Earlier this summer, I was in a local Jewish bookstore looking for some of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s books to give to a friend as a present. I found both the Kushner books I was looking for, as well as a copy of “Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe.”
As I’ve been knitting together my own travelogue of faith these past few months, I keep picking up my bright red Days of Awe prayer book and flipping through it. I always have some sense of internal shifting or unlocking as a result of the overall sensory experience of this book: the brilliant hue of its cover, the firm newness of the binding, the rubby onion-skin thinness of the pages, the unreadable (to me) Hebrew passages throughout, the stunning variety of the prayers and meditations, and the refreshing lack of a gendered God, which I find so tiresome and irritating in many Christian liturgies.
Wednesday night the Emmanuel Episcopal Church community has been invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with our fellow seekers at 15 Newbury Street, Boston Jewish Spirit, to mark the beginning of the Days of Awe, also known as the High Holy Days.
I sheepishly confess that I knew what the High Holy Days were long before I knew that they were also called the Days of Awe. At an almost cellular level, the idea of a period of time being called Days of Awe takes my breath away. That little word, awe, is so small and so mighty — just three letters for what is maybe the foundation for everything ineffable in human life. Lily Tomlin’s character Trudy, from her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” said this great thing about awe:
At the moment you are most in awe of all you don’t understand, you’re closer to understanding it all than at any other time.
I love being part of a progressive Christian community that is engaged with a progressive Jewish community. Sharing each other’s meals, ceremonies, rituals, art, music, and chores has given my faith, skepticism, questions, awe, and prayers a texture and a depth that simply weren’t there before.
To begin my first conscious, intentional passage through the Days of Awe, I’ve been immersing myself in the writings, interviews, and speeches of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What an extraordinary poet, agitator, visionary, and prophet Rabbi Heschel was. There are so many quotations of Rabbi Heschel’s that stagger me with awe. We’ll go out today with this one about prayer, which has been on my mind a lot since PW and I spent a lively afternoon discussing what would be her final sermon before her summer vacation. During that discussion, I got all worked up (as I often do when I ponder the ancient texts) and blurted, “Prayer is NOT a transaction! Prayer is a POSTURE!” Then, lo and behold, today I stumbled across this loveliness, from Carl Stern’s interview with Rabbi Heschel in 1972, two weeks before Heschel died. Stern asked Rabbi Heschel what the role of prayer is if God doesn’t intervene in human life:
First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and [humans] cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and [humans]. God needs our help.