first answer that went through my mind had less to do with the story of Elijah than with the kind of story that ends up on the evening news.
It’s hard to know what to teach our kids. As a parent one wants to encourage their openness and trust in the essential goodness of the world, yet one can’t do that completely. One answer given by someone at the seder table that night is to give to organizations that help those less fortunate, that presumably have mechanisms for doing so safely and ensuring the funds are spent wisely, though here too we are forced to make judgment calls. And does even this distance keep us safe? To be slightly paranoid for a moment, if our current socio-economic system were to collapse, as some predict, we’re going to need a lot of different kinds of people with a lot of skills that many of us in this room lack: suddenly a PhD will be worth far less than street smarts as sheer survival skills zoom in value. Those of us who are now in the position of donors may well become the recipients of help from people who today we may fear to invite into our homes. Clearly we have no idea in what form Elijah may next appear, or how to recognize him when he does.
Passover is about escape from oppression. We can list numerous ways in which contemporary people are still oppressed – racism, sexism, homophobia – the list goes on. But what stories do we tell ourselves that oppress us, that hold us back, either individually or communally? What is the role of stories in our own lives?
The possibilities are legion: there are endless narratives of personal or collective suffering; who among us has not gained some satisfaction from reliving the slights, pains, and grievances, real or imagined, of the past. Why do we do this? My answer is that we do this to maintain the continuity of our identity, in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, allowing us to avoid the difficult necessity of change. Or sometimes we do it for no reason at all, other than that we’ve never really examined or evaluated the stories we tell.
What does it mean to invest time, emotion, self in a story, maybe for decades, only to find it to have been based on false premises? It doesn’t mean we stop telling stories, but clearly we need to be aware of the malleability of memory and of the over-arching role of stories in our lives.
For example, one of the stories I tell myself is that I am a good, caring, generous person who works to make the world a better place. But what do I actually do? I have no good answer to the question of how to respond to the stranger at the door.
These are some other stories I tell about myself:
- I’m not a person who believes in god or joins a temple, yet here I am in shul, and in a leadership role yet
- I’m not a person who drives a station wagon, yet until recently I did drive one for several years
- I am a person who is skeptical of new technology especially when it becomes a fad, yet I love my new Wii Fit
- I am not a person who cares about clothes, or likes to shop for them – that’s for shallow materialistic people, yet I do enjoy the occasional thrill of wearing something new
We can come up with communal examples as well. Jews are people who don’t fight back: but what would the partisans of the Warsaw ghetto think of that one? Jews aren’t farmers or manual labors: but just look at the state of Israel.
We are as a community engaged in an ongoing revision of the Passover story. Only fairly recently have we begun to acknowledge that the Hebrews’ escape from oppression came at the expense of many Egyptian lives. We used to conveniently ignore that part; now we acknowledge its role in our narrative.
For those of you who reside in that tiny cultural space that remains untouched by the phenomenon that is Project Runway, let me fill you in: Project Runway is a reality tv show, hosted by fashion guru Tim Gunn, in which aspiring fashion designers compete to win fabulous prizes, fame, fortune, etc. Officially I’m “not a person who watches reality tv” and yet I love this show, in which contestants present their lives as a story designed to make them seem as compelling, deserving, and unique as possible. They talk about telling a “story” with the garments and collections of clothing that they design. Clothing indeed tells a story about who we are, our identities. But why is this show so compelling to me, and to so many other people who you may not suspect would be fans? Maybe it’s the thrill of seeing how these otherwise anonymous people propel themselves along, largely on the basis of the narratives they have created about themselves. I think maybe ambitious paths require stories to help propel us along our chosen trajectory; believing in a story can help us make it come true or even to imagine it in the first place. Stories are powerful: they open up a whole new realm of possibilities we may never have seen in reality but do have the power to actually realize once we can imagine them.
I’m sure by now you’re wondering how Elijah fits into all of this.
Well, as we learn from the Passover story, Elijah’s arrival is said to precipitate the coming of the Messiah. You can’t get a much bigger story than that.
Whatever your thoughts are on the dawning of the messianic age, the truth is we never know what story will show up on our doorstep, or how we’ll respond when it does. I would argue though that it’s critical for the vitality of our own life stories to be open to other narratives, to invite them in, and consciously decide whether or not to offer them a place at our table. We modern Jews may not believe in the literal arrival of Elijah, or of a messianic age. But if he does show up at our doorstep, let us have the courage to open the door and listen to the story he has to tell in the hope of inspiring new ones for all of us in the coming year.