Kol Nidre - 2021/5782
Yom Kippur, when the Temple was standing, was the most well attended service of the year. The rabbis describe that the Temple was so crowded that people were standing shoulder to shoulder with no room to move. However, when the high priest went into the holy of holies, and emerged reciting God’s name, a miracle occured. Everyone in the crowd was able to lie prostrate. All were able, in great humility and with complete faith, to recite baruch shem kevod malchuto le-olam va-ed - Praised be the name of the one whose glorious sovereignty is forever and ever.
Aside from engaging in that unique, annual ritual the people also anticipated the ceremony of the scapegoat. The kohen would place a scarlet thread on the horns of that goat, and it would be led to the edge of a cliff in the wilderness where it would be pushed off to its death. Flags were waved along the path so that the people back in Jerusalem would know that the goat had died and thereby the people were cleansed of their sins.
Once the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had a serious challenge. How could they maintain the drama, pageantry and ceremony of the day without these very dramatic rituals? How would the people of Israel know that there would be an avenue for cleansing their souls of sin and fault? Would the lengthy prayer services and unique prayers for today be enough? And if so, what attitude should we display in order to best appreciate the power of atonement and forgiveness?
For our petition to God for forgiveness to take effect, for this day to have the impact it needs to have on our lives, we need to be in the mindset to actually mean what we say. We can’t expect to recite the prayers by rote and hope for absolution. Instead we need to reflect upon the liturgy, to apply the words to our lives today, and make the effort to actually change our behavior so that we can be even better people in the year ahead.
Indeed, the rabbis who are the authors of our machzor, want us to even endeavor to change our personality. In the piyut - the religious hymn - we will be reciting shortly, we compare ourselves to a lump of clay, affirming that our lives are determined by how the potter shapes that clay. Our existence according to this hymn is dependent upon God. We exist at the mercy of God’s whim and our lives are subject to how God molds us and shapes us.
In every service tonight and tomorrow, we proclaim that we are nothing and God is everything. We are sheep and God is the shepherd. We are servants and God is our master. We are weak and God is strong. We are vulnerable and God is strong and stable.
But - do these prayers expressing our vulnerability make sense to us? When reading these prayers tonight and tomorrow, do we really connect with the words and do we find them relevant? Are the prayers meaningful to us - that is, do we agree with the premise that the rabbis have set forth?
For men of a certain age, since we were children, we were taught to be strong; we were taught not to cry and we were taught not to display any outward sign of weakness. If we were seen as weak we were taught that we might be subject to bullying and if we continued to exhibit those signs in adulthood then we would be passed over for promotions, we’d be ignored for management or leadership positions.
On a deeper, emotional level it is common for many of us to put up walls of psychological defense around ourselves. We prefer to see that we are in control over our lives. We like to feel we have the power to control events around us. We buy homes, we try to get good jobs, we get married and raise families, all partially in an effort to protect ourselves or strengthen ourselves.
Many people also like to boast about their accomplishments. Perhaps by boasting they are showing themselves to be successful, powerful, immune to hardship and failure. The more they boast, the more it must be true. That is just another wall people build to protect themselves from challenges or pitfalls that may be encountered.
It seems natural that we would want to connect with images that express power and control. We connect with sports figures who can hit home runs, win golf championships, play quarterback into their 40s. Such power and resilience are coveted. Companies pay lots of money for such athletes to promote their products and by doing so, when the athletes’ images are so prevalent on TV and social media, then the message is reinforced. The stronger we are, the more we are able to confront adversity, the more successful we will be.
But what happens when events break through the line of defense? What happens when tragedy strikes someone who has erected such walls? If we make ourselves strong, how are we supposed to cope with illness or death? If we try to make ourselves powerful and in control, how do we cope with events that conspire to weaken us and take our lives out of control?
Brene Brown is a leading expert in the field of vulnerability. She has a PhD in social work, teaches at the University of Texas and runs a consulting company for organizational leadership. She has published many books but she is perhaps best known for her TED talk 11 years ago titled, “The Power of Vulnerability”. That talk has been viewed nearly 55 million times making it one of the most watched TED talks ever. In that 20-minute talk, Brown scratches the surface about the counterintuitive idea that we are actually stronger when we are vulnerable.
Her premise is based on what I have shared so far. We like to be organized, we like to be strong, we like to exhibit confidence and power. We behave as if we are in control of everything that happens in our lives. We shy away from encounters that would threaten that persona. Some of us have difficulty sharing emotions because we might convey weakness. Some of us have difficulty acknowledging a mistake, because it may seem as if we aren’t perfect. Some of us have difficulty expressing faith in God because that would mean admitting there is a higher power than us in the universe.
Really, though, we are actually stronger when we are vulnerable. We all know that no matter how strong we think our defense mechanisms are, they are sure to crack, if not crumble. No matter how much we exercise we will inevitably get sick. No matter how perfect we think we are, we will make mistakes. No matter how much we think we’ve protected ourselves from Mother Nature, the world keeps getting hotter, the sea continues to rise, and hurricanes and earthquakes still devastate our homes.
If we continue to think that we have the power to protect ourselves from all harm and crises, then we will feel that much more wounded when tragedy strikes. The artificial walls we build actually crumble in the face of real crisis and tragedy. The emotional walls we build to protect us from pain, topple when challenges arise. If we don’t have a support system, if we don’t have another line of defense, then we can’t survive the real-life events we face.
Instead, we need to think and act differently. Brown herself said that when she discovered after interviewing hundreds of people that vulnerability is the key component of coping with life, she panicked. Vulnerability is the opposite of control; it is the opposite of strength. Yet, we need to be vulnerable in order to be flexible. We need to be vulnerable in order to weather the challenges that life brings us. In Brown’s words, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity.”
I have known many people to ask, “how could my loved one get sick - he was an avid runner or she was a healthy eater?” I’ve known many to ask, “how could my loved one die - he was too young or she was a religious Jew?” These questions reflect our futile hope that the world actually acts according to rules that we set forward or that God acts in ways that we expect God to act. In fact the Torah teaches us that if we follow in God’s ways then we will be rewarded, and if we don’t then we will be punished. So we are not wrong to ask those questions of illness and death.
Yet when we ask those questions, and don’t have adequate answers, then we risk unbearable suffering. When our loved one gets sick and we persist in asking why, we risk wallowing in despair. When our loved one dies and we persist in asking “why him or her” then we risk being sad and despondent without any end in sight.
Being vulnerable though, opens us up to acceptance and new possibilities. Being vulnerable means not asking “why” but asking “now what”. Being vulnerable recognizes that there are powers greater than us at work in the universe. Being vulnerable means being aware that we are imperfect and we are often weak. Being vulnerable means being aware that we need support, love and compassion. Being vulnerable means that we can find strength with others, that we are not alone.
The rabbis knew that often bad things happen to good people. Though the rabbis wanted us to be strong and they wanted the religious tradition to be seen as a protective wall against the evil in the world around us, they knew that the wall would inevitably crack and crumble.
Therefore, the rabbis taught that עולם כמנהגו נוהג - best translated as the world keeps on turning. No matter what we might do to try to control world events or to control the laws of nature, the world will act in its own way. We can pray, we can observe all the rituals, we can take care of our bodies - but we will get sick, some will die young, lightning will still strike.
We have to be aware of our vulnerability in order to help prepare ourselves for these crises. The rabbis lived through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and torture at the hands of the Romans. They of all people should have cried out to God in anger and frustration - how could You do this? Haven’t we been loyal servants? Haven’t we studied Your Torah and taught your children to be good Jewish people? Even though they did cry out they still said, we are weak. We are human. All we can do is be ethical and moral. All we can do is look for comfort in our sacred texts. All we can do is have faith in God. All we can do is come together in community and help each other. In fact, the tradition was that after davenning in shul on Shabbat morning one then should go to visit the sick. At the risk of thinking that shul will protect us from harm, we need to visit the sick right after to be reminded how vulnerable we are. But by visiting the sick we are giving strength to the weak and we are forcing the strong to be humble.
As we continue to grapple with countless struggles; as we confront humanitarian crises, a global pandemic and personal tragedies; we have no choice but to recognize how vulnerable we are. We can’t help thinking that we are nothing but clay in God’s hands. This Yom Kippur let us embrace our vulnerability. Let us look to one another and see each other’s pain, see each other’s despair. Let us reach out to each other and commit to supporting each other as we strive together to find meaning and blessing in life. Let us help each other find comfort in God’s presence and may we help each other be written and sealed for health and life in the coming year. Amen.