As If It’s All Happening on An Airplane: Vulnerability and the High Holy Days

I believe there are some of you here who are in the dating world, hoping to meet someone special.  I thought of you when I read a recent column by Emma Court in the NY Times called, “A Millenial’s Guide to Kissing.”

It begins: “When a total stranger kissed me under the artificial lights of an airplane cabin somewhere above international waters, my first thought was of the Orthodox woman sitting to my left…The kiss, coming out of nowhere, had turned me into the heroine of a bad romance novel: heart fluttering…those blue fleece blankets had never been so sexy….Between us sprang the kind of instant intimacy fostered by open personalities in tight quarters. We spoke in spurts of our trips and what we had done during the days spent in Israel…

[Once back on the ground], I hugged him a brisk no-nonsense goodbye. We didn’t exchange numbers…… Would things have been different, if one of us had had the courage, to say something other than goodbye before heading to our trains? I only realized later why it had been such an oddly familiar feeling: My generation treats every liaison as if it is happening on an airplane. Our story wasn’t so different, after all. I wonder what we collectively lose as we try so hard not to care. We pretend that it doesn’t matter, that we have time, that because we are young we are invulnerable.” 

The columnist’s warning to her generation might challenge all of us, no matter the generation, to ask ourselves: When do I treat my relationships with my loved ones, my community and myself as if they are happening on an airplane?  When do I flee from my vulnerabilities and pretend it doesn’t matter?

I found it revealing to think about the airplane story through the lens of one of this week’s thoughtful comments on the Rodeph Shalom blog, where we are posing a weekly question that relates to a text from our new High Holy Day prayerbook Mishkan Hanefesh.  Responding to a question about vulnerability, our congregant remarked: “Without vulnerability, there is no trust, no real opportunity to connect with others.”

Another of our congregants who commented on the blog conversation this week, reminded us to be in touch with our empathy when we are tempted to judge one another.   With loved ones, potential loved ones, or a community, trust — sometimes a leap of trust– might bring us to take a risk. A friend of mine recently moved to a new city with her family.  Her husband is a rabbi and they are now introducing themselves to his new congregation.  Such a time can be intimidating in the best of circumstances.  But my friend faces an additional challenge.  Four months ago her beloved father lost his battle with mental illness and committed suicide.  And so, just at the time when she is expected to make a good impression, she is suffering grief.  My friend made a courageous decision.  She and her husband wrote a letter to his new congregation to explain that they were meeting her at a time of deep sorrow.  Putting their faith and trust in the community, they shared their vulnerability.  There may some who judged the letter, but my friend is hearing from those reaching out in empathy, compassion, understanding and presence.  By honestly sharing, it may bring them into closer relationship with their community.

Especially in this month of Elul, leading us to the Days of Awe, we consider not only the vulnerable truth we might share with other individuals or with a community.  We think also of the truths we need to face within ourselves.  This week I had a conversation with our wonderful Caring Community chairperson Betsy Fiebach and with a local rabbi, Brian Beal, who has done extensive work involving addiction in the Jewish community.  As we discussed our developing Caring Community opportunities at RS, the conversation turned to theology and the 12 Steps of recovery.  Rabbi Beal reminded us that the 12 Steps Higher Power is open to whatever religion or God idea one might bring to the process.

Our conversation left me thinking about the need for the Higher Power in recovery.  Whether one believes in a biblical all-powerful God, a Buberian God of relationships, or just a vague sense of something that connects you to a whole that is greater than yourself–the point is not the type of higher power, just insert the theology of your choice and it works. The point is that *I* am NOT the higher power.  I end here.  My control is limited.  Even, as another congregant put it in a blog comment, even despite all of my planning…

There, in the theology of recovery is the core of the UneTane Tokef prayer we recite during the High Holy Days.  I am not the higher power.  I end here.  My control is limited.  I am vulnerable.

Our new High Holy Day machzor includes this beautiful reading by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, incorporating a portion of the Unetane Tokef prayer as well as his own commentary:

“On Rosh HaShanah it is written;

On the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed…

Who will live and who will die;

Who will reach the ripeness of age,

Who will be taken before their time;

Who by fire and who by water…

Who by earthquake and who by plague…

Who will rest and who will wander;

Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled…

I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is “me.” Who will live and who will die? I will. Who at their end and who not at their end? Me. Like every human being, when I die it will be at the right time, and it will also be too soon. Fire, water, earthquake, plague? In my lifetime, I’ve been scorched and drowned, shaken and burdened, wandering and at rest, tranquil and troubled. That has been my life’s journey. Of course I prefer to deflect this truth. I would much prefer to let the prayers talk about someone else, perhaps the fellow in the next row. It has taken a lifetime to reveal that defense as a lie. The prayer is not about someone else. It’s about me. It is a frightfully succinct summary of my existence. So now I read it again, but in the first person, and it makes me shiver. I will live and I will die, at the right time and before my time, I will wander but I might yet find rest, I will be troubled but I may achieve tranquility. This is the central truth of the High Holy Days. This is what makes them Yamin Nora’im, days of terror. We are vulnerable.”

Although sometimes scary, our vulnerability need not be a bad thing– it has the potential to bring us into deeper relationship.

As we approach the Days of Awe, this is our time to become most in touch with our vulnerability, in our relationships with loved ones, with community and within our own souls.  Will we be courageous enough to lay down our defenses, to stop fleeing as if it’s all happening on an airplane?  In our relationships with our loved ones, our community and with ourselves, may we reach inward and may we reach outward, in trust.