D’var Torah for Second Day Rosh Hashanah: Making Sense of Awe

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 October 2016

We are coming to the end of our first use of this new draft machzor.  I’m sure for each of us there are aspects of it that we have really appreciated, and aspects that have felt less welcome.  There will be an opportunity to share those in a special feedback meeting in a couple of weeks’ time on 19th October.

For me, it has been a very welcome addition to the season.  I think we will really appreciate how welcome on Kol Nidre when we return to the old machzor and really feel the gap that has developed between our tefillah and a book that is now over 30 years old.

There are – it will not surprise you to hear – just a few things in the draft that I might have done differently.

One of these is the study passage which the editors have chosen to include for the morning service and that we read earlier in our service, taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
It is a text that I have taught and preached about here a number of times before, a very important and resonant text in which we find a Sage’s account of the six questions that we will ask when we are led to judgement.
I absolutely understand why – with its emphasis on right behaviour and judgement, the editors chose to include it.

But it is also a text that should carry a health warning – one which the editors have not included.  The first is that Rava is not working from a clean slate.  These six questions are not from his imagination alone – perhaps not even the six most important questions he would have us be asked when we are taken to be judged – but are six questions corresponding to six phrases in a verse in Isaiah (33:6).  This is a midrash, and you don’t really understand the text unless you know that.

A more important health warning is that the text has one more line, one that the editors have not included.  It is a line that utterly changes the meaning of the passage.  After the six questions, the Talmud states: “iy yirat Adonai… ein; iy lo, lo”: “yet even so [even if the answers to the questions were all yes or no] if they had Yirat Adonai – fear of the Eternal – then ‘Yes’ [then judgement is secure], and if not, ‘No’”.   That is, you can answer yes to all of Rava’s questions, but if you do not have Yirat Adonai, then that is not enough.

I also completely understand why the editors missed this line off.  It’s a challenging idea and one that does not resonate for us, that behaviour is not relevant without belief.  That what we do requires the right motivation to be right.  Motivation, I think we would say, does matter but is not all that matters, as this text (unless it is shorn of its last sentence) suggests.

The text – in full – also forces us to engage with this difficult idea of Yirat Adonai – normally translated as Fear of God.  It’s one of those concepts that comes up often in our formative literature.  Better translated, of course, as ‘awe’ the word is also the root of Noraim, as in Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe.  We are about to sing (in the most awe-inspiring piece in our liturgical year, u’n’taneh tokef) “ki hu norah v’ayom”, for this day is awesome and, for want of a better word, dreadful or terrible.

Awe is hard to grasp.  What are we to make of this idea – so massively misappropriated by the modern English language so that something great is awesome, and something terrible awful?  What is asked of us in a demand for Yirat Adonai?  What will we mean in a moment when we sing of the awesomeness of the day?

The most important thing to know is that ‘yirah’ is not the same as ‘pachad’.  Yirah is ‘awe’ not ‘fear’.  The twentieth century Rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel explained it like this: fear is best understood as “the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain”.  But awe? Awe is the “sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery”. “Awe,” he continues, “unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it.”

So when we say that U’n’taneh tokef is awe inspiring, it is this that we mean – not that it is supposed to fill us with fear – not anticipation of pain at our fate, but rather it inspires us with awe in our ability to play a part in something bigger.  Awe that we are both irrelevant: “adam y’sodo mei-afar v’sofo le-afar” – “our origin is dust and our end is dust”; and we are the most important thing in the world – worthy of divine judgement and of divine care, powerful enough to change the world and our own fates – “ki lo tachpotz b’mot ha-meit”, “for God does not desire the death of those who die, but that they return to the path and live”.  We are not meant to shrink cowering in the corner, but to stand tall and act.

This is, as it happens, the same message as the study passage text – the message that we miss when we cut off that last sentence.  The motivation that we, as Jews, are asked to have for our behaviour is not fear, not the concern that something bad might happen to us, but awe – Heschel’s sense of wonder and humility, the idea that we can affect the world through our sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves.

As we sing in a moment, it is that which should be provoked in us – awe, yirah.  The knowledge we are part of something bigger, wonder at our place in the world, the inspiration to get out there and do.