Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

Tevet 15 5780
One of the most fundamental lessons in public speaking is the ability, or rather the necessity, of the speaker to tell a story to illustrate the message that is being delivered. People remember stories much longer and with much greater nostalgia than learned interpretations and abstract thoughts and ideas. And if the story is somehow humorous – and the only humor that is acceptable in such instances is self-deprecating humor about one's own inadequacies and foibles – then the story will have even a greater impact on the brain and memory of the listeners.

A story well told and with a distinct moral message is truly a goldmine for the public speaker. And if we think about the events of our everyday personal lives, we will soon discover that there never is a shortage of stories that can be used to illustrate life and human interaction. So, in the broadest sense of our understanding of life, other human beings and current events, we all become storytellers.

The good story influences the future generations of our families, students, and even mere acquaintances. There is no story that is as powerful as the life we live. I think that is the reason why people are so interested in stories about others, especially stories about leaders, holy individuals, and outstanding scholars. This is certainly true in Jewish society, but I have a strong suspicion that it is universally true, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated and intellectual. The entire entertainment industry, such as it is, is dependent on the ability to tell a good story in an attractive and popular way.

Stories took a turn in Jewish life to become holy. In the Chasidic world, stories became the vehicle of information, education, and connection between the holy leader of the group and its followers. Stories were entitled to be exaggerated beyond the limits of true accuracy and reality. They took on a life of their own, adding wonder and hope, knowledge and inspiration and a glimpse of a world that was not tarnished and tainted by human weaknesses.

The great rebbe of Kotsk summed up the matter succinctly when he stated: "A Jew who believes all of the stories of Chasidim is a fool, and he who believes none of them is a heathen."

Just as it required skill to tell a story properly, it also requires skill on the part of the listener to hear the story properly to absorb the message and moral lesson that the story is meant to impart. The story is the outside garb, with the message and moral the internal seed that is meant to be planted within the mind, heart, and soul of the listener. It is this facet of storytelling that has made it so popular in the Jewish world throughout the centuries.

In the simplest terms, all of our history is merely one long story, where the details are important but the message of the story – the eternity of the Jewish people and its connection to Torah, redemption and the land of Israel - is even more important.

I am currently working on completing a book of stories, both personal and communal. Over the many decades of my life, I have been able to collect many stories, most of them from ordinary personal experiences in life. For a long period of time, I found that the best source of my stories, which I then related to my congregation in my Shabbat sermons, was simply shopping in a supermarket in my neighborhood. Something always happened there, from which a story could be made, and a moral lesson derived. The supermarket was such a treasure trove of interesting people and incidents that I often went there even when I had nothing to purchase, simply to view the crowd and take in the experience.

When I began writing the book of stories, I thought that it would be a lighthearted account of human foibles written with compassion, with a certain tinge of mockery. I soon discovered that the book was writing itself in a far more serious vein than I had originally imagined or even intended. Even the most lighthearted of stories contain within them strong lessons for life and moral implications. But the writing of the book is another story, and this is not the place or time for its telling.

Shabbat shalom

Berel Wein

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