Embracing Awe

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

To watch Rabbi Zinn give his sermon, click here

A number of years ago, when I was teaching elementary school in Los Angeles,  I led a field trip for my 6th Grade student to Boston.  When we arrived at our hotel, after a long day of travel, after waking up early in the morning, shepherding these students through the chaotic airport, enduring a long cross country flight, struggling to collect our bags and find our way to our hotel, we finally arrived late in the evening, exhausted from our day of travel, ready to go to sleep.  And together we walked into the lobby of our hotel.  We were surprised by the stunningly beautiful old world entrance.  The lobby rose multiple stories, covered in intricately carved dark wood.  All of us stood transfixed for a moment, our eyes drawn to both the massive scale of the room and its minute details.  We stood for a moment, until our moment was broken when one student softly exclaimed, “Awesome!”

That student was correct: the room was truly awe-inspiring.  Yet instead of embracing that awe, we quickly shifted to describing the room in more material language.  The ceiling was towering.  The details were painstakingly carved.  The space was expansive.  The wood was stately.  The carpets opulent.  The room was magnificent; it was elegant and it was imposing. 

We all felt this need: to talk, to discuss, to describe the space.  We were not able to simply embrace the awe-inspiring nature of it. We could not live in that moment of awe; we could not embrace the awe. 

Awe is a word.  Awe is a feeling.  Awe is an attitude towards the world.  Awe is an experience that we can take for granted.  At times we use “awe” flippantly, and other times we dismiss the feeling and focus on a more detailed set of descriptions that miss the grandiosity, the power of awe.  Awe is the realization that we are inhabiting a much larger space that we are used to inhabiting.[1] Awe is a powerful experience.  When we embrace the experience of awe, it has the capacity to change our perspective, to influence our thinking and to propel us forward in new and powerful ways.

Tomorrow morning we will read the opening lines of our Unetaneh Tokef prayer: “Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat HaYom, Ki ho Norah v’Ayom” “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, it is awesome and full of dread.”[2]

Unetaneh Tokef is a declaration of how these holidays are supposed to feel, how they are intended to conjure up to conflicting emotions: awe and dread, wonder and fear.  One of the names for the High Holidays is the Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim.  The hebrew word, Norah, Yirah, is difficult to translate, because it combines what are taken to be two opposite emotions. Yirah, Norah, capture awe and fear in a single word.

We see Yirah used to conjure up images of fear and awe throughout the bible.

Famously in Psalm 23[3]

Gam Ki Alech B’Guy Tzilmavet Lo Yireh Ra

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”

And, in Deuteronomy[4]

V’atah Yisrael Ma Adonai Eloheicha Shoel MiMecha Ki Im Yireh et Adonai Eloheicha

“Now O Israel, what does the Eternal require of you, only this, to be in awe of God”

This word, Yirah, carefully balances fear and awe, because awe and fear are part of the same experience.  When you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon or the skydeck of the Willis Tower, the awe of yirah is the part of the experience that keeps you excited and enthralled.  It is awesome to be looking out at the view, wondering about your place in the world, considering your connection to all that is out there. The fear of yirah is the part of the experience that keeps you from getting too close to the edge, that keeps you mindful of the dangers that exist. Awe and fear are part of the same experience.

The High Holidays are intended to give us the opportunity to internalize and embrace both of these emotions, both of these experiences.  We often do a very good job of seeing the fear part of the holidays.  Fear is obvious and not subtle when we say, “B’Rosh HaShananh Yechatevun, u’vYom Tzom Kippur Yechatemun” “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.”  The fear of our liturgy is pronounced and explicit.  We are all very aware of the fear.  In our liturgy and in our daily lives, fear is palpable and ever present, because fear has an overwhelming presence  in our lives, we need to balance that fear with a greater awareness and stronger embrace of the awe in our lives and our world. 

“Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary draws us near.”[5] Awe is an opportunity to be a part of the world around us, to see that we live “under wide horizons..”[6]

We have the ability to experience awe in our lives, in our world, in our prayers and in our community.  Awe is an opportunity to open ourselves up to something greater than ourselves.  It is the chance to see our place in the world. Awe is the beginning of a different kind of understanding.

We have many opportunities everyday to experience awe all around us, through prayers, words and music; through people, community and shared experiences; through our natural world, in miracles large and small.

Our liturgy attempts also tries to break us out of our everyday and evoke a sense of awe.  On Friday Nights, when we welcome Shabbat, we often sing L’cha Dodi which says, “Hitoreri! Hitoreri! - Awake! Awake!”

This feeling of Yirah, of awe, is created not only through the words, it comes from the blasts of the Shofar, the strong drawn out Tekiah and the stuccato T’ruah.  Awe comes from the grandiosity of the music, the organ and choir, whose notes and voices attempt to break us out of our everyday and live in this sacred moment. Hearing the shofar awakens us, “a strange noise, a noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and… we awake. [It asks us,] Where are you? Who are you?”[7]

Awe has the power to awaken ourselves from our everyday, to experience the world around us.

We see and experience awe in the natural world.  When I spent seven summers working at a camp in the mountains of Northeastern New Mexico, each year I would make an early morning pilgrimage to watch the sunrise from the top of the Tooth of Time, a towering rock outcropping on the edge of the massive open New Mexican plains.  The Tooth of Time sits on the edge of the historic Santa Fe Trail, and was an important geographic marker for early American pioneers.  The Tooth of Time continues to loom over the camp, serving as an ever present geological symbol of the the past, present and future, a reminder of nature’s awesome power and beauty.

My friend, a Presbyterian Minister, and I made this climb every summer together.  We would start in the dark hours before the sun began to rise, we’d hike up the steep trail guided only by the light of our flashlights.  As we approached the top, the trail gave way to a rock field; we would scramble up together until we reached the summit.  Then we would sit.  We would sit in silence.  We would watch the sun rise across the plain. The sun would slowly peek above the horizon, before breaking through in incredible colors and light.

In those moments, seeing the colors change, the day slowly dawn, the world around us awaken, we would see the beautiful view, the historic significance, the infinite moment. 

Awe has the power to hold on to us in indescribable ways.  As we gaze out at the vista, we see how small we are in relation to the world around us and we see how big our story is.

We see and experience awe in other people, in individuals and in our communities. I spent two weeks this summer at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, OSRUI, the URJ summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  There is a powerful moment that happens at OSRUI every friday night during the summer. 

Hundreds of campers file into the empty gym and sit on the floor.  These campers have spent their week out on bicycle trips and hikes; they have been busy with drama, music and arts programming; they have been occupied with new friends and new experiences; and they come together this one time a week.  Campers sit in a massive circle on the floor with a handful of counselors who play guitar in the middle and they sing. They all sing.

All the campers and staff join together.  The hundreds of campers are engaged and participating.  They love an activity as simple as singing songs, songs in hebrew that evoke our shared values and the words of our Prophets.

The campers and staff sing in unison; the communal experience draws us towards each other.  The drama and choreography of the moment invite everyone to participate.  We are able to take ownership and pride in an experience that is all our own, we connect to each other, to our past and our future.

Awe has the power to connect us to our community, to our shared experiences.  We are brought together in awe.

We bring awe into our lives through our prayers, our community and our world.  We have opportunities to see awe in the every day, in the common places.  We have the opportunities to see awe all around us.  We can do better in experiencing the awe around us, because awe is the beginning of a different kind of understanding.

When we see group of people come together as one, when we hear our liturgy sung on the High Holidays, when we enter a magnificent space, or see a sun slowly rise above the horizon, we can experience awe or we can shift into a detailed material description of the experience.

We can use this as a teachable moment, a learning opportunity to understand these phenomena, to understand the science of what makes a the sun rise. Or if we embrace the awe in the moment, we can ask: what does a sunrise have to offer us in this moment?  What can it teach us?  What can it show us about our place in the world?  How can we savor this moment and this experience?

Awe is not about the knowledge and understanding of the world we live in.  Awe is about an appreciation our connection to that world.  Understanding is an important part of our world: we should think deeply, logically and scientifically about the world we live in.  Yet, we spend so much of our time analyzing the world.  We can lose touch with its beauty, with its awe,  Awe is a necessary counterpart to understanding,

If science is prose, awe is the poetry of the world we live in.  Awe asks us to appreciate our place in the world.[8]

Awe has the power to bring us new perspective as we move beyond knowledge to embracing our emotional experiences.

Awe is an attitude.  Awe is an embrace of the wonder, the beauty, and the unity of the world.  Awe is what we experience on the Skydeck of the Willis tower and on the top of the Tooth of Time, But awe cannot be reserved for those few special moments.  It is not something to be kept in an ivory castle on top of the hill.  It is not some limited natural resource we need to be concerned about depleting.[9] We might not think of awe as an everyday experience, but we should try to experience awe everyday.

A few years ago when I was working at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish addiction treatment facility, the facilitator challenged a resident during group therapy.  “How do you see yourself as part of the world around you?  How do you understand your place in the world?  How do you experience awe?”

The resident started talking about the dream of trip he was planning with his sister to Peru, to visit Machu Picchu, the mountaintop Incan citadel.  He started talking about his expectations for that trip, the emotions he wanted to feel and the experiences of awe he was anticipating.

The facilitator quickly cut him off, “That is all well and good. But how are you going to experience awe today?  How will you understand you place in the world this week?  How will you continue to open yourself up on a daily basis?”

The facilitator’s expectation of us experiencing awe on a daily basis might be a little hopeful.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that true awe is difficult to find, yet if we open ourselves up, if we make ourselves vulnerable to these experiences, we can experience awe more regularly.[10] In small miracles, in common things, we can see the wonder of the world around us.  We experience awe in the everyday, in our routines, and our world.

We often think our routines as ordinary and mundane: every morning, we awake and breathe in the new day, open our eyes and rise up out of bed.  These acts can be viewed as ordinary and mundane routines; but if we think beyond, we can see beyond. Our liturgy encourages us to be more open; more aware of the miracles around us. Every morning the traditional liturgy recites a list of daily miracles, 14 individual miracles that we are thankful for experiencing each day. These miracles are those exact routines that we often overlook, but are truly miraculous; the ability to open our eyes in the morning, to breathe in the new day. and to rise up out of bed.  We are lucky to have clothes to wear and food to eat. “Awe arises when we encounter life and the world in ways that breach the ordinary.  The ordinary can bring on awe ... only if we don’t see it as ordinary.”[11]

Awe has the power to change our attitude, as we acknowledge the miracles of our daily lives.

As we stand here now, at the beginning of the new year, we have the ability, we have the opportunity to embrace the awe of these High Holidays, the Days of Awe.  We also have the opportunity to bring this awe beyond these days.

We have many opportunities everyday to experience awe all around us, through prayers, words and music; through people, community and shared experiences; through our natural world, in miracles large and small.

We can open ourselves up to awe in our everyday lives, through prayer; giving thanks for the small miracles we experience everyday.

We can open ourselves to awe through self-reflection, taking time to purposefully contemplate the daily experiences of our lives.  To consider where we have come from and where we are going.

We can open ourselves to awe through sharing our stories and listening to the stories of others.  For as we get to better know ourselves and those around us, we can become more aware of the awe is our daily lives.

We can open ourselves to awe, by moving through life with thoughtful purpose. Taking moments to be appreciative and offer gratitude for the blessings we experience and considering the more difficult moments as well.

We can make ourselves more open and vulnerable to experiences of the grandeur and power of the world we live in.

Awe has the power to awaken ourselves from our everyday, to experience the world around us.

Awe has the power to change our attitude, as we acknowledge the miracles of our daily lives.

Awe has the power to bring us new perspective as we move beyond knowledge to embracing our emotional experiences.

Awe has the power to hold on to us in indescribable ways.  As we gaze out at the vista, we see how small we are in relation to the world around us and we see how big our story is.

Awe has the power to connect us to our community, to our shared experiences.  We are brought together in awe.

Awe has the ability to transform our lives in powerful ways, to change our perspective, to influence our thinking to to propel us forward.  But only, if we let it in, only if we embrace it in our own lives.


[1] Rabbi Alan Lew, Be Still and Get Going, 117

[2] Gates of Repentance, 176

[3] Psalm 23:4

[4] Deuteronomy 10:12

[5] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 77

[6] Heschel, God in Search of Man, 75 (Heschel continues, “.. , horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of The Eternal.”)

[7] Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

[8] Insproked by,“It is not the beginning of knowledge but an act that goes beyond knowledge; it is an attitude that never ceases.” Heschel, God in Search of Man, 45-46

[9] Inspired by,“The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy.” Heschel, The Wisdom of Heschel, 228

[10] “We are thus like a person whose surroundings are from time to time lit up the lighting, while in the intervals he is plunged into pitch-dark night.  Some of us experience such flashes of illumination frequently, until they are in almost perpetual brightness, so that the night turns for them into daylight...Some see a single flash of light in the entire night of their lives….With others again there are long or short intermissions between the flashes of illumination..” (Heschel, God in Search of Man, 139)

[11] Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness, 239

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