It is hard to see life from other people's points of view. I have teenagers, and I try to understand how they speak (e.g., how they use the term "POV") and how they see the world. While they are part of my story, and I theirs, each of us has our own points of view.
This week, our Torah portion talks about the founding of our nation, told from a single perspective. We read in Genesis:
"Abram went forth as the Eternal had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five when he went out with all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan."
The story includes many people, Abram's wife Sarai, her servant Hagar, his nephew Lot, and others who are unnamed. We do not know what any of the other characters in the story thought or felt about the journey. The story begins with the commandment "lech l'cha," go out from yourself, but the telling of the story seems to be Abram's alone.
What about Sarai, Lot, Hagar, and the other unnamed family members? Were they active participants or bystanders? Were they forced to go along; are they victims? What did they know? Hearing the story from one point of view makes it impossible to know them. Even worse, we are likely to label them or make assumptions about their perspectives. Was Sarai angry at leaving Haran? Should we feel sorry for Hagar? Is she powerless? Was Lot duped or confused? We do not know because we only read the story from Abram's point of view.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie describes the danger of a single story from only one point of view in her TED talk:
"I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."
When we only know one story, we are prone to judging people as different from us, rather than being curious about our commonalities.
Lech l'cha commands us to go out from ourselves, to seek out other perspectives and stories. As a Jewish educator, this is work that I and my colleagues do every day. In recent years, I have been so proud to see new curricula and learning material highlighting stories of underrepresented Jewish communities and individuals around the world and reinterpreting ancient texts with new and critical voices. At the same time, I see educators changing Jewish language (like B or B'nai Mitzvah), rethinking family tree projects, eliminating gender-based programing, and encouraging students to question assumptions about what is or is not "normative" Jewish practice. They are centering marginalized and often missing voices, Jews of Color, LGBTQ+ identifying Jews, divorced families, kids with disabilities, and other missing identities with important lived experience and perspectives. Educators are realizing the importance of creating different paths into Jewish learning and leading with on-line and in-person learning, group and individual instruction, immersive experiences and daily after-school learning. It is amazing to watch a field that once had a single model of Jewish education explode with possibilities for families of all kinds to access learning in a way that is focused on their students and the needs of their family.
We see the prominence of a normative story when we teach Jewish history. Often, our "single story" tells only of Jewish families who fled oppression in Europe and came to North America to live a better life. This story focuses on white European Jews who predominantly settled on the East Coast. In recent years, educators have become more conscious of the importance in sharing multiple narratives. Jews have lived all over the world throughout history, are multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Jewish families are also created through conversion, adoption, and marriage. When we encourage the sharing of diverse stories and multiple narratives, we more authentically understand who we are as a whole people and community. Each of us can be educators, lifting up our varied experiences in our own communities, and ensuring we are learning about one another's stories.
The commandment of lech l'cha is to go out from ourselves, recognizing that each of us sees only one interpretation of any journey. How can we commit to ensuring that more than a single story is being told? How can we ask what perspective is being shared and what voices might be missing? How and why might we shift a narrative to re-center the focus? How can we ensure that everyone seems themselves represented in the lessons we teach and the teachers who teach us? To form a community, we need to learn other people's stories and experience multiple perspectives. When we embrace multiple narratives, our entire community can be part of God's blessing.