Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Divinity of Vulnerability - Bereshit 5774

The holidays are over; we have concluded a couple of weeks of introspection, of asking for forgiveness from God and each other, of celebrating and building and dancing and eating and praying and so forth.

You might be inclined to think that the High Holiday season ended yesterday, when we paraded the Torah and danced and sang with abandon. A better case could be made that they actually ended on Wednesday morning, on Hoshanah Rabbah, when a brave few of us came early in the morning, marched seven times around the chapel with our lulavim and etrogim, and then beat willow branches on the floor until the leaves came off, chanting “Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer,” “A voice proclaims, proclaims and says.”

Says what? A curious statement, indeed. The piyyut, the liturgical poem that features these lines in the siddur is incomplete; there is no direct object to the two verbs, mevasser (proclaims) and omer (says). My sources tell me that it’s a reference to Isaiah 52:7, a verse that we read over the summer in the Fourth Haftarah of Consolation:

מַה-נָּאווּ עַל-הֶהָרִים רַגְלֵי מְבַשֵּׂר, מַשְׁמִיעַ שָׁלוֹם מְבַשֵּׂר טוֹב--מַשְׁמִיעַ יְשׁוּעָה; אֹמֵר לְצִיּוֹן, מָלַךְ אֱלֹהָיִךְ.
How welcome on the mountain
Are the footsteps of the herald
Announcing happiness,
Heralding good fortune,
Announcing victory,
Telling Zion, “Your God is King!”

The voice, the “qol,” is that of a prophet, announcing a coming redemption for Israel, declaring the sovereignty of God. But why did the author of this poem in the siddur, El’azar ben Qillir, the 6th-7th century CE Palestinian payyetan, leave off what it is that the voice is announcing?*

Well, I’m going to propose an answer: that the mysterious voice is God’s (OK, not such a stretch), that still, small voice (I Kings 19:12) that will guide us as we move forward into the new year, and yet reminds us of the vulnerability, the openness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is this vulnerability, after all, in which you may find the Divine spark that makes us at once profoundly human and yet Godly. And the origin of this vulnerability is to be found in Parashat Bereshit, which we read today.

You may recall that I mentioned a TED Talk (the one about the guerilla gardener Ron Finley) in one of my High Holiday sermons. TED Talks are videos of short, inspirational lectures, usually by people who are not celebrities. At the suggestions of a member of this community, I recently saw another TED talk featuring the “researcher-storyteller” Dr. Brené Brown called, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Has anybody here seen it? This is a truly wonderful talk. Dr. Brown is a professor in the social work school at the University of Houston. Some of her research has been devoted to recording and analyzing people’s stories of shame and vulnerability.


She speaks of her own fear of being vulnerable, and how, while she is trying to manage this fear, her research reveals that it is, in fact, embracing being open and vulnerable that makes us feel worthy, that makes us live, as she says, “wholeheartedly.”

Among the wisdom revealed by her research, we find the following gems:

  • Our essential goal is connection. The ability to feel connected is what gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.
  • Shame is the fear of disconnection.
  • People who have a strong sense of love and belonging feel that they are worthy of love and belonging, and the way to achieve this is to expose your vulnerability, to embrace it, to allow your true self to be seen.

Dr. Brown’s point is that we as a society tend to misunderstand the importance of vulnerability. This is a fundamentally human trait, one for which we are hard-wired. None of us is perfect; that we leave for God. But it is, in fact, our vulnerability that makes us strong; it is our vulnerability that makes us attractive to others, the willingness to pursue love, careers, parenting, and other types of human relationships despite our fears of failure and rejection.

And that is one of the primary messages of Bereshit - that we are not perfect. We are not immortal. Rather, we are human. We are fundamentally flawed.** When we lose Eden, we learn the extent of our vulnerability. What does God say to Adam as he and Eve are being shooed out of the Garden?
אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה, בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ, בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכְלֶנָּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ...
Cursed be the ground because of you;
By toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life…
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground --
For from it you were taken. (Gen. 3:17-19)

Henceforward, says God, human life will be difficult. Nothing will be provided for us; we must work hard to eat, to live, to love. And we will try and fail, try and fail again. We will try to plant wheat, and thorns and thistles will grow instead. We will reach out to others for love and be rejected. We will work hard at making senior partner, only to passed over.

This is, of course, from the second Creation story, the more human of the two, Gen. 2:4b ff. The first story (Gen. 1:1 - 2:4a) is about order: six days of God admiring God’s own perfect work, and then resting. Shabbat is today that aftertaste of perfection, a little hint of the Garden of Eden here on Long Island and everywhere else for 25 hours every week.

But the other six days are days of toil and suffering. And that is what makes us human. We are subject to the elements, to the economy, to the vagaries of human relationships, to political forces, and so on. We are vulnerable.

But wait a minute. Didn’t God make us this way? Is not our tendency to feel shame also Divine?

When Adam and Eve eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they suddenly realize that they are not wearing clothes. And what happens? They feel ashamed. They feel vulnerable. Recognizing this new emotion in the creatures God has created, the Qadosh Barukh Hu asks them (Gen. 3:11), “Mi higid lekha ki eirom atah?” “Who told you that you were naked?”

Rashi glosses this verse as follows: “Me-ayin lekha lada’at mah boshet yesh be-omed arom? Ha-min ha-etz?!” “From where did you learn what shame there is in standing naked? From the tree?!”

That’s when they start pointing fingers, blaming each other and the serpent to alleviate their shame. (Dr. Brown: “blame” is defined in the relevant academic literature as, “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.”)

Of course it was not from the tree. Shame and vulnerability were also created by God in those first six days of “perfect” Creation.

So when Adam and Eve lose paradise, and are told that they are on their own, that fundamental vulnerability comes from God. It is Divine. It is the essential piece of humanity, the finishing flourish, if you will, of Creation.

So what is the voice proclaiming at the end of the holiday season? Embrace that God-given vulnerability. That is what the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, are all about: we are frail, we are vulnerable, we need help. And carry that sense of frailty into the rest of the year. Live with it, because it will make you more wholehearted.

Dr. Brené Brown concludes her talk by pointing out that the way that we deal with our vulnerability is by trying to numb it through addictive behaviors. “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history,” she says.

But the problem with this is that you cannot selectively numb particular emotions, and so we have also numbed our ability to experience joy, gratitude, and happiness, and this has led to a whole host of other social ills. We are increasingly isolated, increasingly certain and inflexible in our beliefs, increasingly willing to assign blame rather than accept who we are.

She offers that what we need to be teaching our children is, it’s OK to be imperfect. It’s OK to be flawed and wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. I would append to this the idea that God created us that way, way back in Bereshit / Genesis.

During Sukkot, we “invite” key figures in Jewish folklore to come and sit with us in our sukkah, in a ceremony known as Ushpizin. We call on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth to honor us with their presence. But we often forget that these characters were human, and hence imperfect. Abraham twice identified his wife Sarah as his sister, because he was afraid of being killed. Sarah laughed when promised a son late in life. Moses was ashamed of what may have been a stutter. Aaron made the Molten Calf, for crying out loud! And David, the great King David, slept with his neighbor’s wife and then had her husband killed in battle, because he was ashamed. These were flawed people!

But they lived with their vulnerabilities. They are on display for all to see in the stories of the Tanakh. And we too must embrace our own insecurities, and raise our children to accept their shortcomings. Nobody’s perfect, my friends. Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer. Remember the still, small voice, calling out from the New Year. The imperfection within us is Divine; now get out there and be proudly vulnerable.


~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 9/28/2013.)


* Yes, if you study the words of the piyyut / liturgical poem carefully, you will find that it speaks of “various prophetic descriptions of apocalyptic events in the end of days,” (Reuven Hammer, Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 211). But the repeated lines at the beginning and the end are incomplete, and we repeat them several times.

** Please note that while some Christian denominations point to this episode as the source of “original sin,” Judaism reads the first few chapters of Bereshit / Genesis differently. God did not create humans to be immortal, and the first humans were not perfect. In other words, the expulsion from the Garden was inevitable, like the classic arc of tragedy.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you RavHaz,

    I must confess that your Holiday sermon was the one that I did not hear and so am grateful to be reading it now. What you say is both illuminating and spiritually meaningful. And you've given us a template to help find our way for those times when we all feel a bit as though we've just been expelled from Gan Eden.

    Elissa Schiff
    ps: Am so technology impaired that I have no idea what these "Profile" selections mean, so I'll choose Anon, but I always sign my name to whatever I write.

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  2. Thanks, Elissa. Shabbat shalom, and I'll see you in shul!

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