One day, towards the end of my senior year in rabbinical school, I had an unpleasant encounter with another student. A session of my senior seminar led by Rabbi Bill Lebeau ended and everyone quickly picked up their bags for lunch. A fellow student in the class, Jodie, put on her huge backpack (it must’ve weighed 50 pounds!); she turned quickly to leave and struck me with her bag.
And I mean she really clocked me – she knocked me over! I got up and said: “Hey, Jodie, be careful!”
She turned around and cursed at me.
I was taken aback. I had never had such an interaction in all my years in rabbinical school.
While I had assumed she had hit me unintentionally, it was her strong words that hurt.
That afternoon I happened to be having a meeting with Rabbi Lebeau and I shared with him what had happened. I was expecting him to tell me how right I was to feel wronged and how wrong she was. I hoped he would tell me that he would speak with her and ask her to apologize to me.
Instead, he made a different suggestion.
“Dahveed (like my parents, he always calls me by my Hebrew name), Dahveed, why don’t you ask her to lunch?”
“Yes, why don’t you ask her to have lunch with you and talk it through?”
“Really? You think I should ask her to lunch?”
“You think that instead of her reaching out to me and apologizing, you want me to make myself vulnerable and ask her to lunch to talk this through?”
He nodded in affirmation.
* * *
Being vulnerable is not easy. In this case, I would have to gather the gumption to ask her to lunch. What if she said no? What if she laughed at me? What if she made another rude remark?
* * *
People do not like to be vulnerable. It is related to shame and fear – it is the fear of disconnection. As human beings, we are wired to be social creatures that connect with each other and when those connections break down, we feel badly.
Vulnerability is taking a risk – taking a chance we will be seen, that the real us will be seen. That we will be seen for who we are. And that can make us scared.
Sometimes, we do not think that we are worthy. If people see who we really are, then they will not want to be in connection with us.
The feeling that we are not worthy is common. We are not good enough. We are not smart enough. We are not thin enough.
Brené Brown, a researcher who has studied this topic, claims that the core feeling is vulnerability. But, she writes: “what makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.”
While people yearn for connection, it is not that easy to have a deep connection with someone else. It requires allowing ourselves to be seen. Brown “encourages people to take off our masks, have the courage to be imperfect, the strength to love ourselves first, and the guts to let go of who we think we should be to become who we really are.”
* * *
This morning we began the fourth book of the Torah – the book of B’midbar. When people ask me about this book, I tell them this is the book of grumbling; this is the book of complaining.
And you thought that just happened in shul??
No, we’ve been good at this for thousands of years!
But this is also a book about leadership and human interactions. We learn about how to cope with complaints, how to deal with new situations and how to grow. Moshe and the Israelites grow tremendously through the book of B’midbar.
This is a book filled with stories of connection and disconnection: this morning’s parashah with its census of the community, the different perspectives when the land is scouted, Korah’s attempted mutiny against Moshe, and Aaron and Miriam teaming up against their brother. We learn how to shape a community, how to live in a group and how to function together. The Israelites’ journey was intended to transform them from a group of slaves to a full-fledged people ready for the challenges ahead.
But one of the keys to all this is where it occurs.
Where does it occur?
B’midbar. In the wilderness.
B’midbar Sinai. In the wilderness of Sinai.
This week’s parashah opens with these words – that God speaks to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai. It is interesting to note the connection between this portion about the Israelites in the wilderness and Sinai itself – Sinai, which refers to God’s revelation.
When our sages set up the reading of the Torah, they designed it so that this week’s parashah: B’midbar, in the wilderness, is always read before Shavuot, the festival that commemorates God’s revelation at Sinai. They wanted to emphasize and remind us that God’s revelation occurs in the wilderness.
First, this was to remind us that the Torah’s teachings are universal in their overall thrust. While they may have been given to the Jewish people at Sinai, the Torah was not given in Jerusalem or the land of Israel, but in the wilderness to remind us that its teachings are for all.
Second, revelation and the Israelites’ journey occur in the midbar, in the wilderness, a place of transformation.
What do we know about the wilderness? The midbar is a difficult place – there is little water and food, the temperature varies from fairly cold at night to incredibly hot in the day. There are few people and almost no resources.
Living in the wilderness or the desert, is dangerous. We are not protected; we are exposed.
We are vulnerable.
But, we know that the wilderness can be transformative. Moshe is shepherding his flocks through the wilderness when he encounters the burning bush and God’s presence.
Moshe is alone with God’s presence again on the top of Mount Sinai when God reveals God’s self.
Later in Jewish history, it is Elijah/Eliyahu who journeys into the wilderness where he experiences God and “the still, small voice.”
There is something about the wilderness – the quiet, the expanse, the emptiness, that allows us to turn inward.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker, an 18th century Hasidic rebbe, taught the following about this opening verse of our parashah: “Only a person who is willing to make nothing of himself, who thinks of himself, as a desert, is worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on him, and of attaining the true light of Torah.”
According to the Kotzker, we have to practice self-negation to make ourselves like a desert and then, we are ready to be filled with God’s Presence.
This perspective has resonated with me for years. In fact, I gave my senior sermon fifteen years ago about this interpretation.
But Brené Brown’s ideas have given me pause. She disagrees with the Kotzker, claiming that we should not negate our egos too much. In order to feel connection, we need to feel our own sense of worthiness.
A la Hillel’s: “im ein ani li, mi li – if I am not for myself, who am I,” we must first appreciate who we are and our own gifts.
Brown uses the word courage – we should tell our stories courageously. She explains that “courage made its way into the English language from Latin – the word “cour” meaning heart and so courage meant to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
“[We need] courage to be imperfect. [We need] compassion to be kind to ourselves first and then to others because, as it turns out, we cannot practice compassion with other people unless we treat ourselves kindly.
“[We need] connection as a result of authenticity. [We need] to be willing to let go of who we think we should be in order to be who we are.”
That is fundamental. We must be authentic, making ourselves vulnerable in order to have deep connections with others.
We have to fully embrace our vulnerability.
Being vulnerable is not easy, but not terrible. “It is the willingness to say I love you first, the willingness to invest [in] a relationship that may or may not work out,” the willingness to ask someone out on a date or even out to lunch.
* * *
Oh, you might be wondering about what happened between me and Jodie. Well, I always try to listen to my teachers, even if I do not fully appreciate what they are teaching me in the moment.
In this instance, I listened to Rabbi Lebeau and called her up and asked her to lunch. She said yes and we met the following week. We talked and shared. I made myself vulnerable and discussed how hurt I was by her words during the incident with the bag.
She told me about her feelings and we talked it through. She apologized to me and I apologized for the way I spoke to her and we turned a corner in our relationship. While we did not become best friends, I appreciated where she was coming from and I think she did the same about me. There was vulnerability, there was authenticity and there was connection.
I realized that Rabbi Lebeau was not just making a suggestion about Jodie and me, but he was teaching me about how to transform relationships in general.
And it all started by making myself vulnerable.