The Stories We Tell Ourselves
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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

Suppose I asked you “What did you do yesterday?”

You list 19 activities, yet I counted 173 activities while videotaping you yesterday. Why the discrepancy?

Writing our Own Story

Every day, we decide what’s important enough to remember. Over time, we weave our “story” from memories, feelings and interpretations of events that we have perhaps unconsciously selected. We tend to make our version of the truth into absolute truth.

My “Prison Story”

For years I clung to my “prison story”:

“’THEY’ made my childhood unhappy; I was powerless. I was not ‘good enough’ for them. I am still bitter about an argument from 1962.”

Later, I shared my “story” with my sister. She responded, “That’s not how it happened at all!”

She was right.

Joseph’s “Story” (Genesis 37-38, 40-45)

Jacob’s favorite son Joseph shared with his ten brothers his dreams that he ruled over them. Their jealousy drove them to sell him into Egyptian slavery; his master them imprisoned on false charges.

For 22 years, Joseph was not aware that his brothers had tricked his father into believing that a wild beast had devoured him. Assuming that his father knew he was alive, Joseph could easily have fashioned the following “story”:

“Why isn’t my father looking for me?

Maybe my father, enraged by my haughty dreams, instigated the plot to sell me into slavery. I have been written out of my family’s history, just like Ishmael and Esau before me.”

The Demise of Joseph’s “Story”

Through a long series of events, Joseph was released from prison, became Viceroy, and was charged with rationing food during a famine. When his brothers came to buy food from the viceroy, they didn’t recognize him.

Joseph’s “story” crumbled when he learned from his brother Judah that Jacob assumed him to be dead. Joseph now saw the true picture: a father grieving for his deceased son. Overwhelmed, Joseph could no longer restrain his emotions, and revealed his identity to his brothers.

How My “Story” Changed

It took some painful self-examination, but I have realized that I was, as it were, a victim of my own story. My story now is a journey towards dignity and gratitude.

As 2015 becomes 2016, Jacob’s words to Joseph find a place in my revised “story”:

“I never dared to think that I would see your face again, and now God has shown me your children.”

After years of doubting that I would ever marry and years of doctors minimizing the likelihood that we would have children, I am now overjoyed at how my story has evolved. On December 28, we celebrated the birth of a boy to my daughter and son-in-law. Now there will be three grandchildren to visit!

So Many “Stories,” So Much Uncertainty!

For a few hours, millions of moviegoers are allowing themselves to forget their “stories” and enter the “Star Wars” fantasy world. There, unlike in real life, the story is easy to interpret.

If only they, and all of us, could keep in mind a suggestion offered by the late Lubavitcher rebbe:*

“Life does not tell stories. People do.

Life provides no more than raw materials. Raw enough for us to look back and construct at least two versions of our own biography: one a prison, the other a palace.

This is the greatest kindness the Master of Life has given us: He has placed His own pen in our hands, so that we may enjoy the dignity of a palace constructed by our own design.”

We who are disabled can tell an “imprisoned victim” story or a “journey to a meaningful palace of dignity” story about ourselves. May God grant us the wisdom to keep our own imperfect knowledge and memories in mind as we endeavor to tell ourselves palatial stories.

*A Daily Dose of Wisdom from the Rebbe, January 23, 2012.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him.

This blog was inspired from lectures by Rabbi David Fohrman.

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