Rabbi Cohen’s Kol Nidrei 5779 Sermon – Courage, Shame and Vulnerability

Kol Nidrei 5779
September 18, 2018
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Courage, Shame and Vulnerability


There are times during services when it’s easy to go on autopilot. We know many of the words by heart as we recite them often. Hence we take for granted the translations within in our prayer books or the words in our heads. Mi sheberach, is one such case. When we hear these words, mi sheberach, we automatically know this is the prayer for healing, yet the title of this prayer only means, “he that blessed.” And once we move into the heart of the prayer, in English, we assume this is a prayer for healing of mind, body and spirit. However, nowhere does it speak of healing of mind. It reads, refuah shleimah, refuat hanefesh, ur’fuat haguf. Refuah shleimah, complete healing; refuat hanefesh, healing of the spirit; ur’fuat haguf, healing of the body. Where is the mind and what is complete healing?

This past year, I have been on an interesting journey of reading and digesting the work of Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and most known for her TED Talks and books on courage, shame, vulnerability and empathy. I was introduced to her first by one of our own TBS members who gave me a beautiful box with her books and said, these have been very helpful in helping me find healing. I’ve discovered through many of Brené Brown’s works along with personal practice and personal growth work, where I can find healing of mind.

One of our greatest faults is our need to feel like we have to be perfect. There are those in the world who may already think they are perfect, but we all know, no one is perfect. I admit that to my children every day. But still, we are slaves to feeling that if we make a mistake or we don’t accomplish a task to a certain level of our own expectations, that we are failures. We aren’t enough. We aren’t smart enough, we aren’t thin enough, I didn’t do enough. We might take that sense of failure and blame ourselves, beating ourselves up over it, or project onto others around us, attempting to put the responsibility somewhere else or on someone else.

Where does this all begin? Is it Jewish guilt? No, because we see it all around us. Sorry, we don’t own this one, but we do it very well. However, our own text quickly takes us down this path of the need to be perfect.

It all begins in Genesis. First we meet Noah, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—”[1] The perfect man who was everything God wanted all of humankind to be and hoped that by destroying the earth and recreating it with the generations of Noah, perfection could be achieved. Give it a few sentences and we are already building a tower to reach up to God and needing to be separated from one another because we talk too much.

Then comes Abram, maybe he will bring perfection to our people: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, ADONAI appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.”[2] Little did God know that Abram would challenge God in ways that would only foreshadow the Israelite people; with a lot of questions, like a child who incessantly asks, “why?”

And with the Israelites, God puts the pressure on us with the command, “You must be blameless with ADONAI your God”[3] But really? Are we really able to be blameless, perfect in every way? While God has created us in God’s image, are we completely godlike? Isn’t it only God whose, “deeds are perfect, Yea, all God’s ways are just; A faithful God, never false, True and upright is God.”[4]

The Hebrew word used in each of these instances is tamim. And once again translations can be tricky because tamim can also mean simple or innocent and wholehearted.

Living lives of perfection or wholehearted are two very different ways of living. This is the argument made by Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.[5] If we try to be perfect, we are only going to set ourselves up for failure and worst of all, feel like a failure. It is an impossible goal and one that we will punish ourselves for if we don’t achieve it. And that is not healthy for us. However, while we may not be able to achieve perfection, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to be better. We are meant to spend our lives learning and growing, even when that means falling, picking ourselves back up and trying again.

Brown tells us, “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”[6]

It means that we recognize that we have gifts and skills and we are to use them to make ourselves better and make our world a better place. It requires us to see ourselves as worthy enough to struggle and humble enough to recognize that the struggle will never completely cease.

How do we do this? The first step is to be able to tell your story; honestly tell your story; who you are and where you come from. We are great storytellers, especially when we retell the stories of our childhood. We have great imaginations and sometimes, we want to tell our story in a way that is impressive and outdoes the other. “You think you had it rough…let me tell you about how rough I had it!” Why do we feel like we have to best one another? Is it possible that we struggle with a sense of worthiness? When we don’t own our story, when we feel that we are not good enough, there is a sense that we might be disappointing someone. We challenge our authentic selves and lose sight of who we really are because we are too afraid to not live up to the expectations of others.

We see this in our children. They don’t want to disappoint their parents or their friends. They are afraid that their worth lies in their grades or what position they hold on the team or in the band. Try as we might to tell our kids that we love them no matter what grades they get, society still says, if you want to succeed, you have to work till the early morning hours, get little sleep, be on as many teams as you can, take on many positions in school, and then, maybe just then, you will get into the “right” university. But our children are exhausted, overworked, involved in too many activities and don’t have time to just be kids.

We also see this in ourselves as adults. We feel like we have to be everything to all people. Think about the demands on your life: work, home, family, friends (if you have time for them), community volunteering work for school or maybe another agency, keeping up on current events. We are expected to always have a cheerful countenance and that moment when we might not feel like smiling, others assume something must be wrong. We keep that mask on always otherwise we feel we will disappoint others. We feel shame when we can’t keep up with a project at work, when something falls through the cracks, when we can’t make it to a child’s game or concert, when we don’t have time just for our beloved, or we selfishly take time for our own personal growth or rejuvenation. We are told we have to keep going, don’t stop because there is too much to be done and if we don’t get it all done and are not everywhere we should be, then we are not good enough. We live in a society that shames a woman for taking maternity leave or a new father paternity leave, by saying, ‘you must not care about your career if you’re going to take time away to care of your child.’ Or even now, as parents with older children. We are shamed into not taking vacation time because it means we must not value our work or our commitment to our career. We stop calling friends when they keep saying no to getting together because obviously, they don’t have time for us so why should we make time for them. We are building up walls around us to try to resist the shame of not being or doing good enough.

Instead, we need to build up what Brown calls, shame resilience. As she writes, “Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.  When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows.  It consumes us.  We need to share our experience.  Shame happens between people, and it heals between people.”[7] We learn to control shame by telling our honest story, by being vulnerable with someone we feel connected to, and by being honest with ourselves about what we need to be whole. We need to connect. We need to not be alone and share our lives which are not perfect but are messy, imperfect and essential.

In the book, The Little Prince, we meet the prince who is a little boy from a distant planet.  When he arrives on earth, he meets a fox.  The fox asks the prince to tame him.  When the prince asks what the fox means, he answers, “It is an act too often neglected.  It means to establish ties.”

The prince says, “’I want to, very much.  But I have not much time.  I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.’

“’One only understands the things one tames,’ said the fox.  ‘Men have no more time to understand anything.  They buy things all ready made at the shops.  But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore.  If you want a friend, tame me.’”[8]

We need to tame each other. We need to make time for connections in which we can sit down and listen to each other’s stories. We need to take the time to cultivate relationships and build our friendships. These connections are so important because our friends are the ones whom we can call when shame overtakes us and perfection circles around us.

Brown teaches that “Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield.”[9]

This shield of perfectionism can’t always protect us. Brown writes:

The most powerful emotions that we experience have very sharp points, like the tip of a thorn.  When they prick us, they cause discomfort and even pain.  Just the anticipation or fear of these feelings can trigger intolerable vulnerability in us.  We know it’s coming.  For many of us, our first response to [the] vulnerability and pain of these sharp points is not to lean into discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away.  We do that by numbing and taking the edge off the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief.  We can anesthetize with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet.[10]

It’s easy to try and numb ourselves to the pain in our lives. And you do not have to be an addict to numb yourself, addiction is the extreme. As Brown puts it, “There is a full spectrum of human emotions, and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.”  Indeed, living with our imperfections makes us appreciate joy and beauty and love.  In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

How do we embrace the light and the dark? We go back to our mi sheberach and the request for refuah shleimah. We add a new interpretation to the prayer; wholehearted living. Wholehearted living requires courage, compassion and connection every day. It means embracing our imperfections and not being shamed by others or ourselves when we expose our flaws. It means being strong and fierce. It means not letting anyone tear us down brick by brick just because they are afraid of letting down their own walls. It means being proud of who we are, sharing our stories and being true to who we are.

Anna Quindlen wrote, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the hard work of becoming yourself.” When Rabbi Zusya died and met God, God did not ask him, ‘why were you not Moses?’ God asked him, ‘why were you not Zusya.’ Be you, be wholehearted, be courageous, compassionate and strong. Then, with all of our flaws, light emerges from the cracks and our beauty shines through. It is then we are vulnerable and whole, it is then, we are complete, it is then that we are blessed – mi sheberach, may we all bless and be blessed in who we are and all that we are, and may we find wholeness and completeness in our own messy yet beautiful lives.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon

[1] Genesis 6:9

[2] Genesis 17:1

[3] Deuteronomy 18:13

[4] Deuteronomy 32:4

[5] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazelden Publ., 2010).

[6] Ibid

[7] Brown, Gifts, p. 40

[8] Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince, tr. Katherine Woods (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943), pp. 46-47.

[9] Brown, Gifts, pp. 55, 56.

[10] Ibid., p. 70

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