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 Repentance, 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.