Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774 — The Necessity of Vulnerability for Connection

September 5, 2013
By bethmordecai
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Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774 — The Necessity of Vulnerability for Connection

The Necessity of Vulnerability for Connection

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774 (September 5, 2013)*

It was a cool Rosh Hashanah morning in early September. All of the worshippers of the small schul in the center of town had already been davening, praying together for a few hours. They were currently davening the Mussaf Amidah, the central prayer in the second half of the service which we, here are Beth Mordecai, will soon pray together. Every worshipper was deep in their thoughts, shuckling back and forth as the words flowed from their lips…zohrenu l’hayyim tovim kol v’nei v’ritekha – God, remember us the children of your covenant for good.

Little Deborah, all of 9 years old, stood watching as the men and women of this little schul davened their hearts out. She couldn’t understand the words, but she could understand the feeling, and she wanted to join in. But how? Well Deborah was the best trumpet player in her 3rd grade and she carried it around with her everywhere for protection. She had it with her in schul, at her side as always, and as she contemplated what to do she looked at it intently; paused, and then pulled it, and played…TEKIA!!!! All of the worshippers stopped dead in their tracks and looked at Deborah with a mixture of annoyance and disgust. “Who was this girl who messed with our deep prayers on this holiest of days!?!” Embarrassed, Deborah’s parents quickly reacted to the judging looks of the congregation and reprimanded her on the spot. “Don’t do that, Deb!” and they removed the trumpet from her and put it back into their bag. Soon the worshippers went back to their davening and after a minute or two it was as if nothing had happened. Then all of a sudden…TEKIA!!! Deborah managed to sneak into the bag and grab the trumpet to play one more time. This time around the congregation would not be so nice in their ire against Deborah and her parents: “What kind of parents are you! Control your daughter…Your child obviously has no respect for tradition or for our community!…That girl is nothing but a troublemaker, she should be removed from here for good and never be allowed to return!” The rabbi, a very serious man who never seemed to smile and who until this point seemed unaware of all the fuss, turned around to the congregation. “SILENCE!” he commanded with what must have been the same force as the thunder at Mount Sinai. “All this time we have been davening I felt my prayers being blocked from entering heaven. And it wasn’t until this little girl’s trumpet blast that I felt the gates of heaven open up…for all of us. It was the finest prayer I’ve ever heard.” And for one of the rare times in his life, he gave little Deborah a smile. Deborah smiled back, taking the trumpet one more time to her lips and offering her unique prayer…TEKIA!!!

Some of you may have heard a version of this story before. It is typically used to teach how a shofar blast can be the finest form of prayer, or to teach that God hears all prayers no matter how they’re sounded. As such, the central character of the story is not Deborah but the Rabbi, because it is the rabbi who explains the teachings, it is the rabbi who delivers the climactic statement “it wasn’t until Deborah blasted her trumpet that the gates of heaven opened up.” The whole story pivots on that moment, a moment that reinforces a rabbi’s power to determine what is acceptable, and what is not.

I wonder then, what would happen if the story is re-told without the rabbi’s intervention? What would happen if the story ended with the admonishments from the congregation and the embarrassment of the parents? If the story ends there without the rabbi’s intervention, perhaps we would learn a drastically different and perhaps upsetting teaching:  “Don’t make a scene; keep to yourself; fit in with the rest of the group.” In fact, speaking as a rabbi, I think the story is far more powerful without the rabbi’s intervention at the end…after all, we reabbis are always getting in the way of things. Without the rabbi to approve Deborah’s behavior and to take some of the pressure from the congregation and the parents off of her, we are left with a far more powerful teaching, that when Deborah takes that trumpet and blows not once, but twice, she is taking a risk to be vulnerable so that she could connect with God.

Imagine for a moment that Deborah is not 9 years old but a few years older, say 12 or 13. Now also imagine that she’s not standing in schul on Rosh Hashanah morning, but in her middle school cafeteria during lunch, and all of the people around her are not congregants praying, but her friends who are eating, laughing, and talking together. Imagine a scene in which her friends are talking about doing something fun on a Saturday morning and instead of going along with what they were saying, she suggested doing something radical, something she really enjoys doing, like say going to schul. Imagine the laughter or the jokes at her expense, or worse imagine how she’d be completely ignored for suggesting an idea that was just not cool at all. You can bet she’d never suggest that idea again; you can bet that even though she may love coming to schul, she may love praying to God, she would also start to think that it was just not cool at all. You can bet that Deborah, just like many of us in that time of our lives, felt the fear of vulnerability. A scene like this, a scene of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, is a scene imagined by researcher and storyteller Brene Brown in her wonderful book on the transformative power of vulnerability:

“If I were to  be directing  a play about the vulnerability armor,” she writes, “the setting would be a middle school cafeteria and the characters would be our eleven-,twelve-, and thirteen year old selves…[It is in places like these] where most of us started try on new and different forms of protection. At this tender age, the armor is still awkward and ill fitting. Kids are clumsy in their efforts to hide fear and self-doubt…”

When Brown talks about vulnerability armor she is talking about our unique ability to mask or hide our inner selves because if we let others see our inner selves, we become vulnerable to emotional ridicule.  While trumpet blowing Deborah had the unique ability to be vulnerable by offering her unique prayer not once, but twice, middle school Deborah wouldn’t dare take that emotional risk and again once she sees the negative reactions of her friends. Trumpet blowing Deborah desperately wanted to connect with God; Middle school Deborah desperately feared not connecting with her friends.

That desire to connect and the fear of not connecting is at the core of what it means to be human. As Brown writes, “connection is why we’re here, it gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”No matter how good we are at weeding out the people in our lives with whom it is not worth to build those connections, there must be people with whom we desperately seek to connect; the people whom we’d give our lives to protect; the people who we love “b’khol l’vaveinu, b’khol nafsheinu, uvkhol m’odeinu – the people who we love with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our might.” Now take one of those important people in our lives and imagine that we do something risky or behave in some uncertain way to expose ourselves emotionally to them? Imagine that we make ourselves completely vulnerable to the person we love the most…and imagine if that person rejects us. “What kind of a parent are you? What kind of a husband, what kind of a wife are you that you would do such a thing?” When the parents of trumpet blowing Deborah tell her, for good or for bad, to stop playing the trumpet they may be sowing the seeds of rejection; they may make her feel that they don’t approve of her unique spirit. That feeling, according Brown, is shame which she defines as the fear of disconnection. Shame is the fear that that something we’ve done or failed to do, some goal we have not lived up to, makes us unworthy of connection.

One important example of shame that I’ve often heard and is relevant for today, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Hadin ,Judgment Day is the statement “I am not good enough of a Jew.” But that statement is not always said so simply. It’s hidden, embedded within other statements like: “Rabbi, I know I should [FILL IN THE BLANK MITZVAH]…keep kosher, go to schul…but I just don’t;” “Rabbi, I would be orthodox if I could, but I can’t so I’m Conservative;” “Rabbi, I know I shouldn’t say this in front of you, or while I’m in schul, but…I will.” The common factor of these statements is the focus on what we don’t do…we’re not religious, we’re not active, we don’t do mitzvot, etc. It’s this kind of negativity that fuels our Jewish guilt, that seems to be a birthright of the Jewish people that was probably given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. But the difference between guilt and shame, according to Brown, is that guilt means “I did something bad” and shame means “I am something bad.” Guilt can be helpful when it helps us change our behavior from a bad one to a good one, and much of Jewish religious practice is principled on behavior modification as in the climactic sentence of the Unetaneh Tokefprayer: “Utshuvah, utfillah, utzdakah ma’avirin et roa hag’zeirah – And repentance, and prayer, and charity will avert the evil decree.” If we change our behavior, a good result will ensue.

Yet there comes a point when too much guilt turns into shame. Judaism can be a very demanding practice, and when those demands become too unbearable we begin to feel like nothing we ever do is enough, and since one of the central purposes of Judaism is to be a pathway to connect us with God, our struggles in being Jewish enough can feel like a rejection from God that is as harsh, or even harsher, than a rejection from a loved one.  And when we start to feel like nothing we ever do is enough, we begin to identify with that feeling of never being enough. Saying “I don’t give enough charity,” will eventually lead to “I am not generous;” saying “I don’t pray enough,” will eventually lead to “I am not a religious or spiritual person.” It seems clear to me that Jewish guilt has done a number on us by instilling in us a collective sense of shame that we’re not Jewish enough. And if we fear the shame of our dearest friends and family, imagine the shame we fear of God.

The result of our Jewish shame, on a personal or collective level, is that in moments like today when our Jewish tradition is calling out to us to help us connect to God and to our inner spiritual desires, desires that would love to blow our trumpets, or say yes, I would love to come to schul with you, we fail to heed its call. We don’t fail to heed the call because we’re not good enough, we aregood enough Jews – our creator endowed each of us with a unique Torah of life experiences that we carry around and religiously follow each and every day. By creating us with that Torah, God made us enough. No, we don’t fail to the heed the call because we’re not good enough. We fail to heed the call because the feeling of shame disconnects us from God, from our traditions, and from the Jewish people; we fail to heed the call because we are disconnected from the vulnerability we need to experience the love that Judaism offers as a pathway to connecting with God.

As Brown writes, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.” Each of us has an inner hasid, a deep part of our spiritual being that yearns to connect with God, with each other, and with all of creation. As Rav Kook teaches, “ahavah tz’rikhah l’h’yot m’leiah balev lakol – love has to be in in our heart for everything.” Being a hasid is not wearing black hats on our heads, its wearing our love and gratitude for all of creation on our sleeves. That’s what makes trumpet playing Deborah’s story so remarkable – she didn’t need the Rabbi’s approval because she knew in the depth of her hearts that her prayers were good enough, that she was good enough, that she was vulnerable enough to have the chutzpah to blow her trumpet a second time in front of the schul and in front of her parents, so that she could connect with God.

Tomorrow, we are going to have a unique high holiday experience that, to put it mildly, is a little chutzpadic. There will be movement that’s more than “please rise” and “you may be seated;” there will be chanting and deep singing; there will even be some light touching. There will not be a Torah service, there will not be a service order that follows what’s laid out nicely in the mahzor. It will feel like the High Holidays, but it will not be the tradition that we, myself included, are used to. More than anything else though, it will be an experience in vulnerability –  vulnerable for myself and for the cantor who crafted this service to speak the voice of our inner hasid, and vulnerable for all of you, to open yourselves to hearing that voice inside of yourselves and sensing it as a way to connect your own inner hasid as a way of connecting with God. Tomorrow the trumpet will blast to try to open the gates of heaven and hopefully at the end, we will all be smiling. 

*Note: The High Holiday sermon for “Rosh Hashanah 5774” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create the notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

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