Yom Kippur Day, 5764
Last night we did serious vidui, confession. We admitted that we were afraid. We bravely listened to the words of our mouths praying and heard how many times “pachad”, the Hebrew word for fear, or “yirah”, awe, jumped from our throats. In these Days of Awe, it is appropriate to be frightened. Have we done enough teshuvah to be forgiven? Are we good enough?
When we take an inventory of the necessary and inevitable losses of the past year, when we count the times that we tap ourselves with each sin that belongs to us, and when we face our undeniable vulnerability, we tremble. We are painfully aware of how unworthy we are to ask for anything.
Besides our individual perilous journeys, we all live with basic existential fears such as fear of dying as well as global fears such as war, drought, and famine. We live with fear not only because we have no choice but because it may help us to live. Reishit hochmah yirat Adonai, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. And, “All is in the hands of God except the fear of God.” Whom we fear tells us who we are.
These are the days of choosing and we get to decide our relationship to God. Many of us have a bias about this: we don’t like being frightened, and we’d rather call God beloved than fearful. In the Aveinu Malkeinu we find the same bias in the two chief metaphors for God at the High Holidays: aveinu malkeinu. Our parents and our king. We call out first to our parent in the night, not the king.
Those of us who look forward to the holidays think of them as a visit home to see our parents, sibs, and grandparents. We know our parents’ home very well and we feel protected in its shelter. The thought of visiting the ruler of rulers, the judge who sees everything, no matter how great the reward, is like visiting the principal’s office. Still, if it is fear that keeps us doing the right thing, then it is our blessing. But that is not all there is to fear.
Words like awful, terrible, dreadful, and horrible, originating from awe, terror, dread, and horror, are one aspect of fear. This morning I’d like to offer the good news about joyful fear, which can be called awe, wonder, or amazement. It is our humble, grateful, and respectful response to the greatness and mystery of God.
There is fear that makes us shake, gives us dry mouth, and butterflies, and there is awe that causes us not to scream but to shout, Halleluyah! Wow! Amazing! When AJ Heschel was asked what it meant to believe in God, he said, “To have radical amazement.”
We witness radical amazement in a two year-old standing at the shore of the ocean watching the big waves. She glances at her parents for an emotional clue. Should she shriek with delighted surprise and awe, or scream with fear? As long as the child feels safe, she can delight in the adventure. With Mommy or Daddy to sweep her up when the wave washes over her, she is not afraid.
It is the same with us. We are the children of Israel standing on the other side of the Red Sea singing our hearts out because we have Someone to sing to: we are not alone and we are safe because of Your power. God’s awesome presence, in the costume of the ocean or earthquake, is balanced by God’s tender presence in the form of a loving parent, aveinu. Only when we know and accept God’s great power can we begin to witness the great works all around us.
Ramban sees awe as essential for eternal life: “No one has a share in the Torah unless he believes that all things and all events in the life of the individual as well as in the life of society are miracles. There is no such thing as the natural course of events.”
We call the Ten Commandments Aseret HaDibrot, ten words or ten things that guide us. Let me offer five ideas to awaken us to wonder. I leave the second tablet to you.
SR Hirsch writes of awesome interconnection: “One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all creatures. None is by or for itself, but all things exist in continual reciprocal activities–the One for the all and the all for the One. None has power, or means for itself; each receives only in order to give, and gives in order to receive and finds therein the purpose of existence.
2. God’s words to Job to awaken his awe: “Have you ever commanded the day to break, known the place of dawn? Have you been brought to the depths of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Does the rain have a father who begot the drops of dew? Do you know the time when mountains give birth?”
3. Think of all the things that had to happen for us to be sitting here together this morning. Travel back to Russia with your greatgrandparents…
4. We have prayers for awe-moments: for shooting stars, earthquakes, lightning and thunder we say, “shecocho ugvortoh maley olam”; for mountains, oceans, and valleys we say, oseh bereshit, for making creation; and for rain and other good news, ha tov v’hametiv.
5. Heschel wrote, “We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. For daily wonder we need daily worship: three times a day we say, We thank You for Your miracles which are daily with us, for Your continual marvels.
When we fall to the ground in prostration twice a year, this is the body language for awe. I fall before you, God, because you are the One that gives me my life each day. You are the One who knows all of me. And You are the One, the only One, who each day invites me to delight in Your creation.
I’ve studied wisdom books of many faith paths, I’ve learned with many teachers, I’ve watched many movies, and I’ve eavesdropped on too many conversations. This is what I know: happiness, what some call well-being, is the eternal human desire. It is in our nature to seek the path to peace of mind and heart, and we live in a society that has a myriad of solutions to get us there–a new car, psychotherapy, Chinese herbs, or intense devotional workshops. Judaism naturally tells us, as does the dalai lama and all the other great teachers, that the answer lies within, and you can’t find it if you’re asleep.
When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, not everyone was awed. Reuven and Shimon hurried along with the crowd but they never looked up from the muddy river bottom. ‘Yuck,’ said Reuven. ‘I have muck all over my shoes,’ said Shimon. ‘This is like the mud we used to make bricks in Egypt,’ answered Reuven. ‘Yeah. There’s no difference being a slave or being here, ‘ said Shimon. Mud obscures awe and the hapless two complained all the way to freedom.
Having awe keeps us awake and gives us gratitude. Three times a day we recite the ashrei, a marriage of psalm 84 and 145. Psalm 84 begins with the word, “Ashrei,” which means happy, and psalm 145 tells us about God’s greatness. An acrostic of the alphabet, the ashrei contains the verse, “You open your hand and your desire is to satisfy every living thing,” and here we get the teaching. The way to be happy is to remember what God gives us. The more we look at Your greatness the more we appreciate Your love for us.
Gratitude is key to happiness, and we need awe to remember. Despite how much we may protest the language of the High Holidays–you are the potter and we are your clay–we are like grass that emerges in the morning and withers at dusk–deep in our hearts we know the truth of it. A split second can change any life and we all know it. These are the days that teach us gratitude the hard way. We are forced to look at our weaknesses, our mortality, and our smallness, and this may awaken terror, dread, and fear.
At this time of year, we are called to choose life. How many of us squander our lives by taking for granted the extraordinary gifts we are given in every moment? The tradition understands our capacity for fear and uses it to get our attention: there is nothing like a high blood pressure reading to get us meditate and exercise. And there is nothing like losing someone close to you to help us live with wonder, to help us awaken to the sound of the rain and the beating of one’s heart.
Choosing life means to live with the awe of one who suddenly sees after being blind. It means that we stop looking at our own power and soberly remember that this is the season of introspection, of choosing to look in the inner mirror. The Yamim Nora’im is a collective exercise in being annually awakened in the way personal trauma awakens each of us. It’s an opportunity to grow wise together, sooner than later. It means that we do elective introspection; we bear witness to our goodness and our weakness. We learn the wisdom of no escape: not on earth and never in heaven can you avoid an accounting of your life. “Where are you?” God asks Adam in the garden and Adam was afraid. He had awe. Do we dare have less?
Have we committed the sin of living without awe because we don’t like thinking about Who rules our lives? We are called to stop swaggering through our lives pretending that we’re going to live forever and that we know enough. When we have the courage to allow awe, it lets us reach for wonder, and it is in that stretch that we move closer to the holy. We sing “uv’chen pachdcha, put your fear and dread on me, God. Scream at me until I have reverence for every blade of grass. Gratitude sweetens life, and it starts with noticing and remembering. Remind me of the beauty and preciousness of this moment, remind me that I am here.
Besides giving us gratitude, awe offers humility. Another way to say this is in baseball language. A hitter never fears a batter; he respects him. We respect God, believe what we do matters, and seriously aim to play by the rules. Awe also keeps the heart young. Psalm 92 teaches that the righteous stay fragrant and fresh even in old age. They have kept the humility of childhood. Awe is their blessing as they continue to have gratitude and radical amazement all their lives. They understand sovereign principle, and they have no problem bending the knee before the One.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of keeping awe in our lives is that we are awake to the most amazing thing of all: every chet, every missing of the mark in our lives, is the key ingredient to our becoming better people. If God can make a raindrop, God can turn our sins into positive merit. Ezekiel tells us, “And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is lawful and right, he shall live thereby”. Turning towards God and away from wickedness means to choose life, life filled with the messiness, regret, and shame of sin. We stand in awe that our flaws bring us to redemption and that forgiveness abounds. May God bless you in the coming year with radical amazement and wonder, with gratitude for everything, and with the courage to keep your heart young and ready for miracle. All these are God’s names.