Origin stories

I love origin stories.

I don’t care what the critics say. Give me Henry Cavill, Tom Welling or Christopher Reeve as Superman. Give me Christian Bale, Val Kilmer or David Mazouz as Batman. Give me Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire as Spiderman. Give me Richard Donner or Zack Snyder. Give me Tim Nolan or Christopher Nolan. Give me Sam Raimi or Jon Watts. Give me any of these actors and directors, so long as they are giving me an origin story, and I’m hooked.

And I don’t even mind if the origin stories they deliver are competing in details or factually different. So long as the origin story offers me an insight into what drives my hero‘s motor, I’m hooked. And I can go back for more, again and again.

I find myself far more sympathetic to a character when I know that character’s origin story. I want to understand their roots of insecurities, their foundations of confidence, their source of aspirations. The beauty of the origin stories for me is that the creative interpreters—the writers, actors and directors—are ultimately responsible for dictating how we understand what motivates our favorite characters to act. No choice can made, no action can be taken in the foreground without the origin story hanging in the background.

Adam and Eve, in the Book of Genesis, get two (!) origin stories juxtaposed against each other. I imagine the writer and director getting together to offer two different vantage points from which we can watch the story unfold.

Moses, in the Book of Exodus, is given a detailed origin story, one depicting the harrowing circumstances surrounding his birth, the fateful moment he asserts independence from his assigned station of royalty, and the transformative event that calls him to God’s service.

When it comes Noah and Abraham, —the father of the post-flood human race and the father of the Jewish people, respectively—however, the Torah gives us no origin story. Instead, we’ve relied on the artistic and creative storytelling abilities of rabbis through the centuries to propose the origin stories that would provide greater insight into, understanding of, and appreciation for these towering characters. These origin stories are collected in the body of literature we call The Midrash.

My issue with The Midrash is that, while we have attributed some of these proposed origin stories to great and authoritative voices from our past, we all too often rely on them as if they were written by God God-self or discovered in the text of the Torah. In so doing, we relinquish the opportunity to connect the origin stories of these characters with our own experiences. While at some point in my life I may have smashed my father’s idols on a metaphoric level, I would much rather relate to Abraham‘s story of hearing God‘s voice in his life in the context of my own experience.

It is said of the Torah that she has 70 faces. I prefer that one of those faces be a reflection of my own. In studying the stories of Noah and Abraham, I can wrestle with what it means to be sufficiently righteous in this world to merit saving. I can ponder what sacrifices I would be willing to make in order to perpetuate goodness in this world. I can picture children, parents and spouses struggling to discern God’s willing voice in this world.

In the absence of origin stories for Noah and Abraham, the Torah makes room for my own. This origin story is mine.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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2 responses to “Origin stories”

  1. Adele Garber says :

    Rabbi Scheff, I love this idea of creating origin stories when these are not evident. I do that often in my own thoughts. There is no way to know if I am “right”, but it is mostly a creative experience that feels like I am explaining other people’s lives and behavior and making sense of the world for myself. It’s fascinating to think about why people are who they are; why people have the values they seem to have; why people act the way they act, etc, etc, etc One of my favorite authors is Joyce Carol Oates. In her earlier work, she developed characters Who often seemed like changelings. They would change with no apparent connection to who they were previously. Since she is such a good writer and I believed in the characters she developed, I was always left wondering if it was possible for a “real” person to shut off an earlier persona and be someone different. As I remember some of those early novels I am wondering now about the lack of origin stories for those characters. Do we need origin stories to understand something of why people are who they are? As observers of the origin stories, can we really understand what they really mean? Interesting to think about—better than Covid for sure. Lila Tov Adele

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Rabbi Craig Scheff says :

      Dear Adele,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response. It begs the question, can we ever truly reinvent ourselves? What are we, independent of our earliest influences?

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