Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Be Vulnerable in the New Year

My father died seven months ago.

He spent the last few weeks of his life in the ICU, and we were there with him almost every moment. Many of you know what that’s like — the heartbreak of watching someone you love, slowly dying. You know about the fear and the sadness and the pain. You know about the endless days waiting... the hours you can’t keep track of... careening between hope and despair. 

It was awful.

During the weeks my dad was in the hospital and after his death I was blessed to be surrounded by community and friends... but I found it difficult to accept help. People offered meals, but I turned them down. Friends offered to come sit with me, but I turned them down. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to handle it well. I wanted to control an uncontrollable situation. Those closest to me saw through me, and took care of me despite my protests that I was fine, but I put on a brave face for the rest of the world.

Until one friend didn’t let me get away with it. I was politely refusing her offer of dinner when she said to me, “Stop it. I need to do this mitzvah and you won’t let me. You may not need help, but I am asking you to help me do this mitzvah by letting me help you.”
And that was it. Now I had a reason to accept her offer : it was not for me (yeah, right!). I was helping her. It was easy for me to let her help if I reframed it in my mind that way.

What I had trouble admitting to myself — what I only realized once I let her in — was that I really did need her help, that I didn’t even need to pretend to make it through on my own.

In my own grief I had forgotten that there is no way to handle the death of a loved one well. The only way through was to be vulnerable — to admit that I could not do it on my own.

This is not my usual role. Like many of you, I am much more comfortable as a caregiver than as the one being cared for. 

Last year, from this same spot, I spoke with you about the Caring Community and I invited you to help care for others. And you answered the call. The Caring Community  has done so much this year, offering support to so many members of our community, including me. More than two dozen care packages were delivered to grieving families; more than 50 servings of food were prepared and delivered; and more than one hundred cards were sent and two hundred phone calls were made. But they could have done more; we have lots of volunteers waiting and wanting to help. So why, you might ask didn’t the Caring Community do more? The reason is simple; when approached with offers of assistance, most people said, “No thank you, I’m OK, I don’t need anything. I’m fine” 

In talking to other rabbis at other congregations, I’ve found out we’re not alone . Many of my colleagues say that they have a congregation ready and willing to help others... but not as ready to accept help for themselves. 

My first reaction was, frankly, relief: “I’m so glad it’s not just me who has trouble accepting help!” Lots of us refuse help, even when it’s needed. And then I wanted to understand why. Why is it so hard to accept help from others? What is holding us back from letting others help us?

I found part of an answer in the words of Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher whose TED talk about vulnerability went viral on the internet. She explains that asking for help means admitting that we are vulnerable — and that we don’t like being seen as vulnerable. We want to be seen as strong, independent and healthy. 

Dr. Brown suggests that when we don’t accept help from others it is because we are judging ourselves. Unless we can receive help with an open heart, we are never really giving help with an open heart. When we refuse help when we need it we are knowingly or unknowingly judging ourselves and judging those we offer to help.1

Most of us would deny attaching judgment to our giving, we want to see ourselves as generous and caring and don’t recognize that we get some measure of self worth from always being the one to offer help and not the one needing it.

Think about that for a moment - while we would all claim never to judge a person who accepts our help, when we refuse to accept ourselves because we think it makes us appear weak or needy is on some level what we think about the people who accept our help. We have to learn to accept help when we need it, that is the only way we can truly help others - freely and without judgement. 

Being vulnerable is about allowing ourselves to be seen — really seen — it’s about revealing our true and authentic selves as they are, not merely as we wish to be seen. When we are vulnerable there is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. 2 

To be open – to let others see us when we are feeling vulnerable – is hard. It’s hard to drop all pretense. It’s hard to open ourselves up. It’s hard to let others help us. Letting others help me meant I had to let myself be seen as a person who was intensely grieving and that I have to admit how just hard it is to be on this side of loss. 

What makes vulnerability so difficult to face in ourselves? Perhaps it’s that we so often mistake it for weakness, when it is really courage. We take a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure is never weakness.3 … but we all know it can feel that way.

Tomorrow in the Haftarah we’re going to read about Hannah — a woman who is not afraid to be vulnerable. We will read about Hannah going to a temple in Shiloh and pouring out her grief to God. And really, she is absolutely and utterly vulnerable in her prayer.
In that holy place she sobs and pours out her grief — and her hopes — to God. She does not recite a standard prayer; she opens her heart and allows herself to be seen by God, to be seen as who she is: a childless woman at a time when a woman’s worth was determined by her offspring, a person who is devastated by the hurtful things another person is saying to her and about her.

She does not hold back.

In fact Hannah is so open with her emotions that the priest, Eli, mistakes her heartfelt prayer for drunkenness. He is quick to judge her, saying, “How long do you propose to carry on drunk like this!” And here’s where Hannah does something somewhat unexpected. She doesn’t apologize or make excuses or run away or hide. Instead she reveals her vulnerability to Eli, saying, “I am a sober woman; I have had neither wine or liquor, but have been pouring out my heart before God. All this time I have been speaking out of my great sorrow and grief.” 

Hannah is courageous in opening herself to emotional exposure, especially after she has already been criticized. Perhaps Eli’s response is one of the things that holds us back in our own prayer. Perhaps we don’t want to be judged the way that Eli judges Hannah, so even in this safe place — even in this sacred space — we hold back; we don’t allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable even in our own personal prayer.

So yes, we struggle with vulnerability. Even here, in this sanctuary. Even now, on this day. 
It is, admittedly, uncomfortable, but it’s not just about wanting to appear strong in front of others. Dr. Brown suggests that vulnerability is closely linked to shame. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”4 We all feel it, from time to time. But nobody likes to talk about it or even admit that we have it. 

In your mind, finish the following sentence about yourself by filling in the blank: 
“I’m not [blank] enough.”
We fill in the blank with all kinds of things we are not “enough of.”
Not smart enough.
Not rich enough.
Not nice enough, not tough enough, not caring enough, not successful enough.  not religious enough. Not feminine or masculine enough. Not happy enough, not attractive enough, not thin enough. Not productive or popular or creative enough. Not Jewish enough, not important enough.

That blank your mind filled in, that feeling that we are not enough is where shame comes from - and nobody is immune.5

Our tradition tells us of King David, a pillar of strength: a warrior and ruler. But even in David we find that vulnerability. While he is struggling with Saul for the kingship, David is responsible for his own army. In the manner of military leaders at the time David sends his soldiers to request food and supplies from Nabal, a local nobleman.  Nabal, however, denies the supplies and sends David’s men back to him empty-handed with a message, saying: “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many slaves nowadays who run away from their masters. Should I then take my bread and my water, and the meat that I slaughtered for my own shearers, and give them to men who come from I don’t know where?”

Nabal denies David’s request, he denies his kingship, and he compares him to a runaway slave. In doing so Nabal tapped into David’s fear that he was not enough — who was he to be king?Nabal has voiced David’s own fears about himself – that he can’t provide for his men, that he was not really worthy to be king, that he was an impostor. David responds with out-of-control anger and violence, telling his men to ready their swords; David is going to slaughter Nabal and all his men to prove that he is the king - that he is in fact worthy and that he is enough.

It is Abigail who sees through David’s pretense and helps him calm down. She reminds him that he is worthy, and she helps him make a more strategic response — one that helps ensure his future kingship. David recognizes the worth of a woman who can see  him at his most vulnerable — and can help him despite himself, and eventually he marries her.
At first glance one might mistake the willingness of a warrior to go to battle as courage, but that isn’t so. True courage comes when he admits to being vulnerable. David is strongest when he is able to listen to wise council.

Everyone is capable of this kind of courage. Facing up to our fears about not measuring up takes courage. We need this kind of courage at the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah we can become so focused on what we are supposed to be — all the ways that we did not measure up in the last year, and all the things we want to do better in the new year that we start to feel shame. We start to feel unworthy.

And that’s OK. It’s OK to feel that way, and to be vulnerable. That’s why we’re here.
When we focus on our deeds we need to be open and vulnerable — not to run away, not to fight it off, but to face our fears about ourselves head-on.

Yes, facing our shortcomings hurts, but this is the place to face those hurts and not to let them take over. This is the place to face up to our actions, to admit the things we did that were bad without thinking that we are bad. When we compare who we are against who we want to be, it is uncomfortable, but it can help us see where we need to change. These holy days are not about achieving perfection; they are a time to open ourselves up to the possibility of change, by recognizing and acknowledging where we have fallen short. 
Our challenge for Rosh Hashanah is to recognize all the things we can do better in the new year and still remember that we are worthy of love and belonging — right now, right this minute, just as we are. 6

The shofar is our wake-up call. Don’t wait until you think you are “enough.” 

Don’t wait until you are “fill in the blank” enough.
You’re ready. We’re all ready. That’s why we’re here.
We need to be open and vulnerable in the new year — and while that is scary and leaves us open to pain and uncertainty, it also means that we are open to joy and possibility. We need to be be courageous in the new year.

We need to be vulnerable in our experience of these ten days of repentance; we need to focus on being our real and authentic selves. We need to recognize that we are not perfect and that’s OK, because we are committed to being better. We need to admit admit the things we have done wrong without thinking that something is wrong with us. This is how we change for the better in the new year. When we remember that we are all in God’s image, we know that we are inherently worthy. Worthy of love. Worthy of belonging. Worthy of this holy community. Worthy of blessing.

May we recognize our own strengths. 
May we remember that vulnerability is courage. 
May we have the courage to show up and allow ourselves to be seen by others. 

My prayer for you in the new year is:
Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.7

 1 Brown, Brene (2010-09-20). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are (p. 20). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.
2 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p.34
3 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 37
4 Daring Greatly, p. 69
5 Brene Brown
6 Brown, Brene (2010-09-20). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are (pp. 23-24). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.
7 Marcia Falk, “The Book of Blessings”
In researching this sermon I read “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly” by Dr. Brene Brown.
For a complete list of references and sources please contact me directly.


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