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Brous: Stories Build Muscle Memory for Times of Trial, Times to Embody Faith

Rabbi Sharon Brous

“I believe that Cecil B. DeMille got the parting of the Red Sea wrong,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday Morning Worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “A Tale of Two Stories: The Marriage of Hope and Responsibility.” The scripture reading was Exodus 12:29-32 and 12:51-13:10.

Moses, she said, was standing on the shore and praying. God asked Moses why he was praying. No one, it seemed, wanted to march into the sea. Everyone wanted someone else to go first.

Finally, one man stepped in and the water rose from his feet, and then to his knees, and then his waist and chest. He kept walking until the water covered his head. He was nearly consumed when the seas finally parted.

“We can’t wait for a clear road to liberation, we have to clear a path for ourselves,” Brous said. “I would invite you all to look at (The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson) who had the chutzpah to step in before you and open a path.”

Brous said she hoped her presence in worship as a rabbi and Jewish sister in faith would lead people to deeper understanding.

“This is a moment that cries out for greater understanding among God’s people,” she said.

In the 1990s, she said, two psychologists from Emory University, Marshall P. Duke and Robyn Fivush, created a “Do You Know?” scale — 20 questions for people to ask about their family history. Among the questions are: Do you know how your parents met? Where did your grandparents grow up? What awards did your parents receive as children?

“They found that there is a strong correlation between the knowledge of these stories and high self-esteem that develops purpose and optimism,” she said. A child is more likely to have “a narrative arc bigger than she, if she is part of a shared network of family” stories.

Religious communities also need these shared stories. They are the driver for the purpose of the community from generation to generation. These stories are how communities “dream of something bigger and better.”

Brous was invited to a Christmas Eve service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, by the Rev. Ed Bacon. He had reserved the first three rows of the sanctuary for his Jewish and Muslim friends.

He preached about a society so contorted that no one in the inn would give up their mattress to a woman in labor. For him, she said, Christianity is the sacred tikun, the attempt at redemption of that wrong that was done to that family; it was his raison d’etre.

“What is my story? Jews tell a lot of stories,” she said.

There is one that is obsessively retold, the “central core that has animated us — the Exodus from Egypt.”

The first commandment is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

Brous said, “This is God’s self ID, not as creator but the one who took Israel out of Egypt. It is an extraction process. We are on a journey to reclaiming our humanity. The yearning for freedom and dignity is timeless.”

The story of the Exodus is actually two stories, she said. One story is a trajectory of living from darkness to light, from degradation to dignity, from slavery to freedom.

“It was whispered in the barracks in the camps and has strengthened our people,” she said.

But this was not a direct flight.

“It took them 40 years to go on an 11-day hike,” she said. It was a zigzag path from miracle to suffering, from hunger to feast. Pain followed joy and joy followed pain.

“The IKAR, the essence of this journey that takes us toward freedom, is that God cares for us,” she said.

Brous told a story about a young man from the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn who, when asked who was the person who most influenced him, answered, “my principal.” When asked why, he answered that in an assembly, the principal had each student stand and she told each one, “You matter.”

“Your pain matters because you matter,” Brous said. “You are building muscle memory for survival. In the Warsaw Ghetto, just before liquidation, people prepared a Seder. It reminded them that they had been through this hell before, and that we and our children will once again walk toward the light.”

Political theorist Michael Walzer called this storytelling muscle memory “the closest thing we have to the genetic transmission of hope.”

The first story is a story of hope that ends in triumph and light. Its “eternality” comes with the second story, when Israel steps over the border into the promised land and into sovereignty.

“How do I build humility and compassion when I am privileged?” Brous asked.

The Torah’s central obsession, she said, is for us to learn how to treat the vulnerable stranger. “It gives former slaves a way to build a counter-Egypt and a way to give the ‘other’ the care they were denied.”

Leaving Egypt is an ongoing process and, as Jewish-American author Emma Lazarus wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Brous said that we have to live and wear the struggle of the refugee and the criminalized “as if we are there as one who was a slave in Egypt, suffered under totalitarianism, and this struggle taught us humanity.”

It is a great mistake, she continued, to tell these two stories, baked as one, as entertainment.

“The story is intended to transform the self and society and we need it more than ever,” she said.

Religiosity is not how long we sit in a pew for services or by what we eat, according to Brous.

“Religiosity is determined by the goodness of our hearts,” she said. “I know Christians who are never in church and Jews who eat bacon maple doughnuts, but they just live their faith.”

There are two sacred imperatives — hope and accountability.

“We need to actually embody our stories for our children, for God and for all God’s children,” she said.

The congregation stood and applauded.

Michael E. Hill, president of Chautauqua, opened the 146th Assembly before the worship service. The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, presided. David Rosen, a member of the board of trustees for seven years, read the Hebrew blessings before and after the scripture reading. James Pardo, chair of the board of trustees, read the scripture in English. The first anthem was “Ecce Quam Bonum” by Richard Proulx. “Taps” was played by Lucas Lassinger, trumpeter, in honor of all Chautauquans who have died since the season opened in 2018. Oliver Wilcox Norton of Sherman, New York, was the first person to play this tune, written by his commanding officer David Butterfield of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment during the Peninsula Campaign of the Civil War. His wife, Lucy Coit Fanning Norton, gave Norton Hall in memory of him and their daughter, Ruth. The second anthem was “Bright Morning Stars,” a traditional Appalachian song and African American spiritual, arranged by Shawn Kirchner. The offertory anthem was “I Was Glad,” by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. All anthems were sung by the Chautauqua Choir under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. Jacobsen played Louis Vierne’s “Final” for the postlude. The Edmond E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund provides support for this week’s services.

 

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the morning worship column. This past winter she made her acting debut as Miss Maudy in To Kill A Mockingbird at the Lucille Ball Little Theater in Jamestown. She edited the forthcoming history of the Jewish presence at Chautauqua and wrote the history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for its 125th anniversary this summer. She is a member of the Chautauqua Lake Central School Board and lives year-round in Chautauqua with her dog, Max.