Posts tagged ‘Yom Kippur’

September 17, 2016

Unprepared and Ready

Not long before my old friend Rube (Rabbi Richard Rubinstein, that is) passed away, I had the privilege of visiting him at his home in Sacramento. He was already in bad shape from the cancer that eventually killed him, but his spirits were remarkably fine, so when he happened to recommend a book to me, I paid attention. The title grabbed my attention too: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew. The subtitle explains that it’s about “The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” and “You are Completely Unprepared” is a sort of unifying theme.

In this book, the Days of Awe comprise the whole season of Teshuvah, Return or shofarRepentance, which culminates in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but this is not a manual on liturgy or customs to help us get ready for the High Holy Days. Rather, Rabbi Lew is telling us that we’ll never get ready; we’ll never be prepared for the central experience of the Days of Awe, which is an encounter with the real and living presence of God. The season of Teshuvah, in Rabbi Lew’s guidebook, begins with Tisha B’Av, the “day when we mourn the fall of the Temple, the day precisely seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah when we begin our preparations for reconciliation with God by acknowledging our estrangement from God.” It’s an estrangement that we can’t fix, says the rabbi, but only recognize, as “we begin to acknowledge the fact that we are utterly unprepared [there’s that word again] for what we have to face in life.”

Recognizing that we are truly unprepared and empty is inherent to teshuvah, as expressed in the prayer Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King): Ein banu ma’asim, We have no good deeds, or literally no deeds at all, that we can invoke in God’s presence. There is nothing we can say or do in response to his awesome holiness. Recognizing our helplessness, our utter deficit in the presence of God, is essential to genuinely returning to him.

Not long ago, I read another book, A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller. One of the early chapters is  “Learning to be Helpless.” Under the heading, “Prayer = Helplessness,” Miller writes, “Prayer is bringing your helplessness to Jesus,” and then quotes the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: “Prayer is an expression of who we are . . . We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” Prayer isn’t something we do to overcome our helplessness; it is a gift that arises out of the helplessness that will always be with us. But unless we can acknowledge that helplessness, we won’t even want the gift.

Which invokes a third book in my recent reading: God of our Understanding, by Shais Taub, a Chasidic rabbi who is intimately acquainted with addiction and recovery. His subtitle is “Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction,” and Rabbi Taub expounds on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous from the perspective of Torah, beginning with Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or whatever we were addicted to] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” He writes,

The idea of surrender presented in the First Step . . . seems to turn many people off from even giving recovery an honest go. Yet, that’s probably just as well, because the admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not an aspect of recovery—it’s the very basis of it. Nothing else seems to work very well without complete and unconditional capitulation first.


Rabbi Taub is undeniably correct in thinking that surrender is a turn-off to many people in a day that is obsessed with success, techno-mastery, and the elimination of pain and unpleasantness. But what ties these three books together, and ties them all to the Days of Awe, is the notion that this despised reality of helplessness, incompletion, and powerlessness is not limited to addicts, but is part of our humanity. It’s not a problem to overcome, but a platform for genuine spiritual development. The books don’t call on us to recognize our helplessness so that we can fix it, but rather so that we can thereby recognize our dependency on God. We’re not going to return to God only after we solve these problems, but somehow from within them, in the negation of the self-reliance and self-assurance that our secular culture continually seeks to promote. As Rabbi Lew would argue, only when you really get that “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” can you begin to enter the Days of Awe with any kind of authenticity, authenticity that in turn authenticates our whole life with God.

This is a picture of real teshuva—turning away from self and its inevitable outcome, sin, and turning to God. But it’s up to the Christian author, Paul Miller, to put this all into the context of the message of Messiah Yeshua: “The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together.”

Occasionally I’m asked by some Christian friend or another why I, as a follower of Yeshua, continue to keep Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement, when Yeshua has provided atonement once-for-all. Or why we, as Messianic Jews practice the annual confession of sin and appeal for mercy during the Days of Awe, since we’ve already been forgiven through Yeshua’s once-for-all sacrifice. To paraphrase Rabbi Taub, it’s because repentance and forgiveness are not just an aspect of new life in Messiah, but the very basis of it. I’m not accusing my friends of this, but there’s a tendency in the religious world to conform to the values of the dominant secular culture, which in our times includes the value of human competence and sufficiency. Feeling insufficient? God can fix that and send you on your way. But that’s not the gospel. Instead, it says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. We don’t do teshuva once to get into this kingdom, and then leave it at the door. Rather, the continual recognition of our spiritual helplessness and need, paradoxically enough, keeps us spiritually healthy and strong. Perhaps that’s how my friend Rube could seem to be doing fine even as his body was caving in to the ravages of cancer.

I’ve already invoked the traditional prayer, Avinu Malkenu. It’s a powerful assembly of words, set to a haunting melody, especially fitting for the Days of Awe, but bearing truth for every day:

Avinu Malkenu chanenu v’anenu ki ein banu ma’asim, aseh imanu tsedakah v’chesed v’hoshienu.

Our Father, our King!

Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own;

deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.






September 12, 2015

A Yom Kippur warning

This article in the Tablet is sort of a counter-point to my 9/8 blog “Return to me and I will return to you,” but I like it: Talmudic Tale Presents President Obama With a Yom Kippur Warning.

September 16, 2014

“Mistakes were made” and the Day of Atonement

Our chavurah is studying the book of Hebrews together this year and last week, as the High Holy Days were approaching, we came to the section that discusses the ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

With things so arranged, the cohanim go into the outer tent all the time to discharge their duties; but only the cohen hagadol enters the inner one; and he goes in only once a year, and he must always bring blood, which he offers both for himself and for the sins committed in ignorance by the people. (Heb. 9:6–7; all Scripture references CJB)

I’ve read this passage many times, but what caught my eye this year was the phrase “committed in ignorance” (“in error” or “unintentionally” in other translations). Does this mean that on Yom Kippur atonement was only provided for accidental sins? It made me think of today’s practice of saying “mistake” instead of “sin” or “wrong,” like when a public figure is caught red-handed in some transgression and says “I made a mistake.” Or worse, as one of our chavurah members put it, “Mistakes were made.”

So is Hebrews saying that it’s only when someone really did make a mistake, and not when he or she outright sinned, that atonement was provided on Yom Kippur? And if Yom Kippur couldn’t provide forgiveness for all sins, then how can we claim that our Yom Kippur sacrifice, Messiah Yeshua himself, provides atonement for all sins?

September 19, 2011

Non-theoretical truth

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous


When truth encounters the data of our lives, it gives rise to confession.

Truth itself can be pretty abstract, an ideal that dwells apart from our daily lives. But when we let the truth we find in Scripture shine on the details of our thoughts and behaviors, and speak the truth about what we see, truth is anything but abstract. It becomes something solid that works real changes into our lives. Speaking the truth about what we see is called confession, which isn’t a real popular term nowadays, but is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days, Sept. 28–Oct. 8 this year) and an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession of sin is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.

September 4, 2011

Silence, Shofars, and Elul

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).

This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see, but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).

Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?

August 31, 2011

the Hineni hint

We’re in the middle of seven haftarot of consolation, seven readings from Isaiah that take us from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. The haftarah for this week is Isaiah 51:12–52:12 and the haftarah for next week is Isaiah 54:1–10, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to skip right over Isaiah 53 (which begins at 52:13). Those of us who see Isaiah 53 as the greatest portrayal of Messiah Yeshua in the Hebrew Scriptures might be tempted to claim that it was left out of the reading cycle on purpose. But to be fair, there’s another explanation for its absence, since it doesn’t explicitly include the theme of comfort or consolation, or mention the return from exile that’s so prominent in other passages.

In fact, rather than being left out of the haftarah readings, it almost looks like chapter 53 got inserted as a parenthetical statement into the book of Isaiah between this week’s haftarah and next week’s. But, of course, that interpretation misses the point too, a major point that Isaiah is making in the way he composed his prophecy.

The key to this major point is one word, Hineni, which appears at the end of Isaiah 52:6.

August 28, 2011

Focus on one thing

During the month of Elul, Jewish tradition recommends that your take some time each day for cheshbon ha-nefesh, or taking an account of the soul.

All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping let every man sit and look into his soul, and search his deeds, that he may make confession. (S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, citing Maharil)

Alan Lew notes the same idea in his book, This is Real and You are Totally Unprepared. (My good friend Rube–Richard Rubinstein–recommended this book on the High Holidays to me last year, not long before he died of cancer, so it’s especially meaningful to me.)

All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we … must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgment, to engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this.

Rabbi Lew goes on to give some practical advice.