Beginning the Days of Awe

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.”

Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook 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.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

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.

L’shanah Tovah.

12 responses to “Beginning the Days of Awe

  1. Dear Joy,

    I’m in awe of your awe. Thanks for getting me in the mood to welcome in 5771. Never mind that Pat & I sat on the deck this eve and I made Pat listen to my prayer aloud that in the new year, God please keep us and everyone we love healthy plus many other requests. Still, Rabbi Heschel is right and now, I’m reminded to pray for its own sake.

  2. I’m always wondering what is wrong with me when, on Facebook, I read a friends tragic status, and don’t offer them prayers to help them.

  3. Joy: I always enjoy reading your blog posts; more than “enjoy” — learn, grow, see anew, stretch, ponder, possibly even change! Wonderful quote on prayer by Heschel. I read THE INSECURITY OF FREEDOM this year. “Prayer may not save us,” he says in ‘Prayer as Discipline,’ ” but it makes us worthy of being saved.” Thank you for your insights and your communication skills. I’ll keep reading! DRB

  4. oops! Your quote had the same line. Found in a different paragraph of another article. I should have read more closely! DRB

  5. So Prayer is posture; I’ve got some work to do on my posture. Thanks, Joy, for mining such gems of spiritual insight and challenge!

  6. I’ve thought about both prayer and love, so intimately related, not so much as things one does but as ways of seeing the world, as corrective lenses that most of us need. I tend to leave them both in my back pocket and sit on them every day. Better posture would definitely help with that! And if you haven’t read it yet, check out the piece in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times today by Faisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and imam of the Farah mosque in Lower Manhattan. Quoting from the Koran, he says: “Peace is a word spoken from a merciful Lord.” Words to pray, indeed.

  7. “As I’ve been knitting together my own travelogue of faith these past few months…”
    If you ever begin to doubt your skill, please come back to this simple, beautiful phrase. You will be reminded, my dear cousin, that you are a writer. Period.

  8. I’d love to have a session called “Postures of Prayer” where we stood (“It’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer”, bowing, kneeling, sitting, lying down, with scriptures related to those postures and perhaps hymns to sing as engaged int hose postures of prayer. I keep going back to that ideaand remembering an exercise of blessing that Carolyn Brock did for us at a Spiritual Formation retreat….’nuf said. You inspire, Joybells, even this “bear of little brain.” Oh, my, you are truly joy.

  9. Joy, I think we met once a very long time ago. You knew my husband Barry Midgorden.
    Your observations about awe and prayer confirm my feelings about them too. I’ve not read any of the Jewish mystics, however, I’ve been feeling the draw to read them lately. When I was a Religious Studies student at Graceland, I was drawn to many of their concepts about the Divine that I read in my course work. There are times almost every day that I feel awe for the life I’m living now. Finally in the middle years of my life, I’m letting go of all my old self-concepts and letting Divine Oneness whisper my purpose to me. I’m following Her/His guidance. I’m allowing myself to be more than the little me ever thought I could be.
    As for prayer. For me it has always been a matter of gratitude. I’m grateful for my relationship with the Divine, for challenging me to be more, and to always have my highest good in mind. I like your last comment about God needing us. My life is a partnership between me and the Divine and so I continue to ponder who I am and my purpose in life. It has been a rewarding relationship.
    Thanks for your deep thoughts. They have inspired me.

    • Lucinda,
      Thank you for your own deep thoughts. I’m most drawn to the mystics of every tradition. They are the ones most likely to be working outside the box, in any tradition, and to my mind the worst thing anyone can do is to put God in a box.

      I’ve been a big fan of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner for more than 20 years, ever since a friend of PW’s gave me a copy of “Honey From the Rock.” We have a lot of his books among our God-book collection. When PW was on sabbatical a couple of years ago, she got to meet with Rabbi Kushner for a little while at his home in San Francisco. He told her that his editor felt that a lot of his ideas would be better conveyed through fiction. The result was a little novel called “Kabbalah: A Love Story.” I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, and I highly recommend it. In fact, it’s probably time for me to re-read it, since I’m now trying to write my own little book that draws in no small part from my experiences with Kushner’s writings over the years.

      Barry is one of my all-time favorite people from my childhood! Please tell him hello from me.

  10. I have often found myself with experience of just wanting to be close to God, without words…so I have found that the sigh of love to be the closest I can come

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