In his d’var Torah, Rabbi Saperstein speaks of the “subtle shifts” we see in the narration of historical events as they appear Parashat D’varim. He notes that the differences may reflect a retrospective view of past events. Should we be surprised that our ancestral stories change over time? Is it unusual that in looking back, we see the actions of God in events where we did not see God’s presence at the time those events took place?
In my work as a hospice chaplain, people share with me the history of their lives. In addition, they often have a narrative of the illness or event that brought them or their loved ones onto hospice care. Sometimes this narrative is present the first time we meet with them and it remains the same as they tell the story to themselves, to family, to friends. Other times the narrative gains a different focus as an illness progresses.
God is not present in every person’s story. But for some, God bears the blame for the illness. They see it as punishment for misdeeds or as an unfair, cruel event in a pious life. For others, God’s presence in their story is a source of blessing or comfort. And for others God’s presence is only seen in looking back as they reframe their experience.
The narratives of grief and loss often change over time. Loss changes the story we told ourselves about what our life was or what it would be. We are different people than we were before as our losses become integrated into our lives. The story someone tells two years or five years or twenty years after a loss, whether the loss of a job or a home or a dream or the death of a loved one, is a different story because we can look back. In retrospect we can see who we were and who we have become. We can see God’s presence, or our community’s presence, or their absence, in ways we might not have seen them when we were in the middle of the story.
Our stories, like our lives, are ever changing. Like Moses, retelling the experiences of the Israelites in the desert, we emphasize different facets, see patterns we didn’t see before, and create a narrative out of the disjointed jumble of everyday life.
Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., is a chaplain at CareGroup Parmenter Home Care & Hospice in Wayland, MA.