Rosh Hashanah Morning 2023
Some things change, and some things do not. As you may have noticed, we have ushered in the new year with a new prayerbook. At least, I hope you noticed! While the music has not changed significantly from last year, is still sung by our wonderful cantor and choir, and much of the liturgy remains recognizable, there’s a great deal that is new to us as well. Many of the readings, to be sure, but also the weight of the paper, the color of the cover, the dimensions of the book, even the fonts present. For those of us who are used to Gates of Repentance, used for over 40 years, it may leave us feeling a bit disoriented, confused, or longing for some level of familiarity. It may even make us feel vulnerable, and I would call that a good thing.
What is vulnerability? We usually think of vulnerability as a bad thing—it conjures up images of weakness, of being exposed or unprotected. Think for a moment—you can even close your eyes if it’s helpful—of moments in your life where you felt vulnerable. Now, I’m not in your head, but I’d imagine many of you are thinking of times when you were afraid or were called out in some way; perhaps a time when you put yourself out there and were caught flat-footed and felt some level of embarrassment or defensiveness. It is not a good feeling, to say the least. For many of us it conjures memories that are profoundly painful, and many of us spend a lot of energy and time trying to make sure we don’t feel vulnerable ever again. For us, to be vulnerable means to feel like failing, all of our weaknesses and inadequacies on display. Why would we want to feel that way?
It’s hard to believe, but vulnerability isn’t losing, and it isn’t failure. It is uncomfortable, sometimes profoundly so, as all good experiences of learning and stretching are, and without a doubt, people who didn’t have our best interest at heart have used our vulnerable moments against us. But vulnerability isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, it can be a profoundly good thing. Brene Brown, author of Daring to Lead, writes that, “The definition of vulnerability as the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. As it happens, it is in those moments of vulnerability where growth, learning, listening and deep care actually can happen. As Brown writes, “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”
Showing up when we can’t predict or control the outcome. What a wonderful definition of life. Because life is messy, and we cannot actually predict or control the outcomes. Oh, we think we can, that’s for sure. How much effort do we spend doing exactly that, trying to control outcomes, even going so far as to anticipate what will happen in a given interaction negatively, playing an imaginary conversation in our head over and over again? As human beings, we are hard-wired to see the negative, an excellent survival skill from our time as a species before civilization. But today, that anticipatory grief, that effort to control for outcomes, that fear of ambiguity, does us more harm than good, and that built in threat meter that protected us from sabertoothed tigers long ago gets in the way of growth, learning and compassion. Spending energy expecting the worst in, playing in our heads the new encounter, the challenging conversation, the development of a new skill, asking for help or support, in the worst possible light, convinces us that these experiences are so painful as to be avoided at all costs, preventing us from being vulnerable, and therefore keeps us from what could be our greatest strength.
Yes, vulnerability, I believe, is a strength. Or at least, it could be if we embrace it. Isn’t that, on some level, the theme of this holy day? We are reminded in our liturgy over and over again of our frailty, of our ephemerality, and of our mistakes, as well as how unknowable this world and our existence truly is. That’s the point of unetaneh tokeph and avinu malkeinu —they are all moments to acknowledge vulnerability and lean into it.
And if that is true of our prayers today, then it is just as true of our Torah portion, the binding of Isaac, or Akedat Yitzchak, which we’ll read from in only a few moments. We read, as Abraham and Isaac ascend Moriah for the Akedah, Isaac turns to his father in a moment of vulnerability, seeking reassurance and certainty: “here is the fire and the knife, but where is the lamb to be offered?” and Abraham responds neither with reassurance nor with false promises, but with his own acknowledgement of the vulnerability of the moment: “God will see to the offering”. The line doesn’t reassure us as readers, nor should it; even without descriptions of emotion, the sentence feels fraught and full of ambiguity. In that moment, Abraham doesn’t know what the solution is; all he can do is acknowledge his own limitations and move forward with his son, the two of them walking together.
And fundamentally, that’s what vulnerability does, or at least, what it ought to do. To be vulnerable means to acknowledge our limitations, as well as each other’s. It is to acknowledge that we cannot control outcomes; we can only control our own feelings and thoughts, our own selves, and behaviors. It is to seek help and support, turning to others. Last night I talked about how, as human beings, we are born with our most innate and powerful ability—the ability to cry, which is, to seek help from others. Going-it-alone is a myth that serves us poorly, as without support from others, we may succeed in the individual task, but we are doomed eventually to true failure. And to be vulnerable means to learn a kind of loving-kindness, a kind of chesed for others as they struggle as we’ve struggled, and perhaps even a kind of chesed for ourselves. When we pray Avinu Malkeinu and unetaneh tokeph, we are reminding God—and reminding ourselves—that we are limited, that we will falter, that despite our best efforts, we will miss the mark. And that God knows this, and gives us grace for our missteps, and forgives us. So why shouldn’t we share that same grace with one another. Why shouldn’t we forgive ourselves? What do we get from judging others, and expecting to be judged? Perhaps we are in fact deserving of love and kindness, not just from others, but from ourselves, even when we fall down. Tried and failed, wrote playwright Samuel Beckett, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better. To be vulnerable is to acknowledge that, as human beings, we will often fail, but that failing does not mean we shouldn’t try, and in our trying and failing, we move forward toward being better—in our work, as well as in our personal lives.
To embrace vulnerability, we have to embrace the willingness to be bad at something, or to be in a posture of not knowing, not being the expert, not being in control. Most of the time that doesn’t mean going up a mountain not knowing whether you’re going to actually sacrifice your offspring, at least I hope. But even with less dramatic situations, where the stakes are a bit lower, we still find ourselves struggling to be open to that moment, to take off our armor. Maybe it’s learning a musical instrument, or a foreign language, or some skill relevant to our work or a hobby. Maybe it’s trying to be more present for someone in our lives, maybe a moment when they are in need, but it’s upsetting to us because it reminds us of some other painful moment in our lives, and we find ourselves sitting on an emotional fault line, torn between a past experience and the need to be there for a friend or loved one. Those moments feel terrible; we like being good at things and knowing things, even if that just means knowing what page of the prayerbook we find our favorite hymn or reading. But we don’t get to those moments of expertise until we have had a thousand failures, big and small. When embraced, vulnerability is a kind of posture of learning, of knowing that we don’t know and striving to know more, while recognizing and acknowledging both the lack of knowledge and experience.
I’m sure there are those now who are thinking that I’m speaking of a lack of accountability, that we can just flail about in our actions and behaviors and expect them to be written off. Of course, this would fly in the face of the key themes of our holiday—that our behaviors, our choices, our actions, do matter, and that we should be accountable for them and to one another. Vulnerability is not the same thing as being emotionally fragile, vomiting up all our anxieties upon one another. Indeed, part of vulnerability is being open to critique from others—hopefully given with love and grace—and working on fixing what is wrong. That’s the ‘try again, fail again’ part of Beckett’s line. Or as Brown writes, to have a “commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.” I will speak more about forgiveness on Yom Kippur morning, and what that might look like in our lives. But suffice to say, we are not talking about a ‘get out of jail free’ card, a carte blanche to do whatever we want. What we are talking about is very much the opposite—holding ourselves and each other responsible for our actions and choices—but without judgment, separating, if you will, the person from the problem. Own what we do, listen carefully, and from those moments, truly grow.
I’m under no illusions that what I’m suggesting is easy, that allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable is easy—many of us have spent years and even decades creating our defenses against feeling vulnerable, armor that’s pretty hard to put down, armor designed to protect us from shame and blame. What I do know is that armor is heavy. It weighs down our relationships and our potential relationships, with every encounter fraught with anticipatory grief. The armor forces us to fit it, rather than have it fit us, contorting us, preventing us from truly ever learning and growing. And it’s painful, it hurts to carry it around, expecting to need it at any moment, to save us from those hurt feelings, those moments of embarrassment and guilt we’re so sure are waiting for us, crouching at the door ready to spring upon us at the first misstep. And that armor weakens us. It doesn’t make us stronger. How could it? What’s strong about deflecting ownership and accountability? What’s strong about refusing to learn and grow and develop and do better? If anything, the armor, the defensive measures keep us trapped in our fear of being wrong, saying something wrong, or worst of all, looking wrong. Wouldn’t it be nice to put the armor down, to take the load off our shoulders, to experience vulnerability as a strength, to allow ourselves to grow into the people we could be, we ought to be? That doesn’t mean suddenly feeling vulnerable will feel good—it’s still going to feel lousy; we’re going to still be afraid of ambiguity and messing up. But fear and courage don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If anything, they, like Abraham and Isaac, often walk together. When we acknowledge that, acknowledge that sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes we need to listen more clearly, sometimes we need to fall in order to learn to do better, and that we can forgive ourselves and each other our missteps, we may very well begin to see the world differently, experience the world differently, with our whole selves, our whole hearts, fully present in the moment with each other.
We started our new year feeling vulnerable. When we leave this place to return home, or our family gatherings, we get to choose whether to avoid that feeling again at all costs and stay cautious and defensive, or we can choose to be brave, to be accepting, to be unarmored, to step into those moments and try, as hard as we can, even if we may fail. Only one of those paths leads to learning and growth, leads to deepened relationships and service to others. May we choose, therefore, to be vulnerable, as we walk along life’s path, together. May this be so. Amen.