Helpless but Ready


Shabbat Shuva, Hosea 14:2–10

Rabbi Russ Resnik

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 recommended a book, 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.

Rabbi Lew doesn’t give us a manual on liturgy or customs to help us get ready for the High Holy Days. Rather, he’s 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. Rabbi Lew tells us, “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 teshuva, repentance. As we say in the words of 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 this helplessness, our utter deficit in the presence of God, is essential to genuinely returning to him.  

This Shabbat, falling between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is Shabbat Shuva, named from the words in Hosea: “Shuva Yisrael, Return O Israel, to Adonai your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2 [1]).

When the prophet calls Israel to return to Hashem, he reflects the longing of the Lord himself, who says “Return to me and I will return to you” (Mal. 3:7). As our Messiah tells us, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns to God from his sins than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent (Luke 15:7, CJB).

Since Hashem doesn’t just allow us to return to him, but rejoices in our return, the prophet makes sure we know how to do it: “Take words with you and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:3[2]). But wait! Can it really be that easy? We don’t have to pay for our sins or prove we’ll never do them again? We just bring words of confession and return to God. And this is the point—to renounce our self-sufficiency and all the external props that we might employ to straighten out our lives:

“Assyria will not save us.
We will not ride on horses,
and we will never again say, ‘Our god,’
    to the work of our hands,
    for with You, orphans find mercy.’” 14:4 [3]

A few years after Rube introduced me to This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, another friend recommended A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller. In one of the early chapters, “Learning to be Helpless,” Miller writes, “Prayer is bringing your helplessness to Jesus.” He quotes 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, then, 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 Hasidic rabbi. 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.

It’s true, of course, 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 Shabbat Shuva, is this notion that this despised reality of helplessness, incompletion, and powerlessness is not limited to addicts, but part of our humanity. It’s not just a factor to overcome, but the 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 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.

This is a picture of real teshuva—turning away from self and its inevitable outcome, sin, and turning to God.

As Messianic Jews, we participate in Shabbat Shuva and the Days of Awe along with the whole Jewish community, even though we believe we’ve already been forgiven through Yeshua’s once-for-all sacrifice. Why? Solidarity with all Israel is sufficient reason, but there’s more. 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. The religious world is always tempted 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, continually recognizing our spiritual helplessness and need, paradoxically enough, keeps us spiritually healthy and full. Perhaps that’s how my friend Rube could seem to be doing well even as his body was collapsing before the ravages of cancer.

We can’t fix our own backsliding, so the Lord promises to heal it instead:

I will be like dew for Israel.
He will blossom like a lily,
and thrust out his roots like Lebanon.
His tender shoots will spread out.
His beauty will be like an olive tree
and his fragrance will be like Lebanon. (Hosea 14:6–7 [5–6])

May it be so for us and the whole house of Israel in this new year!

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life Version. Numbers in brackets reflect verse numbers in Christian translations.


Russ Resnik