In 1856, just five years before the Civil War broke out, a Virginian slave-owner wrote the following to his wife: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.” This slave-owner went on to free some of his slaves, an act, that was rather unpopular and seen as almost criminal in the mid-19th century deep south.
The author of that letter, as some of you may know, was none other than Robert E. Lee, the famous or infamous general-in-chief of the confederate forces. Lee, after his radical proclamation denouncing slavery, went on to write a justification for its continued institution, claiming that the slaves were better off in America than in Africa.
Thus begins the controversy of Robert E. Lee’s legacy; selfless general, vicious slave-owner, lover of animals, hater of people, humble in loss, arrogant in victory. Do we leave his statues up or do we tear them all down? This is the question that has roiled our country.
In the Torah, there is a prohibition against making statues. It’s a prohibition that until this past summer, I thought to be somewhat outdated. But after witnessing the controversy, the heated debates, the senseless bloodshed, I realized that erecting a statue is perhaps not only a reflection of the Torah’s opposition to anything that relates to idolatry, but perhaps the prohibition of erecting a statue speaks to the complexity of life itself; Because, how could a statue sum up the entirety of a person’s life?
If we were to freeze ourselves at one moment in our lives, doing just one thing, what single act can convey a lifetime; a life filled with great successes and shameful failures, a life filled with moments of elation and flashes of despair.
Would it be at work, signing our name on a contract, giving a wonderful presentation, saving a patient’s life? Or would it be the time we made a terrible choice that almost sunk our organization, the time we said the wrong thing to a potential client, or when we felt like giving up? Or should it be a picture of us at home, caring for a child in middle of the night – or perhaps the time we lost our cool and scared that same child?
What statue, what singular moment can be captured in bronze or gold? What single moment can truly define us?
No moment can define us. We are simply too complicated and too complex to be captured in still motion. And this is why the Torah is the most remarkable book of all. It speaks in stories and abhors statues. It paints intricate and complicated pictures of our forefathers, of Avraham and of Sarah, of Yosef and of his brothers, of Moshe and of Aharon. As a people, we have been blessed with role models, of men and women to look up to and admire, but the Torah, ever so sensitive to human frailty, tells stories and forbids statues.
A few moments ago, we said Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is an annulment of vows; vows we made this past year and ones we will make in the year to come. “All commitments, all promises that I made this past year, and all vows I will inevitably make,” we ask the congregation, as a stand in for a court, to annul them.
Why? Because there is no way I could keep my word. I have not kept my word in the past and I acknowledge that I will continue to be incapable of keeping my word. Kol Nidrei is a humble admission to human frailty, to the fluctuations of life that we seek to control, but control we do not.
And that’s just the beginning of Yom Kippur.
Tomorrow morning, the most hallowed and sacred prayer we will say is Unesaneh Tokef – “Who will live, who will die?” How many loved ones did we say goodbye to this past year?
And in words that in 2017 take on special significance, “Who will die by fire, and who by water?” The “waters” of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that have brought so much devastation. Or the “fires” of North Korea, Iran, and Hezbollah. Will this be the year we dread, when the saber-rattling turns into missile-firing?
And then, when the horrors and intensity of Unesaneh Tokef wear off, we begin to sing that haunting tune – ayayay… ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have sinned, we have rebelled, we have stolen.
If you were to sum up the feeling that all these prayers collectively evoke in us, I think we’d say that Kol Nidrei, Unesaneh Tokef, Viduy, together remind us – that we are pathetic. Throughout the year, we excitedly commit to great things – and we humbly submit to our inability to follow through. Throughout life, we build homes, we build lives – and we acknowledge that we are subject to the unpredictable winds, water, and fire of the world. On most days, we think of ourselves as good, as honest, but we spend the entire day beating our chest and admitting that we’ve made more mistakes than we can even keep track of. It sure sounds pretty pathetic.
But I’d like to suggest that there is an entirely different way of looking at all of this, a theme for Yom Kippur that I believe to be far more uplifting and actually, far more accurate. Because you see, every Jewish holiday corresponds to a moment in early Jewish history and Yom Kippur is no exception. Although there is no explicit mention in the Torah, the Talmud makes the following calculation. On the seventeenth of the month of Tammuz, the Jewish People sinned with the Golden Calf. Moshe comes down the mountain, sees how low the Jewish People have fallen, and breaks the tablets. The next morning he goes back up the mountain for 40 days, begging G-d to forgive the Jewish People. G-d acquiesces and the Jewish People are forgiven.
But then, Moshe goes up the mountain again. He spends 40 days and comes down at the end with the second set of tablets. That day was Yom Kippur.
It would seem that although we associate Yom Kippur with forgiveness, based on this tradition that is not entirely accurate. Forgiveness took place 40 days prior. What took place on Yom Kippur was that G-d not only forgave the Jewish People, on Yom Kippur, G-d reestablished a relationship with them. Yom Kippur is far more powerful than forgiveness. It is a day of reconciliation; Yom Kippur is a day of love. (Rabbi Moshe Hauer)
That’s why we say Kol Nidrei and remind ourselves of our fickle nature, that’s why we say Unesaneh Tokef and remind ourselves of our vulnerability, and that’s why we say Viduy and remind ourselves of our shortcoming. What we are doing is making ourselves vulnerable to G-d. Because vulnerability is the key to true love.
In the words of Brene Brown: Love is… “Waking up everyday and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we cannot ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow – that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed.”
Vulnerability is not only an expression of love, it’s what makes love. When we are able to open ourselves up to someone we trust and share with them our shortcomings, when we are able to open ourselves up to someone we trust and share with them our dreams – as corny as they may seem, when we’re able to metaphorically bare ourselves to a friend, to a family member, to a spouse, that’s what makes love. Vulnerability breeds love. It is the door through which the “other” enters our life.
As a society, we are terribly vulnerable-averse. We make ourselves so busy or we pretend to be so busy so we don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable void in our lives and the emotions it may evoke. We medicate, we distract, we overstimulate to avoid the vulnerability of our emotions. We avoid sadness at all costs because it scares us, and in doing so we lose our capacity for joy. We pretend to be someone we’re not because we’re afraid of being judged for who we are. And oh, do we absolutely stink at apologizing – “I am sorry about the way I made you feel.” “I am sorry about the situation that we’re in.” We will say anything but take ownership and responsibility. We will do anything to prevent ourselves from feeling vulnerable.
But a world without vulnerability is a world without love.
Making ourselves vulnerable does not mean over-sharing and letting everyone know your problems or who share with people they barely even know. People who do so cheapen the magical power of vulnerability. Vulnerability is opening up to the people we care about, the people we love or we’d like to love, and being honest with them, about ourselves, about our mutual relationship, about what’s really going on inside. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, but it’s a small price to pay for love.
On Yom Kippur, we turn to our Father in Heaven, G-d, and we share with Him our vulnerabilities; we are fickle, we don’t like to admit it – but to you G-d, I’ll be open and I’ll be honest.
We tremble in fear – I’m scared as I hear the haunting words of “who will live and who will die” and I ask you, G-d, to hold me close, because I need Your embrace.
We hang our heads in shame as we acknowledge our many missteps – but I feel uplifted knowing that You, G-d, still want to hear from me, because you love me, because you love us!
This is the essence of Yom Kippur and this is the model for the loving relationships that we can have in our lives. If we could only gather the strength to stop running and faking and building walls around ourselves, and instead accept ourselves, be honest to others, and let some special people in, to help us, to understand us, to love us, I think we would have the relationships that we all crave for.
I recently read a story of a man, as successful as can be, whose parents, both Holocaust survivors, never had it within them to say, I love you. He lived his whole life waiting for affirmation from the two people he adored. He received accolades from his clients, his colleagues, newspapers, but it meant nothing. He wanted to know his parents loved him; he wanted them to let him in.
On her deathbed, his mother called him close. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word love, but she whispered in his ear, “Son, I am very proud of you.”
Those words, those words that came from a place of honesty and for her, vulnerability, empower him to this day.
Let’s not wait until our dying breath to open up to those we love. We are somewhat fickle, life is fleeting, and we are far from perfect. Let’s be honest about our shortcomings, our fears, our dreams, and ourselves with the people we love – and with G-d; let’s allow ourselves to be vulnerable today and every day, to their help, to their sympathy, to their support, and may we be blessed with the deepest and truest of emotions, the blessing of true love.