Day 31: Constructive Vulnerability

This year we are feeling a greater sense of vulnerability than in the past. We sense the fragile nature of our existence.

Last year, our shul community experienced many untimely losses. It seemed we were going to one funeral after another. Although, we shared joyous occasions together, the sadness felt overwhelming and contributed to our sense of life being out of control.

We feel vulnerable due the financial climate in our community and country. The Zeitgeist of the country is nervous and frustrated at the polarization of our politicians and their inability to resolve our challenges.

Israel is more isolated than ever. Peace seems so distant.

We felt vulnerable in the wake of Hurricane Irene and other natural phenomenon.

The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 and heightened security alert remind us that the war on terror endures. This past summer’s horrific murder of 8 year old Leiby Kletsky on his way home from day camp shook our sensibilities to the core.

Yes – this year we do feel vulnerable.

This year, we feel and know the notion of Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment. How are we to deal with it? How do we grapple with the uncertainty, yet grow from it?

It is possible to feel paralyzed by the fear. We feel like the victim of external circumstances beyond our control. We feel helpless.

Yet, embedded within today, the Jewish New Year is an approach to face life’s challenges and transcend them. Judaism teaches us the concept of constructive vulnerability.

The day is not only a day of judgment, but also a day celebrating the rebirth of the world. A day of hope and possibility.

Judaism teaches that the two themes can not only co-exist, but must. Life’s disappointments can be the seeds to realize our dreams.

In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, we can transform a life of fate into one of destiny.

Fate results from a belief that human beings are scripted and have no choice. Destiny … is the product of a belief that we are always in control of our actions. What we become will be determined by what we do and how we transcend the challenges and grow from them.

The Torah teaches us to choose life. Even when faced with adversity, we are called upon to transform the feeling of helplessness into hope.

The challenges of the past year are in reality opportunities to enrich three areas of our lives.

We can grow from our experiences, rediscover G-d in our lives and be motivated to do good!

First, God can use the failures or disappointments to help us grow. As stated in the Torah, G-d tests Abraham to unlock his potential. We exercise to strengthen our bodies and G-d challenges us to expand our souls.

When we teach children to walk, we step back…and allow them to fall so they will learn how to stumble and get up and ultimately walk on their own.

Two years ago, Chris Downey had just started a promising architectural job at a successful design firm. A few weeks after he took the job, he noticed that there was something wrong with his vision. The doctors told him he had a tumor wrapped around his optic nerve that required immediate surgery. After the surgery he could see with blurred sight; five days later everything went dark. Downey had become permanently blind.

Downey tried to maintain his architectural work, but he couldn’t read the plans or use the design software. Initially, Downey’s limitations jeopardized his job, until he found a blind computer scientist who had devised a way to read tactile architectural plans. Much to his surprise, Downey discovered that his blindness actually gave him a unique way to “observe” interior spaces—not with his eyes, but with his fingers. As one of the company vice presidents would later say, “At first I thought, Okay, this is going to be a limitation. But then I realized that the way he reads drawings is … the way we experience space.”

Downey is now able to use his fingers to “walk” through a space and “view” it from a different (and sometimes a better) perspective. Due to his blindness, he can also envision new possibilities for the creative use of space. As a result, his limitations, or weaknesses, have become gifts and strengths—not only for himself, but also for his community.

The Midrash tells us that every blade of grass has an angel that whispers to it ‘Grow, Grow’. There is also an angel that tells us every Rosh Hashanah, “Grow, Grow”.

Sometimes G-d may just tap us on our shoulders with this call.

I am sure many of us have experienced moments when we hear exactly what we need to hear to get us through a tough time or circumstance. G-d does not speak to us like he communicated to Moses at Sinai, but through people we meet and conversations we conduct. He peers from behind the veil at moments of vulnerability and pushes us to be our best.

Sometimes there are major circumstances such as blindness that a person has to overcome. Other times the challenges may be the everyday tendencies to live in ease.

This past summer, G-d tapped me on the shoulder…..and called to me to Grow!

I was spending the weekend in West Orange, New Jersey, with my sister and her family. While in shul on Shabbat morning, I was approached by the long-time chair of the adult education committee who knew me from my early years as assistant rabbi to share a Dvar Torah on Shabbat afternoon. I hesitated as after all, I was on vacation. I told him I would let him know by the end of davening. As we approached musaf, I told him I would take him up on his offer, knowing that I had a meaningful idea to share. Within 30 seconds, I was tapped on the shoulder. A fellow sitting behind me in services asked me if I knew the source of the following story in the Talmud…

A man who had a beautiful voice was asked to sing in the Temple. He refused the invitation. He had sung before, his voice was sore and he did not feel up to it. The story continues that G-d was disappointed in the man, since he was given a talent by the Almighty and when called to sing and harness his gift, he demurred. I did not know the source of this story off hand, but I did realize that G-d had just spoken to me.

G-d pushed me to be my best. When this past year has G-d pushed you?

We do not look for challenges but finding the strength to reframe and grow through them is our first way to confront the vicissitudes of life.

Second, Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the power of rediscovering G-d in our lives.

The major theme of the holiday is coronating of G-d as King. Every morning, we offer a blessing that G-d guides our footsteps. It is our belief in his presence that gives us the fortitude to endure and transcend life’s challenges. However, Rosh Hashanah is about filling up our G-d reservoir.

The truth is we can only find ways to grow in tough times if we have a constant relationship with G-d. Think of life as a journey. It has peaks and valleys. Ups and Downs. There are moments when G-d is crystal clear such as the birth of a child, a celebration and there are moments when G-d seems hidden and we walk in the valley of the shadow of death. How do we find G-d in the valley?

We will only find G-d in the valley if we fill up our souls with G-d every day of our lives. We develop a relationship of trust. I know G-d has been there for me every day so even when he is not so clear, he must not abandon me.

In truth, G-d is everywhere. The miracles abound. The concept of reciting 100 blessings a day reinforces this idea. This year, add one blessing to your daily repertoire. One daily affirmation of G-d in your life. Choose one and choose life.

I love looking up at the stars on a dark clear night. When I come home, I pause for a few moments on my lawn to gaze at the stars and meditate on the grandeur of G-d in Heaven. I could be anywhere…even in the middle of Stamford and dressed in a suit. For a few minutes, I am reinvigorated and transported to a different world.

We grow from our experiences. We rediscover G-d in our lives. Finally, we all must be inspired to do good.

G-d counts on us to transform our fate into destiny.

There is an ancient idea in Jewish mysticism that the challenges each generation confronts are intended to unlock specific sparks of holiness in the world. We cannot control the world around us…but we can transform it one step at a time.

In reality, it starts with a small gesture…a minor move to uplift the world.

I am reminded of a story of a young woman who upon traveling to Israel lost her luggage including numerous items she brought for other people. Upon entering the taxi when she landed in Israel, it was clear to the driver she was distraught. Sensing her despondence, he told her “it will be ok, we are all family here, and we all look out for each other.” While he did not magically find her luggage, he lifted her spirits. He did not solve her problem but gave her hope.

In relationship to Israel, it may be one call…This past week I was in Washington and met with Senator Blumenthal. I shared with him the story of a small gathering of Zionists in the 1930’s in Poland. Zev Jabotinsky was the speaker and due to other events on the same evening there were only six people in the room. Nevertheless, he spoke with passion and purpose. One of the attendees was Menachem Begin who credits this speech with solidifying his commitment to Zionist causes. He later became the Prime Minister of Israel. I heard two days later, the Senator delivered an impassioned statement in support of Israel on the Senate floor. We never know who is in the room and how we can have an impact…we never know how we can transform fate into destiny.

How do we, this year, face the challenges of our generation? We emulate the Almighty. As he is here for us, we are called upon to be there for others.

This past year a member of our shul who is unemployed and struggling financially visited me in my office. He was looking for an ear, advice and hopefully a lead for a job. I often try to pass along a resume to someone in our community who may be able to help. The fellow asked me a question that took me aback but served a wakeup call. He told me, “I would bet there is a member in our shul that can help me find a job or introduce me to a lead”. He was right…

Looking around the room today…I do not know what job possibilities exist in this room, who does what professionally and could possibly provide a lead…But why shouldn’t we be more proactive…what if we were to create a mechanism in our shul to organize and share information and help our community. The greatest act of Tzedakah is to find someone a job. We can and must do more…

Thank G-d, we are a warm and welcoming community. We help organize meals for people during shiva, after birth or other times of need and we deliver Shabbat Shalom hospital packages. Each of us needs to think about how we can emulate G-d and lift people’s spirits.

Let us never forget that Rosh Hashanah is not only a day of judgment but a day of rebirth. Next year will be better because we will be better and we will declare, as Abraham declares to G-d – Here I am – ready to serve you and mankind.

The challenges of this past year are opportunities for Growth, G-d and Goodness.

The stirring words of Isaiah read on the morning of Yom Kippur embody this message and our mission.

Share your bread with the hungry.
Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your house.
When you see them naked, clothe them;
And from your own flesh and blood don’t hide yourself.

Then your light will burst through like the dawn;
Then when you need healing it will spring up quickly;
Then your own righteousness will march ahead to guard you.
And a radiance from G-d will reach out behind to guard you.
Then, when you cry out, G-d will answer;
Then, when you call, God will say: “Here I am!”

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