Here’s a talk that I gave recently at my synagogue about Awe. Awe in nature is one of the touchstones of Wellsprings of Wisdom, so I’m sharing it here:
I’m not really a morning person…but I get up before sunrise as much as I can to go see sunrise at the beach…because of the Awe. A recent Torah portion tells us that God wants us to feel Awe. Awe of the force of life of YHWH and I would say we can get that from Awe of creation, of life, of the mystery.
עַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
לִשְׁמֹ֞ר אֶת־מִצְוֺ֤ת יְהוָה֙ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לְט֖וֹב לָֽךְ׃
And now, O Israel, what [Mah] does Adonai your God ask of you?
But only: to be in awe of Eternal,
To walk in all God’s paths,
To love God and to serve Adonai Your God with all your heart and soul,
Keeping God’s mitzvot and laws, which I command upon you today, for your good.
This Torah portion commands us to have awe of God. Yir’ah, Awe, is sometimes translated as fear. According to my teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, it differs from the word for fear, “pahad” (po-had=here is something sharp), which is just be scared because one is a “pah–had,” a separate, lonely entity. Yir’ah יראה comes from the root, “to see,” and signifies a sense of seeing beyond our everyday blinders and of feeling ourselves seen by the Divine.
We are living in a world of fear-mongering. Our news, our social media, stir us up to a continual state of anxiety. But instead the Torah urges awe. Awe, Yir’ah, is the antidote to fear, Pachad.
In Man is Not Alone, 1951 (p. 31) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder [at the root of all true religion] almost necessarily declines. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.
“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
If that sentiment was true in 1951, it is all the true decades later, when we are inundated by information, but sometimes much too rushed for awe and appreciation. The Washington Post did a famous experiment a few years back, and commissioned famous violinist Joshua Bell to play on a magnificent Stradivarius violin in a DC Washington Metro station. He played six classical pieces for 43 minutes as over a thousand people passed by. Only seven people stopped to listen, while another 27 gave money as they ran buy. Almost every child stopped, and every single time, their parents rushed them along.
Psychologists tell us that Awe is good for us. According to an article by Summer Allen for “Greater Good Magazine,” research suggests that Awe can do at least 8 things for us:
1.Awe may improve your mood and make you more satisfied with your life
2. Awe may be good for your health
3. Awe may help you think more critically
4. Awe may decrease materialism
5. Awe makes you feel smaller and more humble
6. Awe can make you feel like you have more time
7. Awe can make you more generous and cooperative
8. Awe can make you feel more connected to other people and humanity
Note in our Torah reading above…feeling awe leads to walking in Godly ways…
It sounds great—how can we get more Awe? Can we seek it – as Reb Zalman would day, can we “hothouse peak experiences.”
Rashi read this Torah portion in an interesting way. When Moses asked, “what ‘mah” does G-d require of us?” Rashi creatively reread Mah as : “ Meah” a hundred.
Rabbi Meir in the Talmud (Menahot 43b) we are required to say 100 blessings or berachot a day Menahot 43b. By saying many blessings in prayer and for each food, sight, or scent we experience in the course of a day, we can arrive at 100.
There are traditional blessing formulas that we can learn, that are beautiful to say.
But we can also just stop and say a blessing in our own words. We can pause during our busy days to notice, to feel a moment of wonder and awe, and acknowledge it, perhaps by saying “Mah tovu!” (How Good it is!) or “Holy Wow!” (I first heard that from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat). Or Baruch Atah, “blessed are you” and make your own beracha, or just take a moment to be aware that “That’s awesome.” Our beloved member David Kobrin of blessed memory used to say, “1, 2, 3, -ah!”
Jews around the world are preparing to embark the Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim. We often call it the High Holy Days but it’s really a time that we are supposed to experience Awe in community. How can we bring the things we all suggested into our communal experience? Clearly, awe won’t happen if it’s just the Rabbi and Cantor as copilots and the congregation buckles in and comes along for the ride. It requires active participation, before and during. This is a whole season to cultivate awe. If you are going to participate in the Jewish holidays, I suggest that you come with your eyes open for wonder as Rabbi Heschel would say. May the upcoming Days of Awe help us to open to the Awe that is available to use very day!
Note: I also shared this sermon on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.