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Our Vulnerability Is Our Strength

In Colleyville, Texas, this past weekend, Malik Faisal Akram exploited Congregation Beth Israel’s desire to welcome and help those less fortunate. Posing as a homeless person, he was invited inside and offered a cup of hot tea before holding those in the synagogue hostage for nearly 12 hours.

Many community leaders have responded since then by discussing how to increase security measures around and within synagogues in order to restore a feeling of safety for the congregations inside. But security expert Juliette Kayyem noted that this natural impulse could easily backfire, “For a Jewish congregation to become a fortress,” she wrote in The Atlantic,” would seem too militaristic, too aggressive. To make a soft target harder would more likely change the target than deter the attacker.”

Kayyem’s point resonates among those tasked with balancing between a congregation’s desire to feel safe in its house of worship and its ability to welcome a stranger inside for tea. In the end, Kayyem concludes, if a synagogue cannot welcome that stranger, it has lost something compelling about itself.

But vulnerability is not just a worthwhile tradeoff to create a warm, welcoming space. On a deeply profound level, vulnerability is important and powerful – in and of itself. Kayyem alluded to this when she wrote: “But what if the essence of a place is that it is defenseless?…What if vulnerability is its unstated mission?” This works in two ways, each reinforcing the other:

First, Dr. Brene Brown’s popular TED Talk focused on her finding that a common trait among people who have strong senses of love and belonging is the willingness to bring all of themselves, without hiding their perceived imperfections and failings, to their relationships and communities. In other words, the ability to connect to others is directly linked with the courage to be vulnerable. This TED Talk has been viewed over 56 million times – clearly, Dr. Brown has struck a chord.

Second, prayer itself. The religious act of turning to God is, foremost, about recognizing our essential vulnerability in the world. It is also about stepping away from the defenses and deflections we put up around ourselves. The Hebrew word “li’hitpalel,” which means “to pray,” literally means to self-judge, or to self-evaluate. Standing before God means facing ourselves honestly for who and what we really are. It means being open. It means being vulnerable.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, describes the Israelites arriving at Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. The rabbis of the Midrash explain that this happened in the wilderness to illustrate how the teachings of the Torah are there for anyone who desires them – just as the wilderness is ownerless, accessible to anyone who wishes to travel through it.

But the openness of the wilderness also meant vulnerability. As the Israelites camped around Mount Sinai, they were exposed on all sides to attack – just as the Amalekites had ambushed them at the end of last week’s portion.

Perhaps the Israelites, a ragtag collection of newly freed slaves, were able to refashion themselves into a nation in covenant with God not despite their vulnerability in the wilderness, but because of it.

Reinforced windows, security cameras, and armed guards – all of these may provide increased measures of physical security, but, as hard as it might be to imagine after last weekend, sometimes a synagogue can be TOO safe. In fact, just the mindset of trying to eliminate every weakness, fill every gap, and be 100% insulated, 100% protected can be spiritually stultifying.

Because communities are built and relationships are formed out of vulnerability. Spiritual growth happens from places of vulnerability. The reality that attending a synagogue is always at least a little dangerous also means that a synagogue is a place where we cannot be self-assured or complacent.

Instead, a synagogue is where we learn to live with vulnerability – and, perhaps therefore, where we can openly and fully face ourselves and each other, in the presence of God.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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