Facing Our Vulnerability

September 4, 2009
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Many people return to the synagogue on the High Holidays, year after year, to replenish their sense of security. Here we all are in safe buildings, seeing familiar faces and hearing well-worn melodies; large numbers help render invisible the recently departed. While many people carry internal dread, much conspires to reinforce complacency. And yet, we, the rabbis, hope to motivate people toward change, even dramatic and transformational change.

In our secular world, the government has established a Department of Homeland Security to supplement the work of the Department of Defense, and people fly home for the holidays under the vigilant eye of the Transportation Safety Administration. Shoring us up in our vulnerable condition, doctors are asked to keep us healthy, police and firefighters to keep us safe, lawyers and politicians to guarantee our rights. Rabbis are expected to put the need for safety and security in a cosmic perspective that can overcome even the ravages of aging, the fear of death, and now, the anxieties that a weakened economy have imposed on many among us.

To support us in our efforts to shock our congregations into a different appraisal of and response to vulnerability is the liturgy. During the High Holidays, in particular, the prayer Unitaneh Tokef — with its famous paragraph describing the many ways people might die during the coming year — can be interpreted as insisting on our vulnerability and mortality. The way that I present its message here is an example of how I try to use the liturgy to move the congregation away from fear through acceptance of human limitations in order to lead us to humility, and from a place of humility, toward change.

In the center of the Rosh Hashanah musaf service, we declare the extraordinary sanctity of the day, asserting our knowledge that God is the judge, the prosecutor, and the witness to our lives; we acknowledge our trembling because we know that today is “Judgment Day.” Abruptly, the metaphor shifts and we picture God as a shepherd gathering the flock, reviewing each creature, one by one, and determining the destiny of each living being.

And then these familiar words: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall die and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who shall live to be old and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by earthquake and who by plague . . . who will be at peace and who shall be tormented; who will be poor and who rich, who humbled and who exalted.”

Whatever our theological doubts and whether or not an individual believes in a “Judgment Day,” the section of the U’nitaneh Tokef prayer that represents the mystery of human destiny as a catalogue of ways that people die, culminating in the alternative possibilities for life, that some people will become rich this year and others poor, some humbled and others wildly successful — and of course everything in between — about this part of the prayer we can harbor no doubts. It is simply true. We know that, of course, some people will die this coming year; some in old age, and some young; some of illness and others in accidents; some in war, and some in unpredictable natural disasters. We know that some of us will do well in the coming year, and some of us will not.

Most of us prefer to deny the unruliness of our fragility. But Rosh Hashanah makes the facts on this list inescapable: there will be deaths by hunger, accident, and illness, and in wars. The liturgy begs us to hear these plain facts. And we all know that if we haven’t yet suffered an unbearable loss, one year such a grief will permanently scar our hearts, or we will suffer yet another death that we cannot bear. Experience suggests that we will live to see another Rosh Hashanah but we know that without a doubt, certainly, definitely, and absolutely, a year will come that will break the pattern. For most of us that destiny is mysterious in its details, but that death is our destiny — the fate of every person we know and love — is irrefutable. Everyone dies; somehow and some time.

This year, rereading the liturgy, I was feeling the vulnerability of the world, of America and of Israel, of people I care about who are living under threat, of congregants who are in failing health, and of my many friends who rise to say kaddish for a parent. In this frame of mind, I approach the U’nitaneh Tokef differently. For the first time, I hear the prayer not as a humbling prayer. Our tradition is not asking us to feel insecure and vulnerable in the face of the mysteries of human fate. Rather, our tradition is reminding us, demanding in fact, that we accept our vulnerability. Face it, someday, I will die, people I love will die.

We may be exalted this coming year, but one year all the honors that we’ve earned will not preclude our return to the earth. Surrender to vulnerability. Mystery and death are conditions of life. We mustn’t live as if death were avoidable. And we should relax into the life we’re meant to live.

The chorus of the prayer is teshuvah, tefillah u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et roah hagezayrah. “Turning yourself around, prayer, and righteous generosity lessen the severity of the decree.” And in this chorus, I suddenly understand that we are not praying to be spared death or that death be postponed. Rather, after reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways that life might end, so that we sustain a consciousness of insecurity, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. The goal is not security, but an effective strategy to deal with insecurity. That strategy includes teshuvah, which requires being open to self-criticism and change; tefillah, regular prayer, which cultivates the ability to express hope, to bring our needs to articulation, and to maintain a practice of speaking words of gratitude and appreciation. And finally, tzedakah, righteous giving, demands that we leave our narrow places, reach out, and maintain balance by sharing resources. The way to address vulnerability is not to build bigger defenses — whether walls of words or concrete — or even better weapons. We deal with our vulnerability with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.

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Leonard Gordon serves as rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. For the past decade he has been working on the new Conservative movement makhzor (edited by Rabbi Ed Feld) that is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2010.

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