We have two terms to describe the season of the Jewish year that will peak in intensity within days. We call it the “High Holidays” and the “Days of Awe” (yamim nora’im). I much prefer the latter term, the Days of Awe – because Judaism doesn’t really have a concept of a holiday being “high.” I’m not even sure how I would explain in Jewish terms what a High Holy Day is.
The concept of Days of Awe, on the other hand, resonates deeply in the Jewish soul. Awe has been an element of Jewish existence from the outset. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that “Ultimate meaning and ultimate wisdom are not found within the world but in God, and the only way to wisdom … is through our relationship to God. That relationship is awe. The beginning of wisdom, says the psalmist, is awe of Adonai. Awe is the perceptual equivalent of climbing to the top of a hill in order to acquire a bird’s-eye view. Awe opens up to us the possibility of attaining the comprehensive perspective that would allow us to see the whole and not just the parts … the forest, and the trees.”
The range of memories, emotions, associations, experiences, sensations that is all part of our existence is impossible to take in all at once … unless we climb to the top of the mountain of awe and attempt to comprehend it through the wider perspective of our relationship with God.
A number of verses in Chapter 19 of Leviticus repeat the following phrase: “You shall be in awe of your God, I am Adonai.” Before each such phrase is a mitzvah that establishes a standard of sensitivity to others: “You shall not defraud your fellow” (Lev. 19:13). “You shall not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old” (Lev. 19:32). In each of these instances, the next words are: “You shall be in awe of your God, I am Adonai.”
The connection between awe and respect for every human being is profound. It is awe, it is knowing the world through the high ground of the perspective of God, that gives us the awareness to cherish every individual human being we encounter.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence.”
With awe as the dynamic of our relationship with God, it is fascinating that the Torah uses the same term for our relationship with our parents – “Each person shall be in awe of his or her mother and his or her father.” As children, it is our parents who have the big picture; it is our parents’ perspective of life and the world that give us a sense of security and a sense of belonging. As small children, we are thrilled to sit on our father’s shoulders and see the world from his towering perspective. As adults, our awe of God can evoke similar feelings of trust and security.
In Deuteronomy 10:12 we read, “And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in His paths and to love Him.”
As much as God commands awe in us, startlingly, God also seeks it from us.
In some contexts, the Hebrew root yod-resh-aleph can mean fear. We see this in Psalm 27, which we recite daily through the season of repentance that began on the first day: “Adonai is my light and my help. Whom shall I fear?” But the Torah uses the same Hebrew verb to exhort us to stand in awe of God, rather than to fear God. As Rabbi Heschel points out, “Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it.”
Awe, taught Rabbi Heschel, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Awe is the acquisition of insights that the world holds in store for us. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes nothing more than a commercial marketplace. Awe is the key to wisdom and perspective. Awe is the key to helping us see the divine in each other. Awe is the key to understanding our world and our place in it. Awe is the key to our relationship with God.
These are, indeed, our Days of Awe. We are going to practice what Jane Wagner – perhaps best known as Lily Tomlin’s comedy writer, collaborator and life partner – dubbed “awe-robics.”
I pray that each of us in our respective communities will attain wisdom and perspective, mutual regard and a sense of belonging … and, most of all, a deeper relationship with God.
Rabbi Amy Levin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi at Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich, the Conservative synagogue in East Greenwich. Rabbi Levin is president of The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.
Editor’s Note: Rabbis from the The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island volunteer to submit a d’var Torah for nearly every issue of The Jewish Voice. We appreciate their contributions and welcome hearing from other rabbis who might be interested as well.