Kol Nidre 5775: “We are Vulnerable”

There is a section of the Yom Kippur liturgy that is so esoteric, so challenging, so removed from our own contemporary day to day life, and so removed from our contemporary conceptions of spirituality, that we do not even do it here at TBH.

Yes, I know, you are thinking…the services are so long already, what is it that we are possibly leaving out? Well you don’t know from long.

This section, found in traditional liturgy and found in our mahzor as well albeit in a contemporary, interpretive format is called the avodah service. Avodah means service, worship, and this is a recounting of the atonement ritual in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The traditional liturgy retells the story about how the High Priest would on this most sacred of days dress in special refinements, enter into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred and central spot in the Temple—entry to which for anyone else was forbidden—and perform the sacrificial rites of atonement.

Wrestling with these ancient rituals is nothing new; the conflict is as old as Judaism itself. Reading the Torah we are introduced to a system that is so far removed from how we understand spirituality. The way to connect to the divine, as told in the Torah, is through a system of proscribed sacrifices offered by a hereditary hierarchical class of priests on behalf of the people. You want to say thanks to God, you kill a goat. You want to ask God for something, you kill a goat. You want to apologize for a wrongdoing, you kill a goat. You want to celebrate Shabbat, you kill a goat.

The rabbis of the Talmud also had a struggle. Living in the generation that immediately followed the destruction of the Temple, they needed a means to reconcile what the Torah ordained to a new societal reality. How to worship God in the absence of sacrifices and no Temple?

We have words.

Our words, our prayers, take the place of sacrifices. It was the rabbis who instituted the system of prayers that we have now, and specifically the 3 prayer services which make up traditional Jewish practice. And each of these services—evening, morning and afternoon—corresponds to a specific sacrifice. Thus the original sacrificial framework is maintained, albeit in different ways.

On Shabbat and festivals there would be an additional sacrifice to mark the specialness of the day. This additional sacrifice was called the “Musaf” offering—literally meaning “additional.” Usually it contains a second Amidah (standing silent prayer) and some additional prayers unique to the day. It is within this section of the service that we find the Avodah service mentioned.

Contemporary Reform and Reconstructionist liturgy does away with Musaf either in whole or in part for both aesthetic and theological reasons. Theologically, a service that specifically recalls the sacrificial system (and traditionally included prayers for its reinstitution) feel far removed from the contemporary experience. We don’t hope for the Temple’s return. While we cleave to spirituality and seek a closeness with the divine, we have found other means to do this. And aesthetically, removing a theologically problematic section also results in a shorter service, and may, based on your inclination, flow better.

Because of the importance of the day, we maintain some semblance of Musaf on Yom Kippur. Some of the unique prayers that are found in this section are retained or at least alluded to. And it is here that we find, traditionally, the Avodah service. And it is here, that we struggle with its meaning.

The story, the ritual, goes like this: the High Priest, after ritually washing and trading in his regular garments for special white ones, takes a bull that will be sacrificed on behalf of himself and his family. He then takes two goats and would cast lots over them—one is designated “for Azazel” and the other designated “for God.” The bull would be sacrificed, its blood sprinkled as the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant. He would then emerge and he would sacfirice the goat designated for God. The other goat, upon which the High Priest would confess all of the sins of the community on its head, would be sent out to the wilderness. All the while he would recite words of prayer and confession including pronouncing the name of God, which was only spoken on that day by that person. We also tell this story during our Torah reading on Yom Kippur.

On the one hand, good riddance. Who wants to sacrifice goats? Who wants to turn over our spiritual work to others. On the other hand, how beautiful. How simple. To find an easy course of action.

We of course don’t follow this ritual these days. But, like the High Priest of old, we abstain from our daily life, we dress in white clothing, we enter into the holy sanctuary. But where are the goats?

And that is the scary part. For while we are the High Priest, and this is the Temple, we are also the goats for the offering. As our ancestors brought their sacrifices, so too do we bring our offerings, our selves, our souls, to bear on this Yom Kippur.

The Torah teaches that sacrifices were supposed to be tamim, perfect. Whole. An animal without blemish. Anything less was unacceptable. But who among us is whole? Who is not without blemish?

Leonard CohenWe struggle with this; how can we then offer ourselves? There is a contemporary commentary that speaks to this. A song by Leonard Cohen called Anthem, and the beginning of the chorus goes like this,

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

We rang the bell, last week at Rosh Hashanah when we blew the shofar. We announced this call to repentance. We called this gathering to order. We stirred within ourselves this awakening to heshbon hanefesh, to soul examination, to introspection. And now we come with our offering. But we are not tam, we are not whole, we are not perfect. And as Cohen sings, forget it.

Forget it. For as humans we are tam in our own way. Not perfect in deeds, but perfect in intention. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read, “You shall be wholehearted before Adonai your God.” Can we bring our whole selves? Can we be honest with ourselves? Can we accept our imperfections? That is what it means to be wholehearted—not to be perfect, but to be honest, and open, and willing to look deep inside.

The rabbis of the Talmud already understood the sacrificial system as a large metaphor. The physical performance of the rituals was confined to the past, but the meaning behind them had a message for the present—theirs and ours. And they read deep meaning into the intricacies of the Temple and the sacrificial system, they had to, it was contained within the holy words of the Torah.

In the Holy of Holies, that the High Priest entered, was stored the Ark. We have the legend of the Holy Ark—the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movies. That the Israelites were told to construct an ark that would house the tablets of the covenant—the 10 commandments like we have adorned on our ark—these would be put in this special receptacle and carried at the front of the Israelites as the moved forward, eventually finding a permanent home in the Temple.

In Exodus we are told the dimensions of the ark. It is 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits. And what is the significance there? The half-cubit. There is imperfection built into the very fabric of the Ark—it wasn’t built to whole numbers, but to a fraction, a part of a whole, and this our tradition teaches is so show us that to be fractured, to be a part, to lack perfection and wholeness is part of the normal condition. So much so that the sacred tablets of the covenant are said to be contained within a vessel that is, in a way, less than whole.

Forget your perfect offering, Cohen sings. We don’t have one. We only have ourselves.

Ring the bell that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

According to the story, in the Ark that was built around the half-cubit were stored the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain, the tablets inscribed with the 10 commandments.

But these tablets, as we remember from the Torah story, were not the first tablets that Moses brought down, but a replacement set. And what happened to the first? When Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets after communing with God and receiving the Torah, he found the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf. And what did Moses do? In his anger, before he destroyed the calf and before he thinned out the ranks of the community of the sinners, he threw down the tablets on the ground, and they broke into many pieces.

But what happened to those pieces?

Jewish tradition teaches that the Israelites gathered them up, and put them into the holy Ark. The Ark contained both the whole pieces of the covenant, and the broken pieces. What travelled with the Israelites at the front of their procession, what was treated with such care and carried by a special group of priests, what found a resting place in the most central, the most sacred part of the Temple contained within it both wholeness and brokenness. Contained within the Ark, built with fractions, was imperfection, struggle, conflict and sadness.

There is a crack in everything. Including us. Especially us.

And what does it mean to be cracked? It does not just mean to be imperfect, though it does. It does not just mean that there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, though it does. What it truly means to be cracked is to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable. For we are here on Yom Kippur not just to acknowledge were we have sinned, and how we can do better. But we are here on Yom Kippur to acknowledge that we are vulnerable. That is the essence of the human condition. Not to be sinful, but to be vulnerable. And we must embrace our vulnerability.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the work of Brene Brown. She has a few bestselling books, and some very popular TED talks. I heard her first on the wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippet, an examination of issues of faith and values. She does her work in the field of shame and vulnerability and has over the years conducted extensive interviews and research into how people perceive and relate to issues of shame—or low-self worth—and vulnerability.

Vulnerability, she notes, is often confused with weakness. But this is a dangerous myth. It is not weakness. Vulnerablity, she defines, is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

How many of us, then, are not vulnerable? Think back to your past year—when were you most vulnerable? In her research, Brown asks people to finish the sentence, “Vulnerability is…” How would you finish this sentence?

We come here each year and recite a litany of sins—the vidui—in which we confess our sins collectively. What was it that we did or didn’t do last year that made a negative impact on the world, ourselves, others? We rise and we say it in the plural because we have all done these things—maybe not each one of us all of them, but all of us some of them and so we say it in the plural, to provide cover and support for those confessing, and to acknowledge that we as a group have transgressed.

This vidui: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi—we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have deceived—these are the things we have done, our actions. And we should also stand here on Yom Kippur, the day in which we are most raw, the day in which we confess our sins, the day in which we are judged and judge ourselves, and confess our vulnerabilities.

Yi, de, di, di, di, yidededididi, yidededididi

We have a friend dying we don’t know what to say when we visit.

We have an unpopular opinion.

We started a new project and we don’t know if we will succeed.

We wrote something on our blog.

We lost our job.

We let down our kids.

We are in the hospital with cancer, or meningitis, or a bad back.

We went back to school after 20 years.

We don’t know how to ask for help.

We ask for help and don’t know what the response will bring.

We are minorities in our communities.

We fell down and it took longer to heal, so we know we are getting older.

We fell in love.

Vulnerability is feeling, Brown writes, and “to believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.” These are instances in which we feel, we are exposed, yes, uncomfortable, maybe, but not weak. Simply vulnerable. Simply in a place of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

Think of how vulnerable we are even right now in this moment. We are fasting. We wear white, we open up our mouths and sing in public. We speak words we may not understand or agree with. We see people and we don’t know how to act. Yom Kippur is one big act of vulnerability. But showing up on Yom Kippur is not a sign of weakness. To lay oneself bare on this day is not weakness. Yom Kippur is about vulnerability. Yom Kippur is about uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

But how does it feel to be vulnerable? Not good. It can be uncomfortable. It can be scary. Brown noted in her research that a word that kept coming up when she asked how it felt to be vulnerable, after asking about vulnerable situations, is “naked.” Felt “naked.”

There are a few things in our tradition which when we teach them to our Hebrew school kids we risk juvenile humor. Balaam and his talking donkey for one, when it is translated, as it was when I was in Hebrew school, as Balaam’s talking ass.

And another is Adam and Eve, naked in the garden

The famous naked people in our tradition are Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, the dwellers in the garden of Eden, tadam and evehe first humans. “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” A bit later on they meet the snake, and you know what happens next. The snake tempts them into eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, one of the two trees that God had forbidden them to eat. They then realize that they are naked, and cover up.

When they eat of the Tree, their eyes were open. Their nakedness was exposed. For in that moment, Adam and Eve exposed their vulnerablitity.

There is a crack in everything. Adam and Eve discovered themselves to be exposed. And so do we. We too are naked and exposed. We too are vulnerable. So now what?

Ring the bell that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Because ultimately, our vulnerability brings us to renewed strength. That is how the light gets in. That is one thing Brene Brown speaks of in her work, that through her research the vulnerability is how we get to innovation, creativity and change. Our willingness to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there, even if it hurts, even if it is hard, even if it is uncomfortable, is what allows us to grow and achieve great things. If we can be honest with ourselves, and acknowledge when we are vulnerable, then we can transcend it. Then we can make real connections with one another and become the people we hope to be.

She says, “Vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up I think those are the most powerful meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are.”

Adam and Eve needed to realize they were naked. Their realization was not comfortable. That interaction with God could not have been more uncomfortable, as we read in Genesis:

They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”  Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?”  The man said, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”  And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”

Not a comfortable situation.

But once they realized they were naked, they had awareness of their vulnerability, and were then able to grow. There is a fascinating word play in the Torah. The snake, who is usually made out to be the bad guy, is described as arumim, or “shrewd” or “clever.” The snake knows things. He knows things about the tree, he knows what will happen if you eat the tree, he knows about Adam and Eve and the nature of human curiosity. So while on the one hand you can say he was “clever,” perhaps the way to understand this word is “aware.”

When Adam and Eve are described in the Torah as naked, the word in Hebrew is arum. Arumim, arum. The words for “awareness” and “naked” are sound-wise related.

Nakedness leads to awareness.

Vulnerability leads to awareness.

Awareness leads to growth.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Adam and Eve saw their vulnerability and with that they were able to move forward and do great things. Exile from the Garden wasn’t punishment—it was the necessary next step. For the world was not created in the Garden, the world was created outside the Garden. That is where we see the all of life—discord, sickness, pain, death yes, but also love, connection, community, harmony, compassion, mercy, justice, peace, friendship.

Not only is understanding and acknowledging our vulnerabilities not weakness, it is the key to moving forward, like Adam and Eve.

Vulnerability is, as Brown writes, the seat of courage. The cracks let the light in.

Another time we see “naked” in our tradition is in our morning liturgy, birchot hashachar, the series of morning blessings we recite; blessings meant to evoke each of the little steps it takes for us to get going in the morning, like the checklists we make for our children so they do everything they need to do to get to school on time. And one of these blessings is we thank God for “clothing the naked.”

This interesting image, God clothing the naked.  Yes, we get up and we put on clothes and so this is a prayer of gratitude. And we are mindful of those who do not have clothes to put on unless we do something about it and so this is a prayer of justice.

But there is a deeper spiritual significance here. Why would we reach out to God to clothe our nakedness? Why are we thankful for this step? Because we are all naked. We are all exposed, and open. It is an acknowledgement of our spiritual nakedness, for to be naked, is to be vulnerable. And so this is a prayer to cover our nakedness, to move beyond our vulnerabilities with greater insight and renewed life.

This is why we should not fear our vulnerabilities. This is why vulnerability is not a weakness. The question is, can we take our brokenness, our uncertainty, our exposure, and make it into something great? This is the great spiritual drama that plays out on Yom Kippur. Not just acknowledging sin, or mistakes—but our vulnerabilities. And not just making the commitment to do better, to make amends—but to transcend our vulnerabilities to a place of greater strength. And it is not just acknowledging our vulnerabilities of the past year, but to embrace them in the coming year. To find our ways to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there, to expose ourselves and be exposed, and see what happens.

“The ability to hold something we have done or haven’t done up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive,” Brown says, “It is uncomfortable, but it is adaptive.”

That is the drama of this day now. And that’s the drama of this day then. That is the drama of the goats. The two goats, for Azazel and for God, that were used during the ancient Yom Kippur ritual.

The goat “for Azazel” is the sins. It is the transgression we wish to get rid of. We want to send them out into the spiritual wilderness and never see it again. We want our transgressions and our past poor behaviors and bad habits to go off and die in the wilderness like the goat, never to be seen again.

The goat “for God” is where we feel vulnerable. But we don’t send that away, we acknowledge it. And we send it up to God. God doesn’t want our sins. God wants our vulnerabilities. And what does it mean to send it up to God? It means we are humble, that we seek meaning, and we seek connection.

We use this time to give voice not only to our failings, but to our vulnerabilities. Because if we articulate them, if we can understand them. And if we understand them, we can grow from them. We look through the cracks at the light streaming through.

Anne Lamott has a wonderful new book, Help. Thanks. Wow. It is her reflection on prayer. She divides prayer into essentially three categories: Help, petition; Thanks, gratitude; Wow, awe. And in it, in the “Help” section, she describes a practice she has of writing notes to God and sticking them in a box. These are her petitions, her asks. And, while she doesn’t categorize it as such, her vulnerabilities.  This is part of her spiritual practice, her prayer practice, like putting notes in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

For we tend to think of prayer only as the words in the book you are holding right now. Or the songs we sing. That is a form of prayer. Opening your heart to whatever needs to enter, that is prayer. Opening your mouth and letting whatever needs to come out, that is prayer. Singing is prayer, movement is prayer. And writing is a form of prayer.

She writes, about her writing notes to God into a box:

The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn through pain that some of the things we thought were castles turn out to be prisons, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take. The response probably won’t be from God, in the sense of hearing a deep grandfatherly voice, or via skywriting, or in the form of an LED lit airplane aisle at your feet. But the mail will come, or an e-mail, or the phone will ring; unfortunately, it might not be later today, ideally right after lunch, but you will hear back. You will come to know.

You will come to know.

This is what happens when we put it out there, when we are exposed, when we take the risk. This is living with and through our vulnerabilities. When we acknowledge them, when we embrace them, when we articulate them, then we will come to know.

We the High Priests, will come to know. We, in the Temple, will come to know. We, the goats, will come to know.

We will come to know that we come here imperfect but wholehearted. We will come to know that our vulnerabilities make us who we are, and are our source of courage and strength, and will help determine the next step to take.

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

  1. As usual, you’ve shifted my perspective on, this time 3 things: the goat of sins; the ‘god’ clothing the naked thing; and vulnerability. Feeling vulnerable these days; about to take a huge risk; shifting into perceiving vulnerability as actually how the light will get in changes the situation ~
    That poem was painted onto a flower box in the mission area in SF, and I saw it on the regular. Qliphoth.
    Thank you for using your head, your heart, and your writing tools.

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    Reply

  2. Thank you so much!

    Like

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