Monday, October 6, 2014

Kol Nidre 5775: Can We Cry Here? by Rabbi Shira Stutman

Can We Cry Here?
Rabbi Shira Stutman

A story. It’s the mid-20th century. A child of immigrants “makes good,” moves to the
suburbs and joins “The Temple.” It’s newly built, a beautiful synagogue, designed by
a world-famous architect. It’s a far cry from his parents’ synagogue in the old neighborhood or the shul in Pinsk, Poland where they came from. The High Holy Days approach and he thinks, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be together at my new synagogue?” But his parents seem less than enthusiastic; they like their shul, their rabbi, and all their friends will be there. Undaunted, he decides he’ll take them for a visit. Once they see how beautiful The Temple is, they’ll surely change their minds and want to come. So, the next Sunday, he picks them up from the old neighborhood and takes them to The Temple. He shows them the beautiful sanctuary, the ark that opens and closes with a remote control, the stained glass. There are many “oohs and aahs,” but he senses that something is wrong and so he asks, “What do you think?” This was their response, “It is lovely son, but can we cry here?”

“Can we cry here?”

When was the last time that you cried in synagogue? This past week, as the comments trickled in from Rosh Hashanah, I heard from a few people about surprising tears shed: when listening to our choir sing, when hearing some of the young professionals read their reflections, when listening the shofar, during the mourner’s kaddish, in the Rosh Hashanah yoga practice on day two, in conversation with a friend in the halls. Me, I always tear up during the grand aleinu, which we will do again tomorrow, and in which we do a full prostration--down to the ground--in acknowledgment of the fact that sometimes, in spite of all desire to the contrary, we are powerless.

I’m a big fan of tears, as some of you know. Brides often say, “just don’t make me cry at the ceremony, Rabbi Shira--I don’t want to ruin my make-up”. Call me a sadist but I just don’t care about the mascara. To overstate the case just slightly, if there are no heartfelt tears under the huppah then it’s just a show, not a transformation; just a wedding, and not the beginning of a marriage.

Consider that in ancient times, on Yom Kippur, the Jews would gather at the Temple in Jerusalem. Picture it: back then, individuals were not called to atone for the sins of the community; instead, the entire community placed their hopes for atonement on the High Priest. He spent the week before Yom Kippur in seclusion and study, preparing to enter the holy of holies in the Temple, to ask for atonement from God.

On the morning of the day before Yom Kippur, he would begin the journey from his chambers to the Holy of Holies. The Ziknei Beit Din, the elders of the Court of Law, find him and implore him to fulfill his task well. The machzor reads: Hu Foreysh u’vocheh, v’heym porshim u’bochim. “And he would turn aside and weep, and they would turn aside and weep.” Then to the mikvah, reborn, clothed in white, as he moves forward to face God.

“Can we cry here?” asks the family in the synagogue, the couple under the huppah, the high priest upon entering the Temple. The answer, in all places, is yes. “Where does God reside?” the Kotzker rebbe is asked. “Wherever you let God in.” Where can we make ourselves vulnerable and cry? Wherever we let godliness in.

We sit here today with the gates of teshuva wide open. Yom Kippur exists in time, of course--most of us will be able to count the number of hours since our last meal, the number of hours until break-fast--but the actual goal of the holiday, one of the reasons we’re supposed to fast in the first place, is to be a time out of time. We are supposed to be doing the work of teshuva, of returning to our truest selves through repentance. Yom Kippur reminds us that change is possible, and gives us a road-map for getting there.

But the change cannot happen if we refuse to make ourselves vulnerable.

I could end the sermon here, but we’re in DC, living our overly busied, high-achieving, Facebook-posting lives, so I have to continue. Because I have to convince you--convince us--that it’s worth it. That showing vulnerability--walking with courage as you reveal yourself to other human beings to such a degree that you are seen as you truly are and not as the mask you put forward--while deeply and profoundly scary, is an imperative for a meaningful life. That “we numb vulnerability, [but] the problem is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. [So] when we numb [vulnerability], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness." We numb all the emotions that make life worth living in the first place.

The problem for most of us, though, is that to be vulnerable almost by definition requires revealing that you’re fundamentally imperfect. And in our “fake it ‘til you make it” society, that’s just unacceptable. Except it’s also required if we want to grow. In order to be in deep relationship someone has to say “I love you” first, even though it might not be the right time. To learn yoga you have to go to that first class and feel like an idiot. To participate in Jewish services, you first have to sit in them and have no idea what’s going on, learn that cha sound in the Hebrew. Growth requires vulnerability. And that’s the rub.

To live a full Jewish life is to engage in a number of rituals and traditions that force us into vulnerable spots we would otherwise prefer to avoid. Shiva, for instance, is not supposed to be a cocktail party, as it often is these days. During Shiva, mourners are supposed to sit on low stools to be reminded always of their loss. Visitors are supposed to enter in silence and sit in silence, not speaking unless spoken to by one of the mourners. The halakha, the law is designed to guide us into profound sadness for the loss. It is not a celebration of the life of the deceased but instead an acknowledgement of all that this person will no longer be able to bring to this world.

“Can we cry here?” Yes. The ancient rabbis brilliantly understood what many of us today still can’t: human beings need to force ourselves into vulnerability or we won’t do it at all.

When we engage on Yom Kippur we are forced to take off the protective gear, which in the end is a type of armor that keeps people away more than it actually keeps you safe. Take it off, for we are as angels. We can’t armor ourselves with fancy clothing, for we’re wearing white and no leather. We can’t armor ourselves with foodie food or cocktails, because we’re not eating or drinking. We can’t armor ourselves with makeup or perfumes, for they’re forbidden. No one cares about where we work or where we went to college or who we know. All we have is--ourselves.

Here we are, 700 people in this space. Again. And I pose the eternal rabbinic question--why do you come back, year after year, for high holy day services? Why not Simchat Torah or Purim, which are so much more fun? Why not Shabbat--services are much shorter and there’s food! Maybe it’s habit, or guilt, or your partner or parents or children that drag you here. Or maybe there’s also something else, a yearning, a desire for more. Not more money, power, stuff—but more connection, reflection, openness. A conscious or unconscious desire to take off the armor, to be our authentic selves, to have an experience of hishtapchut hanefesh—the outpouring of the soul. But we’re stuck in a catch-22: We are so guarded that we cannot be open to true prayer or change. But we cannot experience true prayer or change without forcing ourselves to be open and vulnerable.

Step one of vulnerability is being vulnerable to your own self. So let’s start right now, moving from a space of ideas to a space of doing. I know--we’re more comfortable with ideas--with intellectualizing vulnerability by studying it in a TED talk or an Op-Ed in the Times. Sorry; cultivating feeling is deeper than having ideas. Sometimes the intellectualizing is just putting on the mask in new ways. Consider: What about yourself are you proud of? What makes you feel embarrassed? What makes you feel ashamed? What gives you true joy? Try to answer authentically; look for the tears.  

There is a teaching by the Baal Shem Tov: “In the King’s palace there are many halls and chambers, and there are different keys for each gate. These keys tend to become rusty if they’re just used by rote. The only simple and direct way to open all the gates is with an axe, which can smash open every lock to that one can gain entrance to all the chambers. A broken heart is like an axe that can break through all the barriers and reach right up to God.” What’s the axe going to be that breaks through your barriers, that opens up your heart, that connects you to yourself? Sometimes it takes a tragedy--sudden death of a young person or a loved one, a health scare of our own, break our hearts wide open. But the Days of Awe are meant to serve this same purpose. The shofar shakes us into consciousness and reminds us that this is all there is.  Don’t miss it.

There is a reason you’re here. There is a reason that millions and millions of people have watched a TED talk by Brene Brown, a teacher, scholar, and writer, on the subject of vulnerability, teacher of many important truths including the one about numbing emotions. How many of you have seen it? It is, just perhaps, to grab ahold of that axe and break your heart wide open, open before God in prayer, open in relation with our loved ones.

The irony is that we love when other people are vulnerable with us because it means that our relationships have deepened. Your friend collapses in front of you, devastated, because she did not get the promotion she wanted. She wonders aloud, “maybe I’m not smart enough for the job?” What is your response? Anger, judgment? Or do you provide solace and support? I’m pushing you, though, to reverse the situation, to put yourself on the line. It’s ironic; we fear that if we make ourselves vulnerable, we risk scaring off people or having them see us differently, but actually being vulnerable brings us closer to people. You are not just there but instead fully, mindfully, present. Jews are the people who say “na’aseh v’nishmah”, we will do and then we will hear/understand. If you find yourself unable to make yourself vulnerable, then keep trying. It’s a skill to learn, just like anything else.

Who are the people you trust not to walk away no matter what you do or say? Begin there. Force yourself--that’s the Jewish way. Practice being vulnerable even if you fear it will make you appear stupid, even if it makes you feel a certain kind of nakedness. Keep it up, even when it’s difficult. Keep it up, even when you feel ashamed. And you will, because showing vulnerability also means opening yourself to rejection. In the book of Genesis, we witness God unabashedly loving the humans, even as they ignore God’s rules. And yet. Notice that in every generation, God chooses to love again. “And Noah found grace in the eyes of God.” God gives Noah a rainbow, a covenant. Noah responds by getting drunk and passing out.

God does not give up. “I will love them freely,” God says in the book of Hosea. Even after the rejection, God chooses to dive in again. So should we. If we succeed in growing our vulnerability, we will be more confident, in deeper relationships, living a more meaningful life. That I can promise. But it’s a rocky path. Finding the people who will accept your vulnerability and love you for it may take time—as will discarding the ones who can’t, understanding that it’s their loss, not yours.

Our assignment during the high holy day period is to peel away the layers. Today, we have no temple, no high priest to effect teshuva for us. We have to do the work ourselves, for better or for worse. We have to place ourselves before the God above and pray that in the year to come, we are granted life, or that as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches, in the year to come we are granted a “length of days” that means that every day of our life be a long one, filled with mitzvot and deeds of kindness to give it “length”. We place ourselves before that of God in the people we love and ask forgiveness, listen to their pain, take off the armor. We acknowledge what is perhaps most difficult of all--that there is a spark of God in each of us--and forgive ourselves for whatever missteps, whatever missed moments, whatever. We allow ourselves to see that we are truly beautiful creatures, each one created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image. We remember, as Abraham Joshua Heschel did, “that the meaning of life is to live life as it if were a work of art. You're not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence." That can only happen, we must acknowledge, through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. The High Holy Days force the reminder, the starting gate, the axe itself. But you have to use it. And it takes some strength, all of which you can gain here, in community.

In the year to come, may we all be blessed to take big risks in relationship, and may these risks lead to great personal growth. May we know that vulnerability can happen in prayer or in prayerful interactions with loved ones. May we be reminded, always, that this is the only life we have--so we had better do it with strength, grace, generosity, and vulnerability.

“Can we cry here?” Yes, yes we can.

No comments:

Post a Comment