We call these days the Yamim Noraim.
The word Nora is typically translated as awe, but also means fear, terror.
Why the connection? How are these the same word?
Awe is directed at objects considered to be more powerful than the subject, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Grand Canyon, the vastness of the cosmos, or God. Often, we think of awe Sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.
The days of awe, the days of terror: this is the journey we’re on for the next 10 days.
Why are these the Yamim Noraim? What is the terror?
One aspect of the holiday is reflected in tomorrow’s Torah reading: the creation of the world. The Torah begins:
When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth was tohu va’vohu.
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם
This is a very interesting phrase, often translated “unformed and void’” a lot of ink has been spilled trying to understand it.
Rashi said: tohu va’vohu signifies astonishment and amazement, for a person would have been astonished and amazed at its emptiness.
The 13th Century scholar Chizkuni interpreted tohu va’vohu as chaos.
Looking into the void is scary. Chaos is scary. I might be astonished an amazed, but not necessarily in a good way.
But the verse continues: ruach elohim – spirit of God or wind of God – hovers over the face of the water.
וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
What is this ruach elohim?
Rashi: The throne of Divine Glory was standing in space, hovering over the face of the waters by the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be God, and by God’s command, even as a dove hovers over its nest.
The terror of the day is in our liturgy. Tomorrow the choir will sing and we will recite Unetaneh tokef – On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die. This is a recognition of the truths of our lives: some of us won’t be here next year. Some of our loved ones won’t be here next year. These are the realities of the cycle of life – and we find it terrifying.
There’s a story about this fear in the Talmud:
Rava said to Rav Naḥman: Master, appear to me in a dream after your death. And he appeared to him. Rava said to him: Master, did you have pain in death? Rav Naḥman said to him: Like the removal of hair from milk, which is a most gentle process. But nevertheless, were the Holy One, Blessed be God, to say to me: Go back to that world, the physical world, as you were, I would not want to go, for the fear of the Angel of Death is great. Moed Katan 28a
Not that death itself is bad; the fear of it is terrifying.
I recently heard of a woman with an serious illness being asked:
What’s it like to know you’re dying?
She responded: What’s it like to pretend you’re not?
The truth of life is that our life spans are limited. Life is a temporary experience – and it’s hard to face.
One of our ancestors, Jacob, is an example of terror turning to awe.
Having tricked his brother out of his inheritance, Jacob flee Beer-Sheva for Haran. He fears for his life, because his twin, Esau, has threatened to kill him.
He camps for the night and has a dream in which a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God stands beside him and blesses him, saying: “I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac…I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Jacob awakens from his sleep and says, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
Awed, he says, “Mah nora hamakom hazeh. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.”
Nora – awesome, terrifying.
What’s with this place? Perhaps it was always special and he didn’t notice because he was wrapped up in his own drama – fleeing from his brother who’d threatened to kill him. Or maybe there was no difference between the place before and after. Maybe what was different was Jacob himself.
This Torah portion begins:
Va’yetzei Yaakov – often translated: Jacob went out, or Jacob left.
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.
But my rabbi and teacher Yoel Kahn translates it: and Jacob came out – just as yetziat mitzrayim is coming out of Egypt.
Jacob was unable to recognize the holiness in the place around him until he was able to recognize the holiness within him.
Jacob came out from the fear of his brother. He came out from his mother’s tent. He came out from the shadow of his father and grandfather’s relationship with the Divine into his own. He came out from not knowing who he would be and what was his role in the world. When Jacob came out, he was transformed, and so was everything around him.
These Days of Fear and Awe are also called the Ten Days of Teshuvah, of turning. As we do our cheshbon hanefesh, our accounting of the soul, we might come up against another scary thing about these days: here we find ourselves again and again, like in years past, struggling with the same issues. We fear we might never make the changes, see the growth, that we’d like to make. Let us think of these days as for turning to ourselves, for coming out, coming into ourselves, for being whole. We, too, are mystery.
The rabbis of the 1st centuries referred to God as HaMakom – the Place – how awesome is this Place. Perhaps the spaces around us are reflections of the Place within us: when we make our own connection with that Place, with our fears and sorrows and joys, our goodness and our faults, we can more fully connect with see the depth in the world around us. All places have the potential to be awesome, gates of heaven.
The Ruach Elohim hovers over the emptiness, the chaos. The Spirit of the Place hovers over us like a dove over her chicks. Let us turn from the fear of the chaos of our lives, terror about that which we cannot control, to resting in The Place. Let us move from terror to awe, from fear to holding the mystery with open hands. This life is so much bigger than we are.
Tomorrow afternoon, at 4 pm at the Halesite Dock, we will enact the ancient ritual of Tashlich, Casting Away. I invite you to join us in casting away whatever you need to let go of, your old anxieties about yourself, your fears of the unknown. Cast them off and cross through the Gates of Heaven.