Do we bury them like sacred texts?
Do the stories turn into seeds underground?
If the seed splits like the Red Sea, and a stem starts to grow, where does it go
If it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing,
If it never blooms?
Where do untold stories go? I’ve been not-asking this question for years in various community leadership roles. Because it’s not about me. We talked about it at DLTI. As a leader, I “tell the stories that communities need to hear, instead of the stories that I want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s more than an honor. It’s a blessing to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch and crack and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow.
I have built a life out of soil and I’m good at it. I am soil when I facilitate grief groups, when I teach new Hillel professionals, and when I serve as a coach and mentor. I always thought that I make great soil because I am comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, in the past few months I’ve learned that while I’m very open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. I’m open about things that others feel vulnerable sharing, but my stories are highly curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they might play in others’ stories. I share my experiences when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s not vulnerability.
At DLTI last week, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In the labs, our teachers offered feedback and guidance on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell and showed a hint of their own stem. During the labs, our teachers showed us how to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, how to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders ARE the soil, but we are also IN the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but just a little more than I’ve let on in the past.
In a conversation with one of my beloved teachers on Friday, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try out this whole vulnerability thing. There was going to be an open mic night on Saturday, and I planned to tell a story that is vulnerable for me. The story I shared last time we were all together, at Smicha Week, was a little bit vulnerable, but it’s a story I’ve told before, on stage and on live radio. And its vulnerability is cloaked in humor so that I don’t really have to feel the raw seed of the story in public. This time, I would stretch, and tell a story that has been longing for soil. I’d tell a story that truly makes me feel vulnerable.
I practiced throughout the day, and on Saturday night, I was ready. I told a few friends about my plan. I was going to be brave. I was nervous, but I was ready.
And then, every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split open their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and the most beautiful, vulnerable stories were blooming all over the sanctuary. However, I noticed that the kahal was starting to feel a little worn out from all the emotion – a few people left (it was late at night at the end of an exhausting week), and those who were left in the room looked drained from the heaviness. Everyone else’s stories until that point had been just right, but another heavy story would have been too much in that moment. Lightness was necessary. I pulled a friend outside for a reality check to make sure I was reading the room correctly. He agreed with me. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell, because the story I wanted to tell was really, really dark.
When it was my turn, I told the kahal that I had planned on telling a tough story, but that I felt like we could use some simcha (joy), so I was going to tell a different one. I shared a story I wrote a long time ago that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift them up. The tone was right on. And afterward, my teacher congratulated me: “That was davvenen leadership.” It was, and I was proud.
…until I was sad. Devastatingly, crushingly sad. I figured I was just tired. It was a long day at the end of a long week. Where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me. The seed was still there, ready to burst, the stem threatening to crack everything open. I remembered all the moments in previous leadership roles when I so desperately needed to tell my story, and chose not to. When I felt the tears welling up during a group song circle, I realized that 1am was not a great time to analyze my feelings, and I decided to go to bed. A friend stopped me on the way to my room and offered to listen, but I was too drained to tell the story in the moment. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.
I knew something was up when I didn’t feel better in the morning. I went to shacharit (morning) services and felt tears pulsing behind my eyes the entire time. A friend approached me during breakfast and asked how I was doing. I said that I was having a tough morning and was going to sit in the sanctuary for awhile to cool off. She offered to join me, with no pressure to share anything. I said yes.
When we were alone, she asked what was wrong and I decided to explain everything. She acknowledged that I did make the right choice in the moment, and then pointed out that this was a different moment. She asked if she could hear the story I didn’t tell the night before. At first I hesitated, but I saw that she meant it. So I let the seed crack open.
Once I started talking, I stopped crying. When I finished, I felt lighter. Another friend had joined us in the meantime, and he offered to hear it too. I shared the story again. The stem began to bud. My friend pointed out that if I felt lighter every time I told it, it was a good thing I didn’t tell it all at once. Now I could experience the lightness and the bloom over and over again. I had no idea how much I needed to tell that story, but I’m so grateful that I finally did.
I still think this is a story I’d like to tell the kahal at some point, because it’s part of who I am, and I want my sacred community to know about this part of my journey. But my holy teachers were right about reading the room and responding. And in the meantime, I learned an important lesson about vulnerability and openness. Next time, I’ll plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” I was open when I chose to share a lighter experience on Saturday night. I was vulnerable when I shared with my friends the next day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to do both, but I’m learning every day.
Where do untold stories go? Do we bury them like sacred texts? Do the stories turn into seeds underground? As leaders, we have countless opportunities to lean into vulnerability. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I learned, even soil needs soil sometimes.