High Holidays

Voices from the field

A Sense of Awe

By Shalom Orzach

How can we turn our thinking about the Days of Awe, or yamim noraim (ימים נוראים), into an opportunity to revel in the awe of this special time of year? What does it mean for something to be truly awe full (or filled with awe)? 

When researchers and policy makers are telling us that conversations around Israel are crisis driven and communal leaders hesitate to include “politically loaded” issues in their writings or sermons, we desperately need to celebrate and be enriched by these days of awe. We should embrace the complexity within Jewish education – within all education – rather than shy away from it; it is the essence of what makes our pursuit of truth and meaning so humbling and compelling. Israel being complex is not awful but full of awe – awe that ought to reinvigorate our sense of wow as opposed to woe.

In God in Search of Man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “…Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding,” a reference to the verse from Psalms  ('ראשית חכמה יראת ה: Understanding and wisdom rests on being in Awe of G-d).

Heschel’s other explaination of awe in his article Radical Amazement is also particularly appropriate at this time of year. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the world as if it were for the first time; consider the prayer היום הרת עולם: Today the world was born. In the article, he writes, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” This surely must also be the intention of the Days of Awe: to reclaim our amazement, to rebalance our role and rule in the world to one that imbues humility.

Much of what we try to model and experience through this profound period can inform our behavior and outlook for the year ahead. The rituals of the holidays – the listening to the shofar, the stirring melodies of prayers – encourage us to go beyond simple resolutions. They encourage us to focus on real deeds and behaviors that affect the heart and mind; experiential education at its foundation. How can our relationship and engagement with Israel be impacted by these opportunities?