Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
We are now entered into a ten-day period of what are meant to be Days of Awe. Awe is a difficult concept for us – the vibrant, incessant creativity of the English language has turned “awesome” into an appreciative adjective for almost anything. For our ancestors, awe – in Hebrew, yir’ah – meant the emotions that go along with a state of awareness in which one became aware of the incredible vastness of the Universe, and one’s own smallness within it. What emotions? nothing easy, really: slack-jawed amazement; heart-opening transcendence; the kind of humility that led a poet to write “O G-d, thy sea is so vast, and my ship so small”….and, also, fear.
If we are lucky, we will each have that experience at some point in our lives. For Jews, one way of understanding it is as the “Sinai moment”. The philosopher Rudolph Otto describes the experience in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Of all things, Otto visited a shul on Yom Kippur and wrote of having a sense of a mysterium tremendum during the prayers – an overwhelming, mysterious sense of something vast, and it filled him with an unsettling awe.
That awe, yir’ah in Hebrew, connotes the wow of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or of – for a privileged few – seeing the Earth from space, or even of contemplating a good photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. But it also includes an edge of fear: the fear of one so small in all that vastness, that one becomes aware of one’s terrifying vulnerability to loneliness, to accident, and to meaninglessness. What is it, to be a speck in the cosmos? And to be assured that, nevertheless, you, yourself, are worth it all?
And how might one react to this awareness? If you have the experience on a mountaintop, all well and good – but when you bring it to shul, you are given the gift of a chance to explore it, to talk about it, or just to react to it, within a community that will support you in those moments, and even, possibly, say, “yeah – I know what you mean.”
The prayers we recite during the High Holy Days are meant to help you find the awe in your life – whether you are feeling very small, even helpless, or very blessed, and grateful. Either situation can leave one without words. But no situation need leave you without companions.
Teshuvah, “turning” is a movement toward the self, toward others, and toward G-d – all at the same time. On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you find yourself willing to turn, even toward that which is the most awesome and frightening mystery of all – your ability to change.