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The Power of Vulnerability

Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve

September 27, 2020 • 9 Tishrei 5781

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

In my first position as a rabbi, one of my responsibilities was to organize a group of synagogue members to help those who were ill or facing other crises. We had a few meetings and set up a communication system. Then, we ran into a problem we hadn’t expected: hardly anyone was willing to accept help. A committee member would call a family in which someone was ill and offer to bring food, or help with rides, and almost every time the response was something along the lines of, “Thank you, but we’re OK.”

I dug deeper to try to understand what was going on. Here’s what I discovered. Many people were embarrassed to have others see them not at their best, or to say that they couldn’t manage things on their own. They were afraid of feeling indebted – if they accepted help, what would they have to do in return? Needing help from others seemed to be an admission of failure.

This shouldn’t have been such a surprise. We live in a culture in which we are taught to be self-sufficient, and to strive for perfection. We like to prevent or fix vulnerability. 

Yet Yom Kippur pushes us to feel vulnerable. We are asked to step out of ordinary life for 24 hours, not to eat or drink, to spend long periods of time standing and chanting aloud our wrongdoings as a community and as individuals. It’s traditional to wear a white robe on Yom Kippur, called a kittle, that is also the shroud in which one will be buried. The prayers remind us again and again that life is fragile, that we can be here today and gone tomorrow, that we can rise all the way up or slide all the way down in an instant. 

I’m sure you understand the point of these traditions. They, like the shofar, call to us, “Pay attention! Each moment of your life is precious. Choose to make it matter.” Or, as a Hasidic rabbi put it, simply and powerfully, “Let me not die while I am still alive.”

We are here together on Yom Kippur, day of vulnerability, and it is like no other Yom Kippur we have ever experienced. We are already highly aware of the uncertainty of life, of how so much is beyond our control. 

Some of us have carried this awareness for years, perhaps because of our encounters with hardships, or as a sensibility we have gained through spiritual practice. For others, this awareness has been driven into our hearts by the pandemic, the frightening news cycle, the realization that we could no longer take things for granted. 

Though vulnerability is frightening, it is what surrounds us, and this evening I ask you to consider accepting – and perhaps even embracing – it. 

You may have heard of Dr. Brené Brown. She delivered a 20-minute TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” that has been watched by over 10 million people. Here’s a very brief summary:

We fear vulnerability...but, we should rethink our approach. For most of us, she says, vulnerability means: “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” But, she explains, “What most of us fail to that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. [It] is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, … accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path."

Moments of fear and difficulty are also moments when we might reach out and be touched and strengthened by connecting with one another. But often we set up barriers to connection. We are so fearful of the exposure and risk that our response is not to reach out; rather, we work even harder to make it appear that we’re doing just fine. 

As Rabbi Brent Spodek says: 

Most of us are not frauds. We don’t perform a self entirely separate from who we know ourselves to be. I don’t pretend to be a medical doctor, a sports fan or a wine connoisseur – those would be distortions of who I am. But many of us perform the "best" version of ourselves – not a false version, but subtly exaggerated. We present the triumphant version of our selves – the successful version, the version we want to be true, the version worthy of being loved and adored.

These triumphant versions of ourselves may seem appealing. Our culture certainly encourages them. But they are also obstacles to being with others in ways that can help us find the courage to push through our fears, to see possibilities, and to act on our values.
Being more open about who we really are, about the challenges we are grappling with, is is a risk. Our greatest fear is that others will notice our flaws and imperfections, and reject us. And that does happen. But there are also many times that we are met with understanding and compassion. 

These past months have been painful and challenging, as we and our loved ones have wrestled with illness, loss, financial instability, isolation, and uncertainty. But this time has also surfaced deep, systemic inequalities in our country. It has pushed many of us to take action in ways we may never have before. 

And, it has made it hard to claim, as did the synagogue members I spoke of earlier, “I’m OK. We’re OK.” Because although each of us is affected differently, none of us are OK.

When we, the Jewish Gateways leadership, realized that our High Holiday services would need to be virtual this year, we worried that there might be technical problems that would interfere with people being able to watch and listen to the services. We planned to pre-record the services to try to prevent this. But as we talked and thought further, we realized that connecting with one another was far more important than avoiding technology glitches. So, as you know, we have held services live. We have worked to create ways for many people to participate in the moment, by visiting them in their homes for candle lighting, asking them to lead a prayer, or inviting everyone to participate in small groups with one another.

I felt the power of those connections at our Rosh Hashanah services. Many of you told me that you did as well. I think one of the reasons is that we know we need one another, in a way we might not be so aware of or willing to acknowledge in more ordinary times.

The challenges we face are not ending any time soon. I spoke at Rosh Hashanah about the need to accept the brokenness in our world and in our hearts, and to see that a broken heart may also become an open heart. Tonight I invite you to go a step further: to share our brokenness with one another, not in order to sink into despair, but in order to experience the healing power of being real – being vulnerable – with one another. If we can open our hearts to one another, we will strengthen each other, so we that can see beyond our fears, so that we can envision and work, together, for the world we want to live in.

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