At the Confluence of Self-Reflection and Awe of the Infinite
At the Confluence of Self-Reflection and Awe of the Infinite
Image above: Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Flathead County, Montana, as seen from Apgar Village, taken by the author, Rabbi Jessica Shimberg
5th of Tishrei 5784 ה׳תשרי תשפ׳׳ד
Yamim Nora’im ~ Days of Awe is my favorite name for ten days the begin with Rosh HaShanah (the head of the [Jewish] Year) and conclude with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement or at-ONE-ment, as I prefer to read the English word). I am blessed to be experiencing The Days Between, as the gifted Marcia Falk refers to them in her beautiful book of Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, within a container naturally designed to inspire awe.
I wrote earlier this week to my new (to me) community in the Flathead Valley of Northwestern Montana (Glacier Jewish Community ~ B’nei Shalom) about my delight in these Days of Awe with them in the Flathead Valley and in Glacier National Park, their “neighborhood park.” We have the extraordinary opportunity to experience these days differently in the cradle of the land, surrounded by enourmous mountains, trees older than the founding of the country in which they continue to grow.
Cultivating awe begins with being open to a sense of that which is both within and beyond us. For me, the word for this is the Ineffable Name that is All Breathing. That is to say, or to try to put into words, a Name Beyond Naming which is both imminent and transcendent, intimately close and farther than far away, beyond our wildest imagining. Some people call this “God,” others call it by other names.
Regardless of what we call it we all experience awe at various times. Perhaps we feel awe when we see a sunrise or sunset that is particularly stunning. Perhaps we feel awe when we hold a newborn or watch as that beautifully formed human takes its first breath. Perhaps we feel awe when we hear a great symphony or hear a soloist hit a particularly soaring note or hear the wind howling with ferocity. Perhaps in a moment of deep loving and noticing of the blessings of loving and being loved a sensation of awe springs forth. Perhaps awe finds us as we look up, up, up, from the deeply grooved bark of a tree whose trunk is so large that we would need three people to hug it fully, and we sense its enormity and that of the other sentinels of the forrest both living and decaying at our feet. Perhaps a subtle scent of pine cultivates awe as it connects us to a beautiful memory.
The Hebrew word for awe, yir-ah, plentiful in Torah and in liturgy, is often translated into English as “fear.” Perhaps this is because of the physicality of the feeling, or, more likely, because its original translators wanted us to fear God as a supreme Judge, King, Father, Lord. This is not the translation that I choose. It is not how God feels to me as a result of decades of wrestling with the meaning of God for me. Although I don’t identify with the notion of a personal God, I find deep connection with the resonance of a Sacred Source and Divine Mystery, a Oneness that is a co-creative force with me and all of the universe. For this reason, I look for awe opportunities as a way of plugging back into the Sacred Flow of All the Is, Was, Will Be.
Awe can bring us to our knees, sometimes literally, often figuratively. It is accompanied by a physical sensation that is deep within and also often present on our skin as goosebumps. It catches our breath and then encourages us to breathe deep and exhale fully. It is both visceral and transcendent. It feels delicious and life-affirming and encourages me to do teshuvah (turning and re-aligning with my best self) at random moments throughout the year.
However, this is a special time of year, designed by our sages specifically for teshuvah, for assessing our alignment with what is just, compassionate, capital T true, kind, and right. These ten days of turning (Aseret Yamei Teshuvah) and of making amends with those we have hurt or to whom we have not brought the best of ourselves. For me, this includes our Earth Mother, the planetary home we enjoy. May we include our ecosystems and the Earth in our teshuvah and our goals moving into this and every new year.
I encourage you to find awe as often as you can … you don’t have to force it. Awe will find you if you are open to it … yirAHHH is as close as your breath.
Below are the words I shared with Glacier Jewish Community through our newsletter after we opened the gates to the Days of Awe 5784 with beautiful Rosh HaShanah gatherings. Note the mountains in the background of our sanctuary!
Yamim Nora’im — Days of Awe, is one of the names for the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. I love this name because it centers my approach to these days of teshuvah on awe. Awe provides me with a vision of myself within a much larger context of time and space. When I do teshuvah — returning and recalibrating my internal compass — within a framework of awe, I find that my heart is more open and my mind, less critical. When I reflect on ways in which I have gone astray during the past year, awe assists me in reconnecting with my best self as she is reflected back to me in the goodness of others or the stillness of a lake. Awe makes room for wonder and creativity to flood back in, softening my harder edges. This wider field of vision brings me a sense of tranquility, kindness, and greater clarity around how to be in right relationship with others and the wider world.
So imagine my delight, today, when I got to visit Glacier National Park for the first time! I invite those of you for whom the surrounding landscape has become familiar to take a moment to remember your first experience of Glacier National Park. I can think of no better place to awaken a sense of awe! I was utterly astonished, amazed, ecstatic, and also quietly soothed by the enormity of the mountains, the majesty of the trees, the vastness of time, and the calming co-existence of earth and water, strength and decay, life and death. What a blessing to both witness and be a part of nature in such a wondrous setting during these poignant days of the annual Jewish cycle of time.