Just as we reached unetaneh tokef on Yom Kippur – that prayer in which calls out desperately “who will live and who will die”- Rabbi Mark received a text from his brother that his niece and nephew had been in that synagogue in Halle, Germany. Some had known about the attack, and some hadn’t. Our community responded with an audible gasp. And then we prayed on.
The unetaneh tokef prayer is unlike most of our liturgy. It lifts the veil between life and death and embraces the mortal fear of what little control we really have. It’s not that the prayer shows us our limitations. We already know them, especially when working a program of recovery. The prayer names the fear that comes when we don’t also remember how powerful we are.
We are powerful when we choose how to respond to our limitations. When we don’t allow fear to dictate our actions, and instead acknowledge the fear, and see too that there is more to us than fear, then we are powerful. When we heard about Halle, Beit T’Shuvah responded with the prayer that has stretched across thousands of years: Adonai, Adonai, El rahum v’hanun [God of Compassion and Mercy]. We may be fearful, and we are powerfully choosing compassion. We call on compassion not only for us, not only for Jewish people and people threatened by violence anywhere, but even for the people who perpetrate it. This is our power is the face of powerlessness.
In Ha’azinu, Moses faces his looming death, his powerlessness. Earlier in Devarim, Moses resists. He tries to persuade God to let him live and to see the land of Israel: “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan” (3:25).
Midrash – rabbinic story – goes further:
“Master of the World, after I have worn myself out in service, You tell me, ‘The time is drawing near for you to die (Devarim 31:14)?!’ ‘I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of Adonai (Psalm 118:17).’
To which God replies: ‘You cannot, because this is the fate of all human beings (Kohelet 12:13)’ (Devarim Rabbah 11:8).”
And now, in Ha’azinu, when Moses surrenders to the nearness of his death, he can choose how he responds to it. He proclaims the works of Adonai, and warns the people to remain in Covenant with God, to ask our elders about God in their lives, to carry on from generation to generation. The song includes warning and anger and love. It is a song about relationship, and the cost of living without relationship: the isolation, the destruction with which addicts and their families are all too familiar.
Only in acceptance, in surrender to that which is firmly beyond his control, can Moses choose his response: he can be the prophet he has been since Egypt – his authentic self. Only when we surrender, acknowledge our limitations, can we choose how we respond – even with compassion to those who would harm us.
Surrender is hard. We think control, even false control, can keep us safe. But it can’t. An assault on a synagogue, disease, addiction – they show us our limitations.
In recovery, we know our limitations – we’ve learned them the hard way. How we respond to them – that is our power.