September 2019 -- Elul 5779-Tishri 5780,  Volume 25, Issue 9

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The Days of Awe: Re-Creating the World and Ourselves

Rabbi Pamela Wax, WJCS Spiritual Care Coordinator


The poignancy, the pain, and the hope that are embedded in the theology and liturgy of the High Holy Days never cease to amaze and move me. It is no wonder that the Hebrew term Yamim Noraim is best translated as Days of Awe.


These holy days mirror our human experience. Within them is held, and reflected back to us, both great hope as well as brokenness and fear. We all live somewhere between these extremes every day of our lives. But these Days of Awe come every year to highlight this tension and remind us that we are not alone in living on an endless roller-coaster within that duality.


Rosh HaShanah itself holds the paradox of both ends of the spectrum. This paradox is most evident during the shofar service. Three times we recite the words “Hayom harat olam,” often translated as “Today the world is born,” a sentence that seems to conflate the mythic belief that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world at some ancient time in the past along with a sensibility that that creation is happening even now on each and every Rosh HaShanah each and every year. The possibility of that kind of re-invention is a radical kind of hope. It is connected, therefore, to the essential theology inherent in the High Holy Days, namely that of teshuvah. Whether we translate teshuvah as repentance, renewal, or a return to one’s truest essence, it offers a possibility of a “do-over.” In that sense, the Days of Awe really do hold out to us an offering of a re-birth.


But also in the shofar service on Rosh HaShanah is the sound of the shofar itself – the broken staccato calls that the rabbis considered the cries of a bereft mother. The liturgy is reminding us that we live in an imperfect world in which our hearts and spirits may be broken but in which there is always the potential for renewal and hope. That tension is repeated in the Torah and haftarah readings for the first day of Rosh HaShanah, in which the births of Isaac (Torah) and Samuel (haftarah) are presented as occasions for great joy as well as suffering. We are reminded that new beginnings of any kind may give rise to unexpected outcomes, may be complicated and messy.

So it is that life can circumcise our hearts – piercing, slicing, laying them open, naked, and raw. But it is also true that “today” – whether it be Rosh HaShanah itself or any day -- the world is born anew, and there are choices to be made as to how we will live that day and the day after and the day after that.


Jewish spiritual practice offers a structure and a grounding for managing life’s complications and losses. Personally, ritual and text, liturgy and prayer, have literally saved my life as a mourner, and the knowledge that our ancient tradition sees and acknowledges my personal pain is a balm.


The High Holy Days expose deep truths. Ours is not a pediatric religion that will gloss over or make light of what is truly dark and devastating. But it does offer a counter-point, a way forward towards that light.


Wishing you and yours a year of wholeness, healing, and hope.


If you would like to join us for some spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days, we will be offering a workshop entitled “Finding Forgiveness” on Wednesday, September 25 from 2:30-4 PM and two opportunities to walk a meditative labyrinth – on Monday, September 23 at 5:30 PM and on Thursday, September 26 at 12:30 PM. Information can be found online at (URL for Healing Center brochure online) or by emailing Rabbi Wax at