Growing up in NY City I had many opportunities to connect with all kinds of different people, across the spectrums of religion, race, age, and ethnicity – you name it. When I was back here for my formative years of seminary, this breadth of NYC diversity continued to deeply enrich my opportunities for engagement.
One of my most pivotal experiences was during one summer studying chaplaincy at a major hospital in Manhattan. It was an incredibly deep dive into learning to listen, really listen to those patients who were in pain and the friends and family members who were there to support. I had the opportunity to counsel in both Spanish and English, which allowed for even more in-depth conversation and to be of greater service to patients and their families. Certainly a powerful and foundational time in the establishment of my Rabbinate.
One afternoon, I entered a hospital room to encounter a man, who for the sake of my story, let’s call him Joe. Middle-aged, grayish-golden hair, 2-day old scruff – not much else I can recall of his physical features. I greeted him and proceeded to ask if I could be of service, and offer any pastoral support or guidance. He never self-identified as any particular religious denomination, but that never stopped me from connecting with a patient.
He immediately became inquisitive about my appearance, specifically the color of my skin, my darker features. He asked my background, and I proceeded to tell him. “Wait, Puerto Rican, Spanish, European, Jewish?”, he asked incredulously and with an amused look.
“Yes,” I replied, “perhaps not a common blend.”
“I’ve seen it all now”, he said.
“What do you mean?”
“A Jew, a Rabbi, and a spic– it’s like hitting the minority jackpot. You can leave now.”
I froze. I felt vulnerable, spat upon, devalued and unsure of how to respond. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. In my body, I recall feeling all sorts of defense mechanisms and fight or flight responses, but before anything came out of my mouth, I thankfully had the wherewithal to leave his room without incident.
At that time in my life and without the wealth of experiences I have had the privilege to grow from, I sheltered all of the questions and tools I now use to combat such ignorance and lack of understanding in the world. But what if I had access to them then? What might have occurred if I actually engaged him in talking about who we are and the world we shared? Would he even care? Was it my responsibility? I never saw him again.
In looking back, I wish I could have told my former self: “sit-in-the discomfort, breathe through all the feels, because there is so much more that could possibly happen here if I stay. Yes, the outcome will be uncertain. You might feel embarrassed or exposed. You might be in this uncomfortable place and hear something that disturbs you…but this person, who they are in the world, is not about you.” Who knows…I might have learned something about him; our conversation might have generated more focus on bigotry and advocacy. But at that moment, I wasn’t ready to lean into the discomfort, the vulnerability. I walked away.
Something happens at a certain point in life. For so many years you feel like you are waiting forever for it to get started: what am I going to look like when I get older; where am I going to go to college, who will I marry, what career will I choose, will I have children? If so, how many? Will I have the wherewithal to make the right choices? And then, all of a sudden, it seems as though you are moving through life in reflection: How did this happen? Where did the time go and could I, should I have made different decisions? The experience with Joe has been one of those reflection points for me.
Over the past few years, I have been learning more about the existence and functioning of discomfort and vulnerability, and how it impacts our decision-making, our accessibility to and with those around us. So tonight, as we enter into our High Holy Days, I want to offer some approaches on how we might use vulnerability as a positive and critical tool in our own lives.
Most recently along the path of my own exploration of vulnerability, I was exposed to an incredibly powerful and very well-known voice in the healing world. Dr. Brené Brown, a psychologist and researcher, uses research based social data to examine trends in human emotion and experience.
In 2010 she delivered a 20-minute TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” that catapulted her into the forefront of the field. While I hope you will all find some time to google and watch during these Days of Awe, the core message I want to share with you is that as a society, we fear vulnerability, but we should be rethinking our approach.
For most of us, Brown says, vulnerability means: “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She notes that what most people fail to understand is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we desire.
But here’s the thing – it’s also the source of belonging, joy, love, creativity and empathy. Vulnerability is the foundation of hope, accountability and authenticity.
She notes that “If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path… it is not weakness, it is pure courage… “I’ve come to the believe,” she says, “that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest…vulnerability is the birthplace of change.”
Dr. Brown offers us reflective power on how to use our vulnerability as a gateway to deeper meaning, healing, and growth in our lives. We experience vulnerability when we ask for help, when we admit that we are afraid; when we have to say no to someone we respect or love; when we say “I love you,” first, not knowing if we are going to be loved back; when we enter a shiva house after someone’s child or spouse has just passed; when we go on a first date after a divorce; when we have to decide if wearing the Jewish star around our neck could impact our safety and always, when we ask for forgiveness.
Experiencing and facing our vulnerability is foundational to why we gather here over these next 10 days. Think about it for a moment: what’s more vulnerable than asking yourself the tough questions or recognizing that you’ve made a mistake, admitting it to yourself and others, asking for forgiveness, and taking the steps to make a change? And yet, the promise of these holiest of days is pretty clear: if you do this footwork, you will enter the New Year with the gift of life renewed, and the “work” we are tasked with will have far-reaching, positive implications. The process of teshuvah (of turning) may even bring about redemption!
For the Jewish people, our cultural DNA, and dare I say, our ancestral PTSD, is rooted in vulnerability. Despite periods of history in which we find ourselves as a people with privilege, most of our ancestors throughout history lived a fairly dangerous existence, economically, basic safety, and otherwise. We have been subject to expulsions, pogroms, inquisitions, and genocide many times over — often fueled by the trope of the greedy, crooked Jew serving as the scapegoat for unrelated and more general stresses and complexities that we find in society.
This past year alone, we saw tragedies befall the Jewish communities of Squirrel Hill and Poway in the name of Jew-hatred, and countless incidents and acts of hatred that maintain a strong current of collective vulnerability. Yet, that same vulnerability has always served as our catalyst for perseverance, survival, and achievement of and for the Jewish people. Our discomforts have propelled us to choose life.
On Yom Kippur morning, the Torah reading brings this home, even mandating our persistence, as God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!” (Deut. 30:19) The choice is ours.
In the year to come, we will all encounter moments of vulnerability: moments that we choose, such as expressing feelings for someone, owning up to a mistake, and other acts of self-exposure. There will also be other moments that are involuntarily placed upon us, such as challenges in our relationships or at work, sickness, loss or even natural disaster. In every instance, we will have a choice – to collapse inward and get smaller, or choose life by embracing the fear or discomfort which, in turn, can allow ourselves new levels of openness.
Tonight I offer you three specific areas to engage with which can enable us to use our vulnerability as a powerful tool rather than an impairment; tools to strengthen our spiritual muscle in a world that make that work often very hard to want to do.
The first approach is to lean into our discomfort with an openness to faith.
You might have an assumption that rabbis have an organic, steadfast connection to faith and God – not necessarily true, and certainly not for me. Ironically, my relationship to both was renewed in the very same hospital in which I encountered my friend Joe. It was there where I watched so many suffer in pain, family members enveloped in uncertainty while given the privilege to lead them in prayerful moments.
Yet, I came to experience that for those Jewish patients and family members, God was rarely in the picture. Faith was a mere word that existed as some foreign language. Even now, after many years of encountering this trend, I’m not exactly sure the origins of this paradigm. Though it is a tendency I’ve encountered throughout my rabbinate, I recall engaging with those families, feeling my vulnerability creeping up again; how do I hold these people in the midst of their pain, while so many doubt? Yet, throughout my time there, I came to realize that it was their doubt which enabled me to wrestle. I would find myself in someone else’s room where God was present for them along their journey.
Their faith was present, energetic even. In those moments, I came to understand that God and faith can most powerfully be found when we allow real vulnerability to enter. The Psalmists agree: Gam ki eilech b’gei tsalmavet, Lo ira ra, ki atah imadi: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You (God) are with me. (Psalms 23:4)
Profound illness, a child’s limitations, divorce, death – these are moments and ongoing life experiences that change our lives or break our hearts; they can even paralyze us. Yet, as the Psalmist reminds us, we are not alone as we journey through life. Eventually, we rise and move forward. The Divine presence is right there. You may have had this experience already, you may have tried in the past to hold onto that faith or find that Divine presence, and it wasn’t accessible for you, so you walked away, just like I walked away from Joe. I’m asking you this year, to revisit that vulnerability again; to consider a leap of real faith to explore it, even if you’re convinced it’s not there.
The second approach to facing our vulnerability is to lean on those around us.
Leviticus 18 concerns itself with the sacred relationships between family members. There is one specific prohibition around seeing one’s parents’ nakedness. Perhaps that nakedness is a metaphor for something else. In one commentary on this section of Torah, colleague Rabbi Zoe Klein notes the following: “In so many ways, the people in our immediate family know us best. They are the keepers of the knowledge of our good, and our evil. They know the words that make us most upset. They know the wounds that are most raw. They know our insecurities, our fears, as no one else does. Like Samson’s lover Delilah, who knew his strength was in his hair, the people closest to us know our strengths and also our most hidden weaknesses. Before them, our careful facades are plainly exposed.”
“If we read “nakedness as vulnerability,” she says, “we discover a subtler commandment hidden in the reading. When we become furious with one another, when we feel that everything we have planted is full of thorns and briars, our fists clench, our teeth set, we want to bring in the woodcutters and raze it all to the ground. Then we must look closer, beyond the rivalries and pain, to recognize… the beating heart of those nearest to us…” The people who are closest to us are also those who know us best.
Sometimes, we keep ourselves at a safe distance because we know how vulnerable we could be to them. But what if we were able to lean on these relationships for support, to utilize them as the safer space to take the risk of opening to others?
In my life, those individuals are along for the ride during those “crucible” events that continue to shape my own evolution. They cheer in times of celebration, and console in times of turmoil. But I also allow them to see so much of me, which takes ongoing work, that above all, they continue provide a source of honest feedback and reflection to keep my decision-making aligned with my values.
During these Days of Awe, ask yourself the ways in which you have and can lean on those you love. Our tradition commands us to clothe our loved ones with kindness, and in return, they to us.
The third approach to cultivating our willingness to be vulnerable by creating JOY!
Deborah Lipstadt recently wrote a book on anti-Semitism. Her last chapter is entitled: “Oy v. Joy”. She posits: “How do we want to live out our [Jewish] identity and practices?” How much are we driven by oy – they are coming after us? How can you understand the weight of that oy, the weightiness of our personal and collective histories? “Joy” – is our opportunity to transmit light– the capacity to go out and change the world.
In our country today, there is so much that is so bleak. We can have an awareness of the oy – our fear – our personal and collective hurts, but not let them shape our lives, not allow them to dominate the way we behave or the stories we tell. Joyfulness requires exposure and vulnerability because it can get lost in our daily drudge. We need to amplify our joy and look for all the ways we can use our holidays and milestones, our families and communities, to provide opportunities to both celebrate and choose life.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded that the world is created anew. And when we rise up at the end of Yom Kippur, Neilah, the Festival of Sukkot is immediately upon us. This holiday is referred to as Z’man Simchateynu – the season of our rejoicing. It’s a reminder for us that joy is a powerful tool, when we’re courageous enough to use it. To laugh and rejoice, even when the moments may be fleeting, and to express gratitude for what we have, even though we know it can easily be taken away.
In sharing these thoughts, I would be remiss if I didn’t give us some space us to name the vulnerabilities in our own Shaaray Tefila community. This strong, beautiful congregation is in a period of significant change and flux. There are chapters that will end, and new, unknown ones on the precipice of beginning. Your clergy who have shared so much of life’s moments with so many of you are entering into new stages of life and relationships.
It is a time of some serious discomfort and I well know how vulnerable many of you feel as so many have shared your deepest thoughts, feelings and concerns with me about these changes.
Within these sacred conversations, you have even expressed your hesitation to remain a part of the community. I understand your unsettled feelings, your pain and even your anger, but if you allow that vulnerability to push you away and sever your ties, then what we have built together all these years will have been for naught. I pray that the bonds I, and we, have fostered with so many of you will grow even deeper and wider, right here in this congregation, in its next chapter.
There is no doubt that this New Year will be filled with many changes. The real question is whether we will use some of the tools I spoke of to lean into our discomfort, work through the transitions (and the vulnerabilities that come along with them), to help us adapt to those changes.
A colleague recently reminded me of this story: A student once asked her Rabbi… “Why does Torah tell us to place these words upon your hearts? (Deut. 11:18) Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”
The Rabbi thought for a moment and answered… “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” For all of us, our Divinely given vulnerabilities are, in fact, our greatest strength.
As you move forward, whether you encounter a version of Joe, or any of the inevitable discomforts along life’s journey, hold onto these words by placing them on your heart, and take your sacred power on the road.
For our congregation – Temple Shaaray Tefila, I offer this blessing:
May this community continue to be guided in its sacred mission
May the work of the many who hold it up remain strong and resilient
May you remember that vulnerability is the birthplace of change
May each of you find ways to use it here to help it grow and thrive And may we all lean into our discomforts with the help of some joy, faith, and one another.
Shana Tova u’metukah – may each of us uncover joy, sweetness, and renewed resilience in 5780. Amen.
 Paraphrased from BT Yoma 86b.
 Antisemitism Here and Now. Schocken Books, New York, 2019.
 Retold by Rabbi Dara Frimmer