The Blessing of Vulnerability

To fully appreciate life, we must embrace our vulnerability. With thanks for inspiration and direction to Rabbi George Gittleman

Back in the middle of the last century, a child of immigrants “makes good” and moves to the suburbs and joins the very upscale Temple. It’s newly built, a beautiful edifice, designed by a well-known contemporary architect. It’s a far cry from his parents’ synagogue in the old neighborhood in New York or the shul in Pinsk, Poland where they came from.

The holidays approach and he thinks, “Wouldn’t be nice if we could all be together for the Holy Days?” But his parents seem less than enthusiastic; they like their shul, their rabbi, and all their friends will be there.  Undaunted, he decides he’ll take them for a visit. Surely once they see how beautiful The Temple is, they’ll change their minds and want to be there.

So, next Sunday, he picks them up from the old neighborhood and takes them to “The Temple.” He shows them the beautiful sanctuary, the modern Aron Hakodesh, the stained glass windows. There are many “oohs and ahs,” but he senses that something is wrong and so he asks, “Nu, what do you think?” This was their response, “It is very nice, son.” “So,” he pressed on, “will you come with me for the holidays?” They looked at him and after a long pause, his Dad blurted out, “yes we agree, it looks lovely, but can we cry here?”

“Can we cry here? Can we open up and let our true emotions flow? Can we admit our frustrations and our disappointments and our failings?” Yom Kippur serves as a kind of catharsis, an opportunity to let go of our tightly wound self control, and that is what the parents were looking for. Vulnerability is not something we should fear. In fact, we must embrace it to live fully. And that is the message I want to share with you. It is an important message for Yom Kippur.

“Can we cry here?” This question speaks right to the heart of what the Yamim Noraim and especially Yom Kippur are about, vulnerability; the stark recognition of our humanity, our fragility, our limits, in the face of the Infinite.

On Yom Kippur we make ourselves physically vulnerable. We actually imitate death – no eating, no leather shoes, no sex, we wear the white kittel so similar to the tachrichin in which the dead are buried – to remind ourselves of our ultimate vulnerability.

But, vulnerability in life is so much more important than in death.

We say Vidui repeatedly, literally beating ourselves up. Over and over we say ‘Al Chet’ for a long list of sins, many of which we are not guilty. But we believe that while not everyone is guilty, all are responsible. If someone who knew nothing about this day dropped in, they would seriously wonder what is wrong with this group.

We recite this long list because everyone is guilty of something and we do not want any of our fellow Jews to stand alone in their vulnerability.

We began tonight with Kol Nidrei – a communal cry, sounds of souls in pain. This past year is not what it should have been and that is why we ask to be absolved.

We begin with Kol Nidrei so that we can be broken open – because only then can we heal.

The folk singer Leonard Cohen sang, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That is the light we crave.

The Kotzker Rebbi asked his students “Where is God?” They were taken aback by his question. “Didn’t you teach us, Rebbi, that God is everywhere?” “No,” he responded, “only where you let Him in.”

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. On her website, the headline quote reads, Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.

Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.

In her book “Daring Greatly,” she wrote “Admitting our vulnerability, learning to live with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure is letting God in. It is also key to a meaningful life. Why? Because that’s how we connect to others and connecting to others is what makes life worth living.”

That notion is so much like the teaching in Genesis: after God creates Adam, He says, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam livado. – It is not good for a person to be alone.”

You may know of Dr. Brown from her Ted Talk that had 5,000,000 viewers. In fact Ted Talks may have made Yom Kippur sermons superfluous. Or you may know of Dr. Brown from her interview with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday. Her teachings are worth consideration.

She says that in her life as a research scientist, she operated under the motto, “what you can’t measure, does not exist.” Her goal always was to tidy up the messy nature of human relations.

We all know people like that. She wanted to fix things. When there was a problem, she wanted to make it better. She thought the way to live was “to control and predict.” She continued on her merry way of doing research on the human behavior of connection, and what she found was that connection, true connection, required vulnerability. But on a personal level, the result of her research was, as she puts it, “a little breakdown.” She said, “As a scientist and a self-confessed perfectionist, ‘vulnerable’ was the last thing I wanted to be.” It took about a year for her to regain her equilibrium. She says it was like a street fight between her and vulnerability. She lost, but in losing she won her life back. From that “broken, broken open” place she re-oriented her work and she continued to study vulnerability. To put it in terms of this season, she did Teshuva.

As part of her research she asked her subjects to complete the sentence, “Vulnerability is….”

Think for a moment:  what would you have said?

[pause] Now listen to the responses she received:

Vulnerability is ….
Sharing an unpopular opinion

Vulnerability is ….
Standing up for myself

Vulnerability is ….
Asking for help

Vulnerability is ….
Starting my own business

Vulnerability is ….
Initiating sex with my spouse…

Vulnerability is ….
Calling a friend whose child died

Vulnerability is ….
Falling in love

If you were like me, you thought vulnerability meant feeling weak. It is what we felt after 9/11, or after the Newtown tragedy, or what the residents of Sederot, 2 km from Gaza must have felt for the last 8 years. But it is so much more than that: it is letting your emotions show, and so many of us – and I surely include myself – find that so difficult to do. Have you ever gone to a conference and they do breakout sessions for in depth sharing? Oy. I always look for the men’s room. And I find half the conference participants there, and what they are sharing isn’t emotional.

The fear of vulnerability often comes down to shame.

You go to an annual review and your supervisor tells you about 37 ways you are great, and then mentions just one problem area – a so-called ‘opportunity for growth.’ What do you remember from that evaluation? Just that one last item.
It is that way so often in life.

Ask someone to tell you about love, and you hear about when they felt heartbreak.
Ask them about feeling included, and they tell you about when they were left out.
Ask about connection, and you hear about disconnection.

The underlying emotion is the feeling of being unworthy. You think that there is something about you that if other people knew, they would not want to be associated with you.

We think we are too fat, or not smart enough, or not wealthy enough.

How do we fight our vulnerability? Some people attempt to numb it, be it with alcohol, or overeating, or various forms of plastic surgery. The problem with that is that we cannot selectively numb emotions. If you numb your vulnerability, you also numb your capacity for joy, for gratitude and for happiness.

Some deal with their vulnerability by trying to make everything certain. That would explain the tremendous growth of fundamentalist forms of religion. Tell me exactly what to believe and how to act; don’t leave me with uncertainty.

And we try to deal with vulnerability by working toward perfection. That gets problematic when it is not our perfection we pursue, but that of others. It is especially dangerous when parents try to produce perfect children – by getting them into the right pre-school so they will get into the best undergrad program so that when they are in the prestigious graduate school they will meet the right people for advancing their career – and all this at age 3? Dr. Brown explains that the job of parents is to teach their children that struggle is part of life and that they are worthy in any case.

Brene Brown’s research teaches us that vulnerability is about courage, authenticity and faith. Being vulnerable is being real and living your truth, and it is about reciprocity.

So does that mean when someone says, ‘How are you today?’ you should give them a courageous, authentic catalog of how miserable you feel and how unfair life has been to you? You better not or you won’t have many other opportunities to hear the question. A wise person is not vulnerable in all situations. But to have a true relationship, vulnerability is a sine qua non. Many of you may recognize the name of the 20th Century philosopher Martin Buber. He famously spoke about the difference between an I/Thou relationship and an I/It relationship. The relationships in which vulnerability is essential are the I/Thou relationships, and in these we must see the other as B’Tzelem Elohim, having been created in the Image of God, just as we were.
In her drive to always fix things, Brown continued her research to find what were the common characteristics that allowed people to live connected to others.

And what she found was courage: the courage to recognize your imperfections, and still feel worthy. To do that, you must first have compassion; first for yourself and then for others.

When I heard her say that, I immediately thought of the interpretation of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ as meaning that only if you love yourself can you love your neighbor.

Where do we encounter vulnerability in our lives, and how can we embrace it so that we may live a meaningful life?

Let me share with you some of my own vulnerability, and this is just the season in which I feel it. Every year I wonder, what can I possibly have to say to my congregation? After delivering well over 100 High Holiday sermons, do I have another worthwhile thought to share? And whether I do or not, I am going to have to come up with something and put it down on paper. What’s going to happen when I bring it home to share with Lisa before I share it with you? Believe me, nothing I have shared with you bears much resemblance to what I brought home in that first draft.
Let me tell you about the vulnerability I feel when I stand up at the first session in an adult education series. Will the people come back for the second session?

And when I speak Hebrew to someone in Israel, and they immediately respond in English, how foolish and vulnerable do I feel?

Or when I have to deliver a eulogy for someone I considered a dear friend, how vulnerable do I feel standing before that kahal? Will I be able to hold it together?
Those experiences of vulnerability are mine, but each of us must feel our own unique moments of vulnerability in specific circumstances.

Too often I have spoken with people who have to pick up the pieces of their lives after a terrible trauma: a divorce, a downgrade in employment or the recognition that a new job is just not in the cards, the loss of a spouse after a horrible illness, the loss of ones own capacity due to illness or accident.

So often those people, when I ask, “How are you holding up?” will say they are just fine. Then, if they have the courage, or if we have the relationship I would like to have with each of my congregants, they will whisper, “What else can I say?” I tell them they can say whatever is in their heart and for me, they don’t have to put on a happy face.

I am afraid that some people stay away from the synagogue because they don’t understand that this is a place in which everyone is vulnerable, whether they admit it or not. For some, that vulnerability comes from discomfort with the service.
Perhaps because of issues of faith – we all have that. The greatest of theologians have had that problem, so why shouldn’t you.

Perhaps it is because you don’t know Hebrew – that’s why we have a prayer book with an English translation. The sages mandated saying prayers in your vernacular when Hebrew is not your language.

Perhaps it is out of fear of appearing incompetent. Years ago there was a singing group called Megama and their most popular number was, “I got those ‘what page are we on in the prayerbook’ blues.” You know what, that is not something that ought to concern you. If you find a prayer, or a just line, that speaks to you, that moves you, stay there; say it again, and again. What difference does it make what page I am on, or the Cantor is on? What matters is where you are. That can be true prayer.

The message I want to share is that vulnerability is a good thing. Yom Kippur tells us that. We say Al Chet so many times to remind ourselves that everyone has imperfections and that the first relationship we must repair is the ultimate one. For some that means with God, and exactly what that means will be different for each and every one of us. But a beautiful thing about our tradition is that it is not the only important relationship.

I just thought of another vulnerability I have: I feel it when I have to pronounce the name of a Chasidic master. I can never say the names of the Polish towns they came from. So I will just tell you that this teaching is from Rabbi Simcha Bunim. He was the Rebbi of a Polish town whose name I cannot pronounce. He taught: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “B’shvilee nivra haOlam. – For my sake was the world created.” And when he was feeling too proud of himself, he could reach into his left pocket and find the phrase, “Afar v’ayfer anochi, – I am but dust and ashes.”

To put it in the vernacular: you’ve got to reach into that vulnerability pocket and remind yourself, “God don’t make no junk.”

G’mar Chatima Tova.