Yom Kippur Evening 5780: The Knower of Secrets

Over half-a-million secrets.

It began nearby in Germantown MD, as a group art project. Frank Warren used his home address and invited people to write him their secrets, on a post card, anonymously.

He only had two rules: The secret must be true, and, it must be something never revealed to anyone else before. More than half-a-million postcards later – he publishes those secrets on his website: postsecret.com[i] which has over 600 million hits.

Let me share some secrets from Frank Warren’s collection:

“I pee in the shower.”

 “I am sabotaging my husband’s diet.”

 “I want to tell you about my rape so you can know who I really am.”

The secrets range from naughty, sad, funny, raunchy; hopeful, fearful, lustful; and all – every single one – openly vulnerable.

Frank Warren teaches:

“If you keep a secret inside, it feels like a wall that separates us from others. But if we can find the courage, the vulnerability, to share our secrets, those walls become bridges.”

Many of us erect walls in our lives, blocking off our vulnerability from others. All of us have a part of us that wonders – if so-and-so knew something about me – would they still want to be my friend, or love me, or respect me?

In contrast, our father Abraham, the founder of Judaism, sits in an open tent, his life fully open, exposed, revealed, to the world around him. Our Torah stories share with us the good and the bad of Abraham’s life.

He is no saint. We laud his merit, ingenuity and goodness. And – we are privy to his shortcomings, many of which would be considered by most people a Shonda.

Yet in our Torah, Abraham’s secrets are openly displayed for us to wrestle with: a spouse pimping off his wife to kings; a husband and father expelling a concubine and son from his home; and a religious fanatic attempting to murder his other son.

Knowing Abraham’s secrets, exposure to his vulnerabilities, has kept his story compelling for commentators, congregants and rabbis, for millennia.

But would you be comfortable with your life being such an open book, with your most loathsome moments articulated for all to witness? Think of the many celebrities, who struggle with the intrusion of paparazzi and tabloids, detailing and interpreting every minutia of their existence. How would living like that sit with you?

You may recall in 2017 when Anne Hathaway wore a skin-tight dress to the premiere of Les Miserables and accidentally exposed herself. That embarrassing moment was played over and over in the media.

The now out of favor, Matt Lauer, joked on the Today show: “Seen a lot of you lately… you had a little wardrobe malfunction the other night. What’s the lesson to be learned from something like that?”

Anne Hathaway’s response to the inappropriate question would ring true for most of us. She said: “I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another in a vulnerable moment and rather than do the decent thing and delete it, instead sells it.”[ii]

It is natural to not want our tsuris, our secrets, our vulnerabilities, exposed without our assent. You may have had an experience when an intimate detail of your life was shared, and felt uncomfortable with the encroachment. Immediately your walls went up.

In these moments, we identify with the neighbor’s reasoning in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The neighbor with whom Frost rebuilds the wall, insists: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Yet, Robert Frost wonders in his famous poem, whether our walls might also serve to alienate us from one another. Perhaps impervious fences are a hindrance to forming relationship and connection?

Brene Brown, a researcher and vulnerability expert, teaches that we need openings in our human walls for meaningful connection.[iii]  She explains that being vulnerable is not weak. It is an opportunity. It is a worthy risk that demonstrates strength.

Being the first to let down the guard to say “I love you” can result in love; or the first one to say “I am sorry” can result in reconciliation; or being the individual to admit that  you are challenged, is a way to create bonds with others.

C.S. Lewis summarizes it this way: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Frank Warren, the postcard guy, teaches us that the vulnerability of sharing a secret, even anonymously, puts us in touch with the inner essence of self. Remember his words: “if we can find the courage, the vulnerability, to share our secrets, those walls become bridges.”

Our vulnerability is not just a bridge to people. Our vulnerabilities, when shared honestly with ourselves, are a bridge to the Divine.

Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who we study in “Lunch and Learn” says: have faith in the exposure – God is with you.  Reb Nachman teaches: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od: The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the crux of the matter is not to be afraid.”

Perhaps that is what God saw in Abraham and why God chose him. His open tent. His human exposure.

Tonight, we yearn for the ultimate relationship, to connect with the Ultimate One, God, on the narrow bridge of our lives. We may not be willing to be as transparent to others as Abraham, but we do need to open ourselves up as much as we can, to the vulnerable crevices of each of our souls, revealing ourselves to ourselves, and to God.

Our liturgy brings us a list of human foibles to consider. The rabbis called these “vidui”/ “confessionals”.  Our job this day is Cheshbon HaNefesh, accounting for who we are on the outside and the inside.

In our communal recitation: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibarnu Dorfi, Ay, Ay Ay…. in our communal recitation, it is easy, to erect permanent walls and say, these words do not apply to me!

Yet our tradition behooves us to open our hearts. To literally tap our hearts open, into our secret places, to become vulnerable. The words of the Machzor, are our narrow bridges, that we traverse step by step, bravely crossing, as we assess ourselves.

From a different tradition, Reverend Susan Sparks says in an interview:

“I always talk to people about how the church, the sanctuary and the altar are places you need to bring everything. We tend to check ourselves at the door. We think, oh, this is not appropriate, so we hang it up like a coat and bring only a fraction of ourselves to the church. But I tell my congregation that everything is welcome, and actually you need to bring it all in. Whether it’s the fear, the tears, the anger, the resentment, or the laughter, it’s all holy. And unless you bring it in, God can’t heal you.”[iv]

The synagogue, especially on Yom Kippur, is a place where each of us need to bring everything in. Are you ready to sit, your tent flaps open? Are you willing not to be afraid to traverse a narrow bridge? Are you able to expose yourself to yourself, to confess your innermost? To reveal yourself to God, with vulnerability.

Unless you bring all of you here, raw and exposed, you cannot forgive yourself and you cannot create a bridge to the Holy.

Know this in your vulnerability, and exposure, and the revelation of your secrets: God will still be your friend, God will still love you, God will still respect you, whatever.

Something mystical pulls on us and brings us here binding us into a larger crowd than usual. Our Jewish tradition provides us a special blessing for such occasions when seeing a large group. A blessing for us to enter this day of Atonement– this day of At-One-Ment, a day of reuniting all parts of ourselves and connecting with God.

Technically, the Talmud tells us that it is a blessing reserved for a gathering of 600,000 or more people, the number of us that stood at Sinai. The blessing tells us that even in a large crowd, God sees each one of us, and knows and accepts us, for who we are and what is in our hearts.

Let me teach it to you.

It means: Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe: Knower of Secrets.

The words are:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם חכם הרזים

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, chacham harazeem.[v]

Today God, we want to be in touch with ourselves and ultimately, with You.

May we stand together this day, within this holy community, and as individuals. Bringing our all, sharing ourselves, open with our deepest vulnerabilities and our honest confidences.

Let us turn the walls in ourselves into bridges that connect us to the Holy.

Please join me:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם חכם הרזים

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, chacham harazeem.[vi]

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe: Knower of Secrets.


[i] https://postsecret.com/

[ii]https://books.google.com/books?id=D2HWCQAAQBAJ&pg=PT527&lpg=PT527&dq=celebrities+vulnerability+exposed+paparazzi&source=bl&ots=fFng8ipZXM&sig=ACfU3U0vcWWIqbSPyfhJeTewauQFq9Zorg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjlw_r73unkAhWxlAKHX2jCF4Q6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=celebrities%20vulnerability%20exposed%20paparazzi&f=false quote from book The SAGE Guide to Key Issues in Mass Media Ethics and Law by William A. Babcock and William H. Freivogle, pages unknown.

[iii] Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

[iv] https://chreader.org/let-us-laugh-finding-joy-face-cancer/

[v] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/8-jewish-prayers-youve-never-heard-of/

[vi] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/8-jewish-prayers-youve-never-heard-of/

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