Living Awe-Filled Days

Living a life of awe is about being present to the infinite depth of reality, even as we inhabit the finite world of time and space. Awe is a glimpse or a sense of the Divine Presence that permeates creation down to the most intimate details of our lives. When we live in awe, we live with gratitude, with openness, and with the desire that our words and actions serve the Good.

Our barrier to awe is our mind’s desire to navigate and control our world through labeling and categorizing our moment to moment experience. In order to function, to make choices and decisions, we must label and categorize the elements of our lives. We must judge them as desirable and undesirable, good and bad, this and that. And while this labeling and judging is a necessary element of the human experience, it also can also act as a filter that transmutes the Glory of God that is shining through all of reality into concepts and ideas that can be manipulated and controlled for our own purposes.

As we approach the Jewish new year, our tradition asks us to return to awe. The days of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and all the days in between are called the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe. They are also called the Aseret Y’mei HaTeshuvah – the Ten Days of Teshuvah or return. These ideas are one and the same. When we return to experiencing ourselves and the rest of the creation in the moment as is, without the usual filter of labels and judgments, then we experience a sense of awe at the grandeur, majesty, and miracle of creation as it is expressed through the people in our lives and the world around us.

This work of Teshuvah is two-fold. On one hand, our practice is to use this time to be radically present with our moment to moment experience and open to the infinite, alive, and loving dimension in all of life. And the other part of our practice is to become aware of the ways our labels and judgments function to color our perception of reality,  to distinguish between our experience of them and reality itself.

The prayer liturgy that accompanies us on these ten days provides focus for directing our attention in these areas. During the Amidah prayer, which is traditionally  recited three times a day every day, there are four special verses inserted during these Days of Awe.

זָכְרֵֽנוּ לְחַיִּים מֶֽלֶךְ חָפֵץ בַּחַיִּים וְכָתְבֵֽנוּ בְּסֵֽפֶר הַחַיִּים לְמַעַנְךָ אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים:

Remember us for life, Ruler who desires life. And inscribe us in the book of life for You are the Living God.

Who are we asking to remember us for life? Isn’t the Everpresent One present with all of us? I would translate the first part of this verse as “Help us remember the aliveness in us because You are the source of that aliveness…” The verse is reminding us to pay attention to the energy, the vibrancy, the life that makes up who we are. And as we pay attention to that aliveness, we recognize it as the Divine Presence.

I would translate the second part of the verse as Inscribe this awareness of Your Presence on our hearts for You are the Living God. We know that recognizing God’s awesome presence in our sense of aliveness is fleeting. The labels and judgments take over all too easily. So we imagine that the reminder is inscribed, imprinted in our hearts, staying with us as we go about our days.

מִי כָמֽוֹךָ אַב הָרַחֲמִים זוֹכֵר יְצוּרָיו לְחַיִּים בְּרַחֲמִים:

Who is like You, Source of Compassion, who remembers the aliveness of His creatures with compassion

Again, this verse is asking us to direct our attention to compassion. If we want to experience the awe and wonder of our lives and the creation, we need to rest our awareness in the place in us that has space and understanding for every human being and every life-form to be as it is. The root of the Hebrew word for compassion – rachamim – shares the same root as the word rechem – womb. Just as a womb provides the space for new life to grow to provide nourishment, but also boundary and limitation, so too compassion allows us to bring loving presence to accept others in our lives for who they are. If we are viewing others or the world through our filter of labels and judgements, we can only see others and the world according to our filter, missing the infinite depth and dimension that inspires awe. It’s also worth noting that the liturgist uses the word יְצוּרָיו – creatures, to suggest that our compassion is not limited to certain kinds of people or even human beings – it is all of creation.

וּכְתוֹב לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים כָּל בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ:

And inscribe for a good life all the children of your covenant

The word for covenant – brit – is about committed relationships. Being a child of the covenant is not just about a commitment to our relationship with God, but with each other. Covenant is born out of the realization that we are interconnected and therefore, always in relationship. We have obligations to the people around us, as they do to us, and these obligations can be a source of goodness if we experience these relationships as the reality of our connection with each other and with God. This verse reminds us to embrace our relationships and obligations as pathways to awe.

 בְּסֵֽפֶר חַיִּים בְּרָכָה וְשָׁלוֹם וּפַרְנָסָה טוֹבָה נִזָּכֵר וְנִכָּתֵב לְפָנֶֽיךָ אֲנַֽחְנוּ וְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים וּלְשָׁלוֹם:

In the book of life, blessing, peace, and good livelihood, may we be inscribed before You and all of the House of Israel for good life and peace.

The metaphor of the book seems to describe the possibilities for life, blessing, peace, and good livelihood while our prayer is that those possibilities become actualities. I think this can also be read as the journey cannot be separated from the destination. If we want the qualities of life, blessing, peace, and good livelihood to be what characterizes our lives then we need to be committed to bringing those qualities into the world. Our prayer during this time can be – “Holy One, show me how to live in a way that is most fully alive. Show me how I can be a blessing. Let me bring peace to my relationships. Let me bring goodness into my livelihood.” In order to experience awe in our lives, we need to stop waiting for the world or God to show us a certain face, and instead, be that Divine Presence that we seek.

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