Days of Awe

Although I am no longer a person of faith–I’m on an internet list of “celebrity atheists” and recently learned that I’m also in Who’s Who in Hell–readers of this blog and/or my books know that I am a persistent fellow traveler of religious people. I admire them, I love them, and on certain occasions I want to be with them as they show their devotion.

This includes the Yamim Noraim–Days of Awe–High Holy Days–Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So I’ve spent three of the past ten days mainly in synagogue–Shearith Israel, it’s called–wrapped in a talit (a tallis in my childhood), singing, swaying to chants and melodies of my warm and faith-filled early years. I was in our modern Orthodox shul in Brooklyn for classes, services, and activities pretty much seven days a week from age 8 to 16.

Half a century later, joining the Jewish people in prayer, I still sit and stand hour after hour absorbing the religious melodies, texts, and testimonies of the ages. I still fast for twenty-six hours or so on the Day of Atonement, and I certainly do atone for sins, many of which I have committed, although not necessarily all in the past year. You do not have to be talking to God or think God is watching you in order to examine your own life. You do not have to fear God’s punishment to aspire to be better than you are. You do not have to anticipate Heaven and Hell in order to cherish your life and put it to the best use you can.

I don’t mind saying prayers that praise or appeal to God, especially in Hebrew; they connects me to my childhood and to my parents, grandparents, and a hundred generations before them. However, I discovered yesterday that the English version of Al Chet, which hundreds of people read aloud together in our synagogue, works quite well without the words “against You”:

For the sin we have committed…by haughtiness…

For the sin we have committed…by envy…

For the sin we have committed…by causeless hatred…

For the sin we have committed…by wanton looks…

For the sin we have committed…knowingly and unknowingly…

It’s a long list, and not all sins apply to everyone. You know who you are, the tradition seems to say. And indeed I do know. The sin, though, is not “against You,” against God. The sin is against others, against life, against myself. And yes, I do beat my breast.

I like the idea of Neilah, the closing gates at the closing service, except they are closing within me. The gates of self-examination, of awareness. Not completely of course, but a teachable moment is waning. When you make a resolution in the closing hour of a fast, in the presence of so many others–even a tacit, private, general resolution to be and do better–it’s not the same as making one after a night of drunken revels in the midst of an aching hangover.

The sermons I heard, all by Rabbi Hillel Norry, were instructive and uplifting. One was about Rabbi Nechuniah, whose disciples asked him his secret to long life–which really meant, a good life. “I never honored myself by degrading my fellow,” was the first. In separate remarks, Rabbi Norry condemned in the strongest terms the then-anticipated Qur’an burning by a Christian pastor in Florida,. This, one might say, would have been the opposite of Nechuniah’s secret.

On Kol Nidre night, the beginning of Yom Kippur, he talked about three rabbis who came late to learning–Akiva, an illiterate farmer until age 40, Resh Lakish, who’d been a thug and a gladiator, and Eliezer, a grown-up scion of the upper bourgeoisie before he began. All became geniuses of Torah study; the point being: Take the first step.

But his most inspiring sermon by far was the following day, when he simply and beautifully talked about the breath of life. He described what it was like to witness the first breaths of his children, even imitating them, evoking the miracle of the first source of independent life, a breath of air. And he also said that he had been there to witness the last breaths of his mother and father.

He asked us to breathe in and out together, and he talked about the constant, rhythmic, awesome miracle of the breaths we take, and take for granted, between our first and our last. Although I don’t say that the breath was breathed into me by God, and I know exactly how it works, it still seems awesome to me, and a kind of miracle.

My friend James Gustafson, a distinguished Lutheran theologian and ethicist, used to say that awe, gratitude, penitence, even piety are universal human traits, and that they precede and usually lead toward God. Some of my friends say that I just take God too literally, that God is a metaphor for the spirit of life and how we feel toward it.

Be that as it may, awe, gratitude, penitence, and perhaps even piety are things I feel–especially when I take a slow, conscious breath, or fast, or savour food after a fast, or stand among hundreds of worshippers, or look at my wife and children and realize all that life can be.

For my response to the attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, along with some interesting comments, click here and here. For my account of Yom Kippur at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, click here.

4 thoughts on “Days of Awe

  1. Even though the Book was sealed at the end of Yom Kippur, people in Israel continue to wish each other a good year, Shanah Tova, until the end of Sukkot.

    I am writing  to offer my translation of "against you" in the Al Khet, "For the sin we have committed…by haughtiness…" The correct translation is "before You." "Lefaneikha" means literally "to Your face" and means, "before You." It is neutral and does not indicate whether the sin is against God or against someone else; only that in either case God was a witness to the sin. Indeed the Makhzor translate "lefaneikha" "against You." I wish they did a better job.

    Shanah Tova,

  2. Thanks Shlomit, this is a very important corrective to the usual translation, and I should have noticed it myself. But whether the offense is against God, before God, or in God’s face, the question for me remains: is it not still a sin if God is not there?


  3. Mel –

    Just came across this tonight. Thank you for your kind words, and for reminding me of the messages i delivered. As always, it is a pleasure to have you in my community and to read your wonderful writing.


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