You Shall Pursue

September 13, 2013

Excruciating Vulnerability (Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2103/ 5774)

I delivered this sermon on Rosh Hashanah at my congregational internship. It is based on this post. The full text of “the Seam of Skin and Scales” is here and you can find Benee Brown’s TED Talk here.

Shanah Tovah and a gut yontif  to all of you! I want to thank you for welcoming me to your community this year and for giving me a chance to learn with all of you. Let me start this morning with a story.

There was a rabbi named Abaye, and one day as he was walking through the fields of Persia, he came upon an unmarried man and woman walking along together. And Rabbi Abaye, who was concerned for their reputations, decided to follow along behind them to make sure that nothing improper happened.

He followed them. For NINE MILES.

The couple came to a fork in the road, said their goodbyes, and walked off, the man along his path, the woman along hers. Abaye was confused; why on earth didn’t he have to intervene? Surely any red blooded man in that situation would have tried to make a pass at that woman! And then he realized; it is not ANY man, it is him, he is the one who would have tried to take advantage of the situation, and of that woman.

This discovery led to a minor mental breakdown. He curled up in the doorframe of a nearby house and began to weep, when suddenly, one of his elders happened along. And the elder passed on some sage advice. “The greatest men of every generation,” he said “have the greatest evil inclinations.”

Imagine this, a rabbi and a pillar of the community publicly crying and confessing his sins, and being forgiven, not because his sin was not so bad, but because sinning is a part of life.

Contrast that with how we talk about sin in modern America, where you are either sinful or righteous, with no in-between.

It is an understatement to say the least, that this causes problems.

How many of us know the terror of saying something foolish, doing something that will elicit scorn, or showing even a moment of weakness? We believe that because we are fallible that we have failed. We are terrified of the thought that we might not be perfect, as anything less would make us unlovable and worthless. But there is not a single person on earth who is free from insecurities, flaws, and faults; who has not, from time to time, failed to live up to his or her best self.

I watched an online lecture recently by researcher/ storyteller Benee Brown in which she speaks movingly of what she calls “excruciating vulnerability.” In the course of her research on love and belonging, she discovers that in order to feel worthy of love and belonging, a person needs to exhibit the courage to show their imperfect selves and the compassion to love their authentic selves and the authentic selves of others.

What does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah? This is our time for excruciating vulnerability Judaism gives us a week and a half every year where we are commanded to let the mask slip. We have the opportunity to show the courage and compassion that might be lacking the other 355 days a year. The yearly process of the High Holy Days marks the pinnacle in an endless process of recognizing and reaffirming that life has scarred us in a million big and small ways, and that these scars lead us to live fearful sometimes, to be less loving, to not live fully up to our ideals.

So this morning I want to ask you two difficult quesitons:

How vulnerable are we willing to be to show our authentic selves?

How willing are we to admit our imperfections to others and especially to ourselves in order to lead fuller and healthier lives?

The six months leading up to my acceptance into rabbinical school were not easy for me. During a particularly difficult work situation, I broke down crying in my parents’ car on the way home from the train station, briefly considered quitting my job and moving home, then found myself a therapist instead. I was plagued with anxiety that I was failing at everything. And since starting school, I have not learned to “be healthy,” per se. Rather, I have learned that it is okay, normal, and natural to be flawed, and that I can still be loved and accepted as I am. And, ironically, letting go of my need to be perfect and digging down into my flaws and letting them show has helped me grow more as a human being than I ever thought possible.

Giving up and letting go can ONLY be transformative if it is not a private conversation between us and God. We are expected to back up our private shame with public action, and apologize to those whom we have wronged. But how many of us take the time to dig into excruciating vulnerability, and begin to repair the breaches with those whom we love? How many of us go the friends whose pain we have ignored, or the family with whom we have low level grudges that have lasted for years, or the neighbors who we have never bothered to get to know?

And our teshuva needs to go deeper even than that.

In the Torah, the Day of Atonement is not only for the sins of Jew against Jew, it is for the resident aliens as well.

What if teshuva meant not only showing vulnerability to those whom we love, but to open our interactions with acquaintances and even strangers to vulnerability as well? How much good we could do in the world, if only we could open ourselves to the possibility that we might be wrong?

Whenever I hear people speak of the “undeserving poor,” the people who need to work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I hear people who are terrified of admitting that they did not earn what they have entirely by hard work, but by luck and connections as well. Whenever I hear people defend bigoted statements by saying that they are not racist or sexist or homophobic, I hear their terror at admitting that they still have growing to do as a human being.

In a country where Congress passed 22 bills between January and August, a record low, where people shoot schools, bomb marathons, and kill teenagers for the crime of walking back from the convenience store, the need to be right triumphs over the need to do right, and the consequences are disastrous for those we need to care for most.

This is why personal confrontation and confession is so important. We stand before those whom we have wronged, and tell them that we are flawed and broken. And that mutual act of recognition, of two people looking back at one another and confessing their brokenness builds a stronger bond, a bond built on honesty.

And so, we start today. God is sharpening God’s quill, taking the scrolls down from off the shelf, and considering whether we will live or die.

And I exhort you all to live. Do not hold back for fear that your repentance will be unsuccessful, because the only way to have even hope of success is through that blinding fear and doubt.

Yes, choose life, that you may live. And choose love, that you may be loved. And choose the pain cracking open that shell because, in the words of Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in.

I would like to leave you with an excerpt from a poem called “the Seam of Skin and Scales” from activist and clergywoman Elena Rose. In her poetic vision, it is the monsters, the flawed ones, who inherit the earth.

It is time to look the monstrous in the eye. It is time.

It is time to say that we are beautiful in our fierceness, and that we are our own. We are not the rejected of what we can never be. We are what we were meant to be. We are not pieces of wholes thrown together incorrectly. We are not mistakes.

We are not inferior knockoffs of someone else. If our monstrousness is frightening, then it is time we bare our teeth and draw that fear close to us and stop being so afraid of our fearsomeness that we fear everyone and everything else right back.

May we all live to see the day that we are free to accept our true selves, skin and scales and all.

Shanah Tovah.


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