There’s Power in Vulnerability: Yom Kippur and Self-Reflection

This is the text of a sermon I gave at Kol Nidre, the first evening of Yom Kippur.

Whether or not we realize it, something incredible happens when we sit together.

For example, last night, I sat with my roommates in our tiny Alphabet City apartment watching the critically-acclaimed 2007 musical, Rent. The film follows the pursuits of several people wrestling with life and love during the peak of the AIDS crisis. The opening song, “Seasons of Love,” is one that is likely to be familiar to most people in the audience, but I’ll resist leading us in a little Yom Kippur sing along.

The song informs us that a year is made up of the following numbers: 5–2–5–6–0–0. One year, one journey around the sun, is made up of just 525,600 minutes. Further, Seasons of Love asks us, how do we choose to see our lives? Is it in sunsets, in cups of coffee, in laughter, in strife?

I have heard this song more times than I may care to admit, but this time was like the first. For the first time, I had awoken to the central question that I think Judaism wants us to ask during this time of year, the Days of Awe. Wake up, Emily. What is your life measured in?

Frankly, I’m not so sure of the answer to this question. Our time gets filled up during the year making friendships, falling in love, traveling, doing homework, making connections. We spend the majority of our year building ourselves up. We fervently edit our Linkedin page, we apply for graduation, we scope out a cutie at a party, we climb and climb socially, academically, until we reach…what?

How do we see our lives as something other than just seconds ticking away?

Wake up. On Rosh Hashanah, a great horn blasts that is meant to shake us from this blind repetition. The shofar alerts us to the magnificence of a new beginning, the birth of the world, a great time for transformation. But, before we can truly come into the fullness of this re-creation, we stand on the precipice of the old and the new — the clock stands suspended. Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement.

Wake up.

We arrive at Yom Kippur, a time in which we, too, stand suspended. The guardrails that protect us, that keep us from being fully permeated by the world around us come crashing down. The averted looks to the homeless on the street, the times we closed our hearts to a cry of pain. All of these memories, and more have been collected, and here we stand. Tradition teaches us that is during these hours we stand before the Gates of Heaven, ready to be “judged for our actions in the past year.”

This is an incredibly tough concept for most of us to grasp, myself included. It is an incredibly painful process to make oneself so vulnerable. We stand here today, holding up moments like precious sea glass and attempting to really, truly see them. The ebb and flow of our lives has brought us to this present moment.

Here you are, you’re awake (feel free to elbow your neighbor if they’re not, though), and it’s time…for what?

I believe that it is at these moments, this one, right now, where we find transformation. I’m thinking about a memory in which I was at my most vulnerable, and I’m thinking about this past summer. I served as the Judaics Director at a camp in Arizona. My job was to lead evening prayer (easy-ish) and make Judaism interesting to 12 year olds (not so easy-ish). About three days in, news came that a 16-year-old on our Israel trip had died.

Suddenly, things got real. We woke up.

As the community dealt with the massive loss, the next day, my three closest friends and I were meant to have our day off. I felt raw, stripped to my core, but the logistical nature of planning days off for a staff of fifty plus people won over and we left. We had a borrowed car and a faulty GPS, and we drove. We ended up driving to a lake, not an easy feat in landlocked Arizona. We were a mess of limbs and flying shoes as we parked the car, and there we were — at the edge of the lake.

As the sun began it’s descent, I started to realize all of the places in my heart that had cracked. I thought of my own losses, times in my life when I had experienced death and pain. I looked to my friends, I looked inside of me. What did I have but this vulnerability?

Our tradition has an abundant collection of rituals and prayers and the like for moments like these that would probably rival your grandmother’s attic. One such ritual is a mikveh, a ritual immersion in a body of water meant to cleanse us. It’s usually in a building. It’s usually with a blessing. It’s usually not for a pink haired girl mourning someone she had never met before at a lake in Arizona. It’s not the tradition.

One friend immersed to allow their heart to open to the possibility of love. We watched him disappear under the water three times. Another immersed for maturity, another for a new experience. I immersed to embrace the fear that I felt about being in a body that I felt could be so permeable, so vulnerable, so breakable.

Moments like these, moments like Yom Kippur, strip us to the barest parts of ourselves. We give ourselves fully over to the vulnerability, and the truth of the matter is, we will never be the same once we allow ourselves to be our most vulnerable. This is a terrifying prospect for someone like me, maybe someone like you, who spend time trying to keep up appearances of everything being okay.

After the immersion, we snapped a picture and got into the car. I was sleepy and sandy, a Torah book perched on my lap. We maneuvered the car through sandy dunes and hills of cacti back to camp. I, as well as my friends, were well aware that we were returning to a community that was still deep in mourning.

But, in that moment, at the lake with a DIY Jewish ritual, an Australian and two Israelis, I found holiness. I found holiness in myself, in my community, in the most devastating moments of life, holiness in barren cracks of my soul. I believe that Yom Kippur teaches us that it is these moments of true vulnerability, while incredibly painful, are inarguably the most beautiful and profound parts of ourselves.

And what happens when we take these pieces ourselves and put them together with parts of others that are hurting, that are yearning? What happens when we don’t confine the act of reflection to just Yom Kippur, but we allow ourselves to, as the great feminist scholar Judith Butler says, “come undone by each other”?

When we transform ourselves, we open the entire world up to being transformed. When we allow our vulnerability to strengthen us, we stand before judgement not with trembling legs, but with strength, koach. When we create communities that mourn together, reflect together, laugh together, well…maybe this whole thing is a lot less terrifying.

The truth of the matter is that something cosmic happens when we sit together in our heartbreak.

525,600 minutes. Are you ready? Wake up. You’re here.