Tell Your Story (Yom Kippur Morning 5784, September 25, 2023)
Tell Your Story
Yom Kippur Morning 5784
Rabbi David S. Widzer
Once upon a time, there was a camp named Kutz. Owned and operated by the Union for Reform Judaism, Kutz Camp was its teen leadership training program, the summer home of NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth. Located in Warwick, New York, the best of Reform Judaism’s youth leaders from across the continent would spend a session or two there, learning leadership skills and creating community. Some of you, I know, spent time at Kutz as campers or program participants, or know people who did. It happens to be where my wife, Karen, and I first met as teenagers. Cantor Will spent many summers there as staff and faculty, shaping Judaism’s future leaders. I got to teach at Kutz several times over the years, sometimes for a full summer week as a faculty rabbi, sometimes just on an evening when they’d bring in special guests. These were bright kids, engaged in Jewish living and learning. You really had to be on your game as a teacher, creatively helping them connect our texts and traditions to their teenage lives. My favorite thing I ever taught at Kutz was a session on the connection between the musical Hamilton and the liturgy of the High Holy Days.
You see, one of the central themes of Hamilton is the telling of stories. In the show, Alexander Hamilton, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, is very concerned: What stories will be told about him? What is the story he is writing of his life? What will be the legacy that he leaves and the story that is told about him after he is gone? Hamilton thinks about what future generations will say about him and how they’ll tell the story of his life.
A little later in the show, General George Washington offers counsel to Hamilton. Seeking to tamper Hamilton’s youthful exuberance with his years of real-world experience, General Washington says, “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/ When I was young and dreamed of glory/ You have no control: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”  General Washington is trying to teach his young lieutenant that our lives and the legacy we leave behind aren’t in our control; they aren’t up to us.
Far be it from me to contradict General Washington, or the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda who created the show. But in teaching this session at Kutz Camp, and in bringing its lesson to you all here, I want to imagine Washington’s statement, not as a declarative sentence, but as questions eminently suitable to this Yom Kippur day: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” These are, in fact, central themes of the High Holy Days. And the response from our tradition is clear. The answer … is you! On this Yom Kippur, let each one of us contemplate what kind of story we will tell about our lives in the year to come.
The Jewish people knows the power of stories. What is our Torah if not a sacred retelling of the stories of our intimate interactions with God? At the Passover Seder, we repeat the story: we were slaves in Egypt until God freed us with a mighty arm and outstretched hand. The book we use is called the Hagadah, which in Hebrew means “telling.” At Shavuot, we stand as the 10 Commandments are read from the Torah, experiencing the power of storytelling through virtual reality in re-enacting the moment of Revelation at Mount Sinai. At Chanukkah we tell the story of the Maccabees; at Purim, Queen Esther. The ancient rabbis told stories about the stories in the Torah (we call them midrash). The Hasidic masters told stories, tales by or about the Baal Shem Tov or the Wise People of Chelm. At every family Shabbat service, or just the other night, I share stories to teach our people’s past and timeless values. We are the People of the Book, the People of the Story.
The imagery of a book is embedded in our liturgy for these High Holy Days. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer we read this morning speaks of God recording and recounting, writing and sealing, in the book of remembrances. It draws on a text from the Talmud that imagines God sitting, as it were, with three ledgers: one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for those in the middle. On Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, we will be judged, inscribed, and sealed in the appropriate book. We might not be comfortable taking this image literally, but even metaphorically, it fits with General Washington’s outlook that much of our life and our legacy are beyond our control. Here, it is up to God. The text of the prayer seems pretty clear: God is “judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness.” God will decide “how many will pass away from this world and how many will be born into it; who will reach the ripeness of age, and who will be taken before their time.” As General Washington sings, “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It seems that our story will be written for us for the year to come. 
But a closer examination of the text reveals a hint that we do have a hand in shaping our own destiny. Near the end of the first paragraph, we are told that when God “open[s] the book of memories, it speaks for itself – v’chotam yad kol adam bo, for it bears the signature of every human being.” Our deeds are listed in the book, and they are signed for … by us! We sign off on the things we do. God may judge us for them, as it were, but we are in control of what we do. We are responsible for how we live our lives, the choices we make, the story we write. Like signing the bottom of a credit card receipt at a restaurant, our signature in the “book of our days” indicates our acceptance of agency.  We have a hand in writing our own story.
In her book, Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story, Christina Baldwin proposes that every person, each one of us, not only has a story, but each one of us is a story. Making different use of the metaphor of life as a book, she writes: “Every person is born into life as a blank page — and every person leaves life as a full book. Our lives are our story, and our story is our life. … This narrative determines much of what we do with the time given us between the opening of the blank page the day we are born and the closing of the book the day we die.” We inscribe those pages in our Book of Life with birthday dinners and business meetings, quiet walks and noisy parties, summer adventures and winter shivers, love and heartbreak, joy and sorrow, cycles of life and daily routines. We write our stories, page by page, with the actions we take and the feelings we have. On this view, unlike what General Washington proposes, our stories are written by us, not for us. We are the authors of our own lives. The 11th century sage, Bachya ibn Pakuda, encouraged this view. He said, “Days are like scrolls. Write on them what you want remembered.”
Rabbi David Wolfman, a synagogue consultant and rabbinic coach, likes to say, “You are ridiculously in charge of your own life!” That is because we are the main character, the protagonist, the person who the story is all about! That gives us a certain amount of power or control. We can be the focal point of our own story.
But there is a danger in that. It isn’t a medical diagnosis, but there has been a term in pop culture in recent years, “Main Character Syndrome.” You may have “Main Character Syndrome” if you constantly act as if you are the main character in your own personal life-as-movie-or-tv-drama, to the extent that everyone else is merely a supporting character. That means your plot line is the most important, so you do not need to be concerned about others. It means that everyone else is playing a role designed to support and highlight you and your life, so your selfishness is permissible. It means that you can do whatever you want or need to do to drive your story plot forward, without needing to consider the consequences for anyone else. 
In pop culture, TV critics find this syndrome personified by Carrie Bradshaw, the character in Sex and the City and And Just Like That played by Sarah Jessica Parker. She is actually the main character in the shows, but, more importantly, the storylines have her acting as if everyone else’s lives are there just in service to her own. Yes, she is writing her own story (literally – she’s a writer!), but in such a self-centered way that no one else matters. Anything that happens to anyone else is important only in regards to how it affects her life.
And it’s not just on TV. Whether it is a deterioration of social skills caused by the pandemic, a reflection of Tik-Tok culture, or a consequence of the mental health crisis we are (or are not) confronting, we hear of more and more instances where people are so focused on themselves and what they want to do that they are indifferent, at best, or abusive, at worst, of others. In public settings, we’ve seen self-centered fans interrupt or disturb music concerts by Cardi B, Pink, Miranda Lambert, Harry Styles, and Drake, feeling that their own behavior was more important that what was going on on stage  And movie theaters, once bastions of dark, relatively quiet, and shared experiences, are now home to patrons scrolling through social media or posting comments about the movie they are watching, as they are watching it, without regard to others around them who are affected by their noise and the light of their screens. Without paying attention to how you impact other people’s stories, being your own main character can easily shade into narcissism and self-importance.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Being the hero of our own story doesn’t have to mean that everyone else only exists to facilitate our needs and wants. I doubt that any of us truly wants to write the story of our life in such a dominating fashion. And that’s not the legacy that we want to leave behind. The stories of obnoxious self-centeredness are not the stories that we want people telling about us after we’re gone.
So how do we maintain our role as protagonist without falling into narcissism? How do we become GOOD main characters? How do we shape our narrative in a positive way? What types of actions should we undertake that can make our story a GOOD story?
Once again, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer gives us some insight. After telling us that God will judge us on what we choose to do, the prayer reminds us, Ut’shuvah, ut’filah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et-ro’a hag’zeirah, “Repentance, prayer, and righteous giving can temper the severity of the decree.” There are things that we can do in writing the story of our lives that impact the type of story it will be.
We can engage in acts of teshuvah, repentance. No story is possible without a little drama every now and then. What matters is how we resolve it. We can reach out to those we may have hurt in the past year and ask for their forgiveness. A fight with a best friend or a family member may have caused a key character to remove themselves from our narrative. With communication and with human kindness, we can try to rebuild damaged relationships and make our story what we want it to be.
We engage in acts of t’filah, prayer. Having a spiritual aspect adds dimension and depth to our lives. It gives us a more well-rounded character. It helps us recognize that, though we are the main characters of our own stories, our lives are part of a bigger story, too. Our spiritual dimension might include prayer or meditation or mindfulness. It may be cultivating an attitude of gratitude and appreciation. It may come through faithful ritual or contemplative practice. In whatever way we interpret it, having a meaningful spiritual side to our life can enrich our story.
We engage in acts of tzedakah. Usually translated as “charity,” tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root for “justice and righteousness.” Our contribution may be of money, or time, or skills, or even just our presence. Acts of justice and righteousness draw us into relationships with other people in our story in ways that benefit the world around us. When we work to help others, we not only change their story, but our own, as well.
I’ll add that it isn’t just teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah, in Judaism that can help us write our story. There are Jewish rituals for just about every life-cycle moment that becomes part of our narrative, customs and traditions for each step along life’s path. There is a full calendar of holidays, stories in-and-of themselves, but also opportunities for us to create stories of sharing and marking these moments with family and friends. We can punctuate the rhythm of our days with a weekly chapter of rest and renewal on Shabbat. We can guide the story of our life by the living of our values, which are written in Torah, inscribed in us by education and experience, even printed on giant mosaic banners. Jewish living and learning can help us shape our story.
I don’t believe that our fates are sealed, that we have no control in our lives. If it is true that we are the authors of our own lives, then we can be our own editors, too. We can rewrite our lives and change the setting, the characters, the plot. We can rework the pacing, the drama, the humor. There’s wisdom about this in a different Broadway show, Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl book. Finding herself in less than ideal circumstances, Matilda contemplates fairy tale or fictional characters and how they seem fated for their predicaments. She sings about Jack and Jill, Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella, wondering “Why they didn’t just change their story?” Why did they remain in their situations as they had been written? Matilda declares: “If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out /You don’t have to cry, you don’t have to shout!/ … /Nobody else is gonna put it right for me/ nobody but me is gonna change my story.” While it may be fanciful to imagine literary characters actively rewriting their lives to have different endings, Matilda’s point is well taken. If we are the authors and editors of our lives-as-stories, then we can change them, even as they are unfolding and being written, even as we are living them. We can change and shape and write and edit our lives to be the main characters we want to be, ridiculously in charge of our own stories.
I shared much of this with the teenagers at Kutz Camp. We looked at the lyrics of Hamilton and Matilda. We studied the words of the Unetaneh Tokef. And I shared with them the same answer that I’ll share with you.
“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” The answer is … you. You do. You live. You will die. And, ultimately, you must tell your own story. One of the teens pointed out in our discussion that Washington is correct; we cannot control who will tell stories about us in the future. But, the teen continued, Matilda is correct, too. As our own main character, we can control and change and rewrite our story right now, as we live it.
And so the challenge I presented to the teens is the same one that Hamilton faced. It’s the same one I’ll present to you. What story do you want them to tell about you after you are gone? What do you want your story to be? Then, it’s up to you to live that life! Shape your life right now so that THAT is the story that is told about you. Live the life you need to live to have the story that you want to be told.
We are the authors of our life’s story, adding to our lives, page by page, day by day. We can change our story by the choices that we make. Ultimately, we must take charge of our own narrative and live the life we want to live. Tell your story. Live your life.
On this Yom Kippur day,
May God grant that you are inscribed and sealed into the Book of Life for a good new year. And may you inscribe yourself in the Book of Your Life as you go forth to tell your story this year.
Kein yehi ratzon, May this be God’s will. And together let us say, Amen.
 Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShannah 16b
 Asking for a check at a restaurant in Israel, one asks for the cheshbon, the “accounting.” The same term is used to describe the introspection of these High Holy Days, cheshbon hanefesh, “the accounting of the soul.”
 Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story (New World Library, 2005), p. xi.
 See, for example, https://mantracare.org/therapy/issues/main-character-syndrome/; https://www.businessinsider.in/science/health/news/4-signs-you-have-main-character-syndrome-according-to-therapists/articleshow/88226554.cms; https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2023/08/07/how-to-spot-a-co-worker-who-has-main-character-syndrome/?sh=4fe5cc525367
 See http://www.metrolyrics.com/naughty-lyrics-matilda-london-cast.html