September 24, 2023
Staring At Our Aron: Emotional Vulnerability and Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur Community Service 5784)
Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Thau
Staring At Our Aron: Emotional Vulnerability and Yom Kippur
Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Thau, Yom Kippur Community Service 5784
“I don’t know if I believe in God, but if I did, I’d be really mad at Him.”
The elderly woman sat across from me in the dim light of what was once a son’s bedroom, but had now been converted into an office. Her voice was soft, but she spoke clearly and articulately. “It’s just not fair,” she explained.
Caroline (not her real name) began tearing up as she described her diagnosis and the opportunities she lost as a result. She told me about the speeches she wanted to give, the books she never got to write. Her regret and her upset and her persistent questions swirled around the Upper West Side apartment.
I was sitting with Caroline through a rabbinical internship with DOROT, a social services organization that works to improve the lives of elderly New Yorkers.
During this internship, I visited older adults in Manhattan and provided spiritual care. I accompanied them through a small sliver of their long lives, often time-traveling with them back to the places they missed, the people they loved, the choices they regretted, and—always—the questions they never stopped asking about God.
As a future rabbi, I wanted to provide comfort, clarity, and answers as my clients grappled with these big theological questions. What role did God have in their illness, in their isolation, in their suffering?
To be honest, though, I had so many of the same questions.
These older adults shared their previously-unvoiced opinions about the Universe, their anger, their secret fears, and their tears.
They opened up—and, in the process, it cracked open my own heart, too.
How can the emotional vulnerability they demonstrated inform our Yom Kippur and inform the people we become in 5784?
On Yom Kippur, we are all invited, even compelled, to crack open our hearts. We explore our doubts, fears, and anger, like Caroline, who wondered whether God was even present enough to blame for her hardships.
Compare this to Roxanne (again, not her real name), who seemed certain that her hardships must have come straight from God. In our first meeting, Roxanne announced, “I have so much emunah—I have so much faith—so why is God doing this to me?”
This religious woman, whose medical and familial issues were often “just too much,” believed that God doles out rewards and punishments in a systematic method; there was a reason God was causing her pain. Despite her emunah, in other words, she must have done something to incite God’s wrath. She dreaded the unidentified sin that may have instigated this Divine ire.
Roxanne was voicing the very quid pro quo relationship we will hear chanted tomorrow morning from Deuteronomy 30. There, God presents the Israelites with a seemingly simple choice: If we do what God wants, we’ll be rewarded. If we do what God doesn’t want, we’ll be punished.
This framework is perhaps best summarized when God decrees, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.”
In other words, the good, the bad, the blessings, the curses—we choose them based on what we do. Our actions dictate our fate.
So, it’s only logical that Roxanne would think that she must have done something bad to have been given a bad lot. She wound up with “curses,” so she must have done something that God didn’t like—right?
We know that isn’t always true: Roxanne’s circumstances likely had nothing to do with angering God.
As another client, whom I’ll call Samantha, aptly put it, “Sometimes you practice a lot, you listen to your coach, and you play well—but you still lose the football game.”
I asked Samantha, “So, what do you do when you lose the football game, even though you did everything right?”
She responded with a subtle smirk and gentle shrug, “You go home and cry.” She chuckled at the simplicity of her answer.
It’s true: We can put in the hours, the blood, the sweat—and, still, we can lose the football game. What a perfect image. Sometimes we really want to “choose life” and we try very hard to get everything right—and then something bad happens that is entirely, inexplicably, exasperatingly outside of our control.
None of us have the same circumstances or struggles as Caroline, Roxanne, and Samantha—but all of us have wrestled with doubt, anger, and sorrow. We, like our High Holiday liturgy itself, have asked poignant, unanswerable questions: Who shall live and who shall die? […] Who by earthquake and who by plague?
Each of us has our own, particular experience—and Yom Kippur forces us to wrestle with where we have missed the mark, and perhaps to reflect on where the Universe has missed the mark towards us.
Yom Kippur, like spiritual care, requires emotional vulnerability.
In fact, I can think of nothing more vulnerable than Yom Kippur, when we not only admit our mistakes, but also intentionally meditate on our mortality.
On Yom Kippur, we go so far as to mimic our own death. We refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, intimacy—all the things that sustain our life. Many of us dress in white, some even dressing in kittels, the very garments in which traditional Jews will, eventually, be buried.
All of this comes to the fore tonight, when we will hear Kol Nidre recited. For so many of us, this haunting melody acts as a palimpsest, onto which every other year is layered and layered again. We are forced to, once again, relive our missteps from this past year and every year prior.
As my teacher Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman taught, this is “a crazy prayer.” The very premise of this text, that “all vows” should be “discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone” suggests an existential insecurity. In his words, the idea of erasing our vows in this way contains the following compelling and vulnerable question: “What if I am really, really as bad as they say?” To paraphrase Rabbi Hoffman’s question, “What if I missed the mark so irrevocably this past year that I need all of my vows to be ‘discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone’?”
As this evocative text is recited, we will empty out the ark behind Cantor Abramson. In Hebrew, this ark is known as aron kodesh, perhaps best translated as “holy cabinet” or “holy closet.” But without its Torah scrolls, suddenly the ark becomes just a plain aron. This word aron might mean “cabinet” or “closet,” but it is actually most often used for a different wooden box: a coffin. During this seminal recitation, then, we are staring at a coffin. We are staring at our own coffin. We are staring at the possibility of our own death.
That is terrifying. That is vulnerable. That is profoundly uncomfortable.
Why would anyone want to participate in such a morbid and macabre ritual?
Put simply: Because reflecting on the uncomfortable, vulnerable, ephemeral, mortal nature of our lives helps us live more intentionally the rest of the year. It is uncomfortable to meditate on our anger, laments, tears, and—most of all—mortality, but we are stronger and more aware from doing so.
I’ve come to think of this spiritual and emotional discomfort through an analogy that makes a lot of sense to me as a yoga teacher and fitness enthusiast. When you’re jumping into an intense workout, you want to feel uncomfortable. You’re doing it right if you’re shaking or panting or feel like you can’t really do this for just one more second. That’s good discomfort; that’s the productive discomfort that tells you you’re getting stronger and empowers you for the rest of the day or week. Then, conversely, there’s pain: The sharp pinch that says, “Take a step back and reevaluate.” Those are distinct feelings. It requires a developed sense of proprioception, of bodily awareness, to know which is which. In a workout, we have to learn how to distinguish between productive discomfort—the shakes and panting that tell us we’re getting stronger—from the dangerous pain—the pinch or crack or pop that tells us to back off.
The same is true here. It’s productive to go somewhere uncomfortable for a bit. Discomfort isn’t the same thing as pain. We can develop our emotional proprioception to learn where such discomfort starts and ends.
And, like with an intense workout, there are ways to make this difficult experience safe.
Yom Kippur gives us two important tools for doing this.
First, we call on each other. We gather together, some of us physically in this room, some of us remotely. Each of us may be experiencing a different emotion at any given time, but all of us are feeling together. It really is like a team sport: Everyone has their own, differentiated position, but all of us move together through this universal experience.
Second, we end with some consolation—an emotional “cool down.” When we swing open up the doors of the ark for Ne’ila in approximately 24 hours, we’ll stare into an aron kodesh restored to its full kedusha. It will no longer be the coffin, but instead the “holy cabinet” that houses our people’s holiest text. In other words, we know that this day is truly only a practice or rehearsal for our death, complete with a scheduled end time.
When we teach ourselves to crack open our hearts enough to become uncomfortable, to grow stronger, and to still stitch ourselves back up again—we can also learn how to harness this uneasiness.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel beautifully explains our impulse to paint over these uncomfortable, raw emotions—and the pressing need to do so on Yom Kippur. He wrote: “Scratch the skin of any person and you come upon sorrow, frustration, unhappiness. People are pretentious. Everybody looks proud; inside he is heartbroken.”
We all know anger like Caroline’s, distress like Roxanne’s, and grief like Samantha’s. Yom Kippur is our yearly opportunity to acknowledge that everyone’s heart has been broken and, maybe, glued back together. Yom Kippur swoops in, once a year, to shake us out of our shells and complacency and remind us that, despite a “pretentious” façade, we are mortal. For Rabbi Heschel, Yom Kippur is exactly the day we need to remember that we all know “sorrow, frustration, unhappiness.”
It would be a great calamity for humanity […] if everybody was an all-rightnik, with an answer to every problem. We have no answer to ultimate problems. We really don’t know. In this not knowing, in this sense of embarrassment, lies the key to opening the wells of creativity.
These Days of Awe remind us, as Heschel so aptly puts it, that “We have no answer to ultimate problems.”
We wish we did; we are embarrassed by our limitations.
But reflecting on this painful reality—that we cannot answer or change “ultimate problems”—can be, in Heschel’s words, “the key to opening the wells of creativity.” Something new and important can come from exploring these unpleasant emotions.
Sometimes we have to let our walls down and let the seams show. Like the older adults with whom I sat, we are induced to dwell in our anger, our fear, and our tears.
There is no better day to do this than on the day of the year when we are made to stare at our mortality—to literally stare at our aron, our coffin—and to think about what we would do differently or what we might give ourselves permission to feel, if only for one day.
By acknowledging the profoundly uncomfortable truth that we don’t have ultimate control, that we might be furious or distressed or heartbroken about what’s happened since the last Kol Nidre—we can engage more deeply with the world as it is, instead of how we wish it would be.
We can let ourselves be changed by that vulnerable experience.
I started to learn this while working with these older adults. No one can make them see or hear or walk better; no one can alleviate their dread about paying for a burial plot; no one can force their children to be religiously observant; no one can answer why God made them sick.
Instead, we can sit in the raw, unfiltered material of their lives.
I learned to honor the humanity and the suffering and the veracity of their experience. They learned for forge their own meaning out of that which so often feels inexplicable.
This Yom Kippur, may we all sit with our own raw, unfiltered material. May we honor the humanity and the suffering and the veracity of our experiences. May we acknowledge our anger, our fear, our tears, however uncomfortable it may feel. May our walls crack just enough for our hearts to grow stronger—strong enough to take on this new year with a renewed purpose and understanding of what it means to choose life.