Rabbi Fern Feldman

Days of Awe – Making This Time Awesome

Rosh Hashanah 5772 Vashon Island

We call these days called Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of return, and also, Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. We often explore the concept and practice of teshuvah [return, often translated repentance] at this time of year, and with good reason, of course. But we rarely look deeply at what awe means, let alone figure out how to practice it. It seems to me that we could learn the practice of awe, similarly to how we learn the practice of teshuvah. But first, we have to have some understanding of what awe is.

I was surprised to find out that the term ‘days of awe’ itself is relatively late, as far as Jewish history goes. The first writing we have that uses the words yamim noraim [days of awe] is by the Maharil, R. Yaakov HaLevi Mollin, who lived in central Europe during the late 1300s and early 1400s. His era was shortly after the Crusades, and during the great plague, so it is interesting to think about how those times would have influenced his understanding of this season, which we still call the days of awe. We, too, are living at a time when life is threatened on a massive scale—so perhaps the concept of awe has something to teach us, in particular.

Often we start a search for understanding a Hebrew term by looking for the first time it appears in Torah. The term nora, or awe, first appears in the story of Jacob, Ya’akov, who stops on the road to sleep and dreams of a ladder, with angels going up and down on it. Then the Torah reports

16. And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Adonai is in this place; and I knew it not.

17. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place!—Mah nora hamakom hazeh– this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.


Just before Yaakov says how awesome is this place, the Torah says that he is afraid. But, as current author Reuven Hammer, [head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement in article in the Jerusalem Post, called “Days of Awe and Wonder”] comments, “Jacob is not really afraid. He has no reason to be, since God has promised to watch over him and care for him.”

So awe is not the same as fear, although the word yirah, which is used to say Yaakov is afraid, is often translated either way. When we experience yirah, it can mean we are terrified, or it can mean we are in awe, or it can mean we are experiencing some feeling that is both awe and fear. Nora is from the same root as yirah, but it connotes awesomeness. In the High Holiday liturgy, as well as in Psalms and Prophets, nora is often paired with kedusha—holiness. Today, our prayers say nora v’kadosh shmo—awesome and holy is your name. We also say unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom, ki hu nora v’ayom—that is, let us give power to the holiness of the day, for it is awesome and terrible.  Awe goes beyond the binary of fear and love, and in some ways, the process we go through over the next ten days is designed to bring us through these steps, from fear, to love, to awe, and in some way, to holiness. Fear love, and awe. I think these are the stages of teshuvah, also. The tradition talks about teshuvah out of fear, or yirah, which the Talmud says is a teshuvah that turns our intentional wrongdoings into unintentional ones, whereas the teshuvah meyahavah, teshuvah out of love, the Talmud teaches, turns our intentional wrongdoings into mitzvot, [the fulfilling of] commandments, or good deeds, so teshuvah out of love is seen as a more advanced form. But I think perhaps teshuvah out of nora is the third step.

So teshuvah done out of fear is when we do teshuvah because we are afraid of punishment, or bad consequences. Teshuvah done out of love, is when we do teshuvah because we want to make G-d happy, or we want to be close to the sacred, or we just want to be a good person because we believe that is important. So teshuvah done out of a sense of nora, of awe, would be when we do teshuvah because we have a clear sense of the immensity of what we are a part of, and the magnitude of our potential impact on that reality.

But back to the Yaakov’s ladder story:

Rabbi Sholom Brodt gives over a teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, regarding Yaakov’s  dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. He writes:

“…The Holy One Blessed Be He is explaining to him: Everything in your life, everything that’s happening in the world, depends on you. If you ascend, then the whole world is ascending with you. If you are descending, the whole world descends as well.” If we could really feel that all the time—how awed we would be. Imagine how it would affect our behavior.

In Yaakov’s dream, just after he sees the ladder, the Torah says “And behold, Adonai standing on it , or above it, or above him, or on him. It can be translated any of these ways. Rabbi Carlebach taught  that “Rashi explains on the verse “And behold Hashem was standing over him,” that He was standing over him to protect him. You know what it is that protects us most of all? My ‘knowledge’, my knowing what to do and what not to do, doesn’t protect me at all. What does protect me, are those holy moments when I’m truly close to G-d….Yaakov Avinu, that is, Jacob our father, … said “V’zeh sha’ar hashamayim,” (and this is the gateway to heaven). The verse is not referring to the gateways to heaven only, but rather, this is the place where Hashem is opening up all my gateways.”

So the experience of nora is an experience of immediacy—the Holy One is standing over us, or on us. We are brought face to face with something vastly beyond our individual limited perspectives. We are judged, we judge ourselves, but also we are confronted, and accompanied, no matter what we do. And that awareness, that experience of being woken up, opens something—opens a gateway for us and in us—a gateway to transformation that may be the scariest and most awesome thing we can imagine.

So how does all this connect to Rosh Hashanah? Why are these particular days the days of awe? And how do we practice awe? We can learn more by exploring another name for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Teruah. Not only does the Torah not call the days of awe, the days of awe, or the days of teshuvah, but it doesn’t call Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah, or even the day of judgment. Rather it is called Yom Teruah, the day of the shofar blast, or zichron teruah, remembrance of the shofar blast. So, from the beginning, this day was associated with shofar, and, I believe, the shofar itself is a pathway to awe.

According to biblical scholar Menachem Leibtag, [“Beyond the New Year: The Hidden Biblical Essence of Rosh Hashanah”, in Inspiring Days] the tekiah, or long unbroken sound the shofar makes, in ancient times sent an “all clear” message, while the teruah, or broken sound, was a danger signal in times of war. Using the teruah sound at this season, which in Israel is the beginning of the rainy season, which everyone depended on being sufficient to water all the year’s crops, was a way of making us aware that at this time our lives really are on the line in some way. The biblical name Yom Teruah tells us that in some essential way, this day is a wake up call to us, telling us that our full attention is needed. And, Leibtag says, calling the day zichron teruah, or remembrance of teruah, and not just Yom Teruah, is a way of calling us to remember G-d, so that G-d would remember us, or to put it in perhaps more accessible language, the remembrance of teruah is a way of calling us to remember that there is a much bigger force at work in the world than our little individual selves, a force that we can connect with, perhaps even ride the waves of. On the one hand, the experience is one of fear, and anxiety for the upcoming year—will the rains come, will our crops, our animals, our communities, survive this year. On another hand, we are becoming aware that all we have, and all we are nourished by, comes to us not because we are so smart and hard working that we made it happen, but rather because we are given gifts, a flow of rain, a flow of blessing, from the source of life itself, and this also inspires love in us. We are constantly suckling life from the flow emanating from the source itself. We can allow ourselves to become as fully conscious as possible of the life force of which we are a part, become aware that we are not separate, but rather we are a part of something much much bigger than we can even imagine. We are part of the flow that nourishes us, and what we do has the power to nourish or damage.

In the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf, or additional, service, , there are three main sections, Malchuyot, or kingdoms, Zichronot or remembrances, and Shofarot, shofars, each containing a set of biblical quotes on the theme it is named after. In Shofarot the quotes we recite evoke the awesome moments of revelation of Torah.  The first 3 biblical quotes in the Shofarot are from the moment of the Giving of Torah at Mt Sinai, (Ex. 19:16, 19:19, 20:15). Two of these are from the same passage, which reads like this:

Exodus 19

16. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.

17. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the lower part of the mount.

18. And Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled greatly.

19. And when the voice of the shofar sounded long, and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.

Just before this passage, the people are told to set bounds around the mountain, and not go up on it during the revelation itself. The image here is of a huge circle of Israelites around Mt Sinai, and the vibrations of shofar descending in the center. This image seems to me to be strikingly reminiscent of the kabbalistic creation story, in which the infinite Divine withdrew from a space, called the tzimtzum, or contraction, in order to make a place that was not G-d, to pour itself into. The Divine then sent a line into the center of the circular space, sending out wave upon wave of emanation, which eventually chained down into the world as we now know it. The emptied circle of the mountain, and the vibrations of shofar blast descending into the vacated space, is very reminiscent of that creation story. So the shofar blasts, the giving of Torah, the creation of the world, are all resonating together at Rosh Hashanah, and we are a part of it all. In the Torah passages at Mt Sinai, the mountain trembles and the people tremble. We tremble—we tremble in awe and we tremble as we resonate with the sound of the shofar. I had a friend who is a Native American sound healer. She would take a very large flat drum, and tap it. As it resonated, she would hold it near the body of the person she was working on. One could feel the physical sound waves vibrating deep inside the body. I imagine this is what happened with the powerful sound of the shofar at Mt Sinai—the mountain and the people shook in resonance with the shofar. We trembled because our bodies couldn’t help but tremble, the vibrations made by the shofar moved us, literally, because there was no separation between what was around us, and us. The vibrations moved right through. And we trembled in awe. Maybe we trembled in awe because we couldn’t help but tremble. And I imagine this happening, not only at Sinai, but also right here. Now.

Another layer to these awarenesses has to do with the vibrations of the universe, which we are learning more about all the time.

Janna Levin, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard, (and a former student of my partner) studies the early universe, chaos, and black holes. In a talk called  “The Sound the Universe Makes”, on TED.com, she reports:

“The universe has a soundtrack, and that soundtrack is played on space itself. Because space can wobble like a drum. It can ring out a kind of recording throughout the universe of some of the most dramatic events as they unfold…”

Within the next few years, she believes we will be able to hear these sounds. “Black holes”, she says,  “can bang on space-time like mallets on a drum…”     She teaches that Einstein figured out that space can ring like a drum. He realized that “if you put energy or mass in the universe, it would curve space. The idea is that matter curves spacetime, making waves in spacetime itself as it moves.

So, for example, dying stars become black holes, and sometimes wind up spinning around each other, and “as they do so, they not only curve space, but they leave behind in their wake a ringing of space, an actual wave on space-time. Space squeezes and stretches as it emanates out from these black holes banging on the universe. And they travel out into the cosmos at the speed of light.” She says  “…If you were standing near enough, your ear would resonate with the squeezing and stretching of space. You would literally hear the sound.” And, she points out, not just black holes do this, but “also any big disturbance in the universe” And actually, it is not just any big disturbance, but any movement at all in the universe produces endless waves of spacetime.

This is truly awesome —the movement of matter itself makes waves of space-time–all reality, all creation is a process of wave-making patterns.

One of my favorite kavvanot, or intentions, for prayer, which is written above many Torah arks, is the dictum Da lifnei mi atah omed—know before whom you stand. If we truly let ourselves feel a tiny bit of the magnitude of the presence we are in, if we let ourselves be open to the pulsing, vibrating waves of being that are in and around and beyond us, how can we help but tremble in awe? And what if, in addition, we become aware that not only major cosmic events like the big bang or the merging of black holes vibrate forever, not only does the emanation of waves of divine creation resonate eternally, but also our own actions, our every move, create waves the impact of which is limitless? As chaos theory tells us, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. And so, not only does every vibration we initiate resonate eternally, but our actions can create enormous changes, beyond anything we can imagine. We cannot minimize the importance of any of our actions or inactions—we are involuntarily and always a part of something so big, so complex, that we owe the rest of the world nothing short of complete awareness.

Yaakov’s response to experiencing the awesome presence of the Holy One at the ladder was to swear to tithe—to give back a tenth of all he is given. So may our response to awe be to take responsibility—to contribute in our own way to the life of the world.

The waves of emanation of creation, the waves of impact of our own actions, shofar blasts, the people trembling, nora, our experience of hearing shofar—as we feel the sound waves of shofar resonating within us, we can become aware that all reality is vibrating, all matter is making waves in space-time, patterns of emanation are perpetually being formed and propagated, as far out as we can imagine, as far in as we can imagine, on the hugest level, the ringing of all space-time with the vibrations of the big bang, and on the smallest level, in such subtle, barely detectable pattern that the most sensitive technology right now can’t pick it up. This is awesome—mah nora hamakom hazeh, how awesome is this place, how awesome is this time, the days of awe, how awesome this opening of all our gateways to transformation.

May the shofar awaken us to a sense of the immensity of the life force of which we are a part, awaken us to the power we hold, the impact we have, and the depth of responsibility we owe. And that, my friends, should make us tremble too.


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