Choosing Awe

Choosing Awe

Last week I taught our Kitah Gimmel/Dalet students about the shofar. We went over the different sounds the shofar makes and we even got into some of the Talmudic minutiae explaining why we blow the shofar in all of the different permutations we do on Rosh Hashanah. Then we shifted the conversation, moving from the technical details to the meaning behind it. What do these different blasts: tekiah, shevarim, truah, represent? Why do we blow the shofar at all on Rosh Hashanah? After coming up with some of our own ideas, we looked at a list of ten reasons the shofar is blown compiled by the 10th century rabbi and philosopher Saadia Gaon. 

Number seven on that list: the shofar inspires people to think about–-and sometimes fear–God’s greatness. We blow the shofar to remind us of God’s greatness. 

In other words, the sound of the shofar serves as a reminder of the power of God, and that this power is everywhere around us, and that the proper response to this power is fear. The 14th century Spanish rabbi Abudarham, in his commentary on the liturgy, expands on this, saying the trembling vibrations of the shofar should cause us to physically tremble.

We went through the whole list, and then one of the students asked a question: “Why are we supposed to fear God?”. 

This is the type of question I both live for and also dread at the same time. I asked the class if they had ever had an encounter with something really big in nature, the ocean, or the mountains, and to reflect on how that made them feel. Did that experience make them go, “Wow”? Was it scary but kind of in a good way? They agreed, and I said that we often call that feeling “awe” and that the Hebrew word we were translating as fear, yirah, can also mean awe. 

When we have an experience of something much bigger than us, we feel this yirah, this fear/awe, and the shofar is a call reminding us to work to connect with the Divine and experience this yirat hashamayim, awe or fear of heaven, or yirat haShem, fear or awe of God.  

I would like to take some time now to reflect on awe in general, to explore why this is a feeling we are to feel when we hear the shofar cry, and to reflect on what awe can do for us as individuals and a community –because I believe one thing we really need more of right now is awe.

Let’s start by looking at a scientific definition of awe and see how that compares to some Jewish understandings of yirah. As you may know, Beth David is one of fourteen communities this year that have been awarded a “Scientists in Synagogues” grant from Sinai and Synapses, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, along with other individual donors. 

Over the summer, I attended an opening workshop in New York. In all the conversations with other grant recipients and panelists, including Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, and my teacher Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, a consistently recurring theme was how awe is foundational to both Judaism and science. Awe is the initial feeling that inspired both Judaism and science. And from that beginning, science and Judaism have further developed systems that can inspire us to feel even more awe. Think of those amazing pictures of the earliest known galaxies taken by the James Webb telescope a few months ago, or the haunting melody of Kol Nidre we will be hearing in just a few days. 

So what is awe? The John Templeton Foundation published a white paper, “The Science of Awe,” in 2018, where they reviewed over 75 scientific studies relating to awe. They note that it is only in the last twenty years or so that psychologists have seriously begun to investigate awe, starting in a 2003 paper by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” In that paper, they say that to elicit awe, an experience needs two things: 1) perceived vastness and 2) a need for accommodation.

They define vastness as “anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience.” This can be something actually physically large, like a grove of redwood trees or the ocean, but can also be something intricate or complex, like a fractal or a piece of music. Whatever the trigger is, it leads people to feel as if they are part of something bigger.

In addition to the perception of vastness, awe also comes with a need for accommodation. This experience tells you that your conception of the world needs to shift or expand in order to make sense of it. Awe experiences demand that we question and try to revise our understanding of the world and our place in it. This demand is what can make awe so terrifying (as our worldview has been shaken) but also potentially enlightening (as we now have a better understanding of the world).

This scientific understanding of awe has some powerful resonances with how we can understand yirat haShem or yirat hashamaim – the awe or fear of God or heaven. 

The 4th Gerrer Rebbe, Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the Imrei Emet, explains what yirat haShem is by closely looking at the story of the Plague of Hail in chapter nine of Exodus. After Moses warns that hail will soon be coming to Egypt, in verse 20 we read that “those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared/were in awe of Adonai’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety.” In contrast in the next verse we learn: “Those who paid no attention to the word of Adonai left their slaves and livestock in the open.”

The Imrei Emet notes that the verses here contrast those who had yirah to God’s word with those who did not pay attention to God’s word. He concludes that this means that not paying attention is the opposite of having yirah. He writes that the idea of fear/awe of God is to pay attention to everything, that one should not do anything that is not according to the will of the God of all, and to believe that the world is full of God’s glory, and in this one can comprehend fear/awe of Heaven.

When we pay attention, we open ourselves up to perceptions of vastness – to seeing God’s glory everywhere. And this perception also requires accommodation, as it demands that we line up our will with God’s. 

This is not easy to do. In many ways our brains are set up to prevent us from feeling awe.As neurologist and science journalist Richard Sima wrote in the Washington Post article “Why it is awesome that your brain can experience awe”:

To understand the concept of awe, it helps to know how the brain responds to what we perceive as mundane. Over the course of our lives, our brains learn and encode what “normal” is and predict what we think should happen next, based on our internal understanding of the world.

That prediction of what happens next guides our behavior. It is crucial for being able to function in this incredibly complicated world,” said Michelle “Lani” Shiota, an associate professor of social psychology at Arizona State University. “But it does narrow our perspective, it narrows our vision. And it simply doesn’t account for everything….”

“You know, by adulthood, we move through the world pretty immersed in our own concerns, our own minutiae of the day-to-day, our own responsibilities, and it can be hard to keep a sense of perspective about how that fits into the grand scheme of things” […]

In order to function in the world, we make patterns, we see what is normal, and we often filter out or ignore what doesn’t fit. Awe, with its demand for accommodation, reminds us that while often useful, this narrowing of our perspective is not all of reality.

When our ancestor Jacob was fleeing from his brother to Haran, as the sun was setting, he stopped at a certain place for the night, using a rock as a pillow. There he had his dream of angels going up and down a ladder, there he heard God promise to be with him. When he awoke, he said: “Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati,” “God was in this place and I, I did not know.” And then it says: “va’yirah” – “Jacob was awestruck or afraid.” He had perceived vastness, and it had called into question what he knew of the world around him. He had experienced awe. In response, he took the stone that, the night before, had just been a stone that had served a simple utilitarian function, and turned it into a shrine for God. 

Which brings us to some of the benefits of experiencing awe. Again, going back to the John Templeton Foundation white paper: “Studies have found that awe can create a diminished sense of self (an effect known as “the small self”), give people the sense that they have more available time, increase feelings of connectedness… increase positive mood, and decrease materialism.” 

Jacob starts his journey out for himself, fleeing his brother Esav, whose blessing he stole, and whose birthright he purchased for a pot of lentils. By the time he returns, he has a broader perspective. Giving gifts to his Esav, telling him he has everything. His experience of awe is one of the things that helped transform him. 

Richard Sima’s Washington Post article also lists some of the benefits of awe: 

Awe leads people to feel more connected with others and identify with more universal categories such as “a person” or “inhabitant of earth,” as opposed to more individualistic, limited ones. In different studies, when researchers induced awe in participants in laboratories, such as by showing panoramic clips of places on Earth, people behaved more prosocially, being more likely to help out, donate more money and volunteer more time for strangers.

Awe helps us to realize it is not all about us, to be able to realize we are part of something much bigger and to act accordingly. This is needed in the world today where there are so many forces directing our focus to our own selfish needs and pushing us into partisan camps opposed to others. Awe may lead to a smaller conception of the self, but it actually broadens our perspective, showing how we are part of something bigger.

While there are many benefits to feeling awe – decreased feelings of stress, increased feelings of well being and meaning –I do not want to paint an overly simplistic view of awe. As with any human emotion, it can be taken to extremes that are harmful. As the Templeton Foundation white paper notes, researchers are beginning to look at the potential dark sides of awe. Awe’s tendency to deemphasize the self in service of something greater can inspire violence. 

We do not need to go far to see this: our Torah reading today, with the binding of Isaac. The messenger of God tells Abraham that “now I know that you fear God, yirei Elohim, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” Abraham’s reaction to this is an example of what happens when fear/awe of God is taken to the farthest extreme. He is part of something bigger, God’s plan, and his self is so diminished that any individual wants and desires, including the instinct to protect your own children from harm, simply vanish.

While this story perhaps serves as a warning about taking awe too far, the rest of our High Holiday liturgy is a call to awe, because we – for the most part, all of us – could use more awe in our lives. And this call is most clearly symbolized by the shofar and its piercing cry.

Because we have a choice. We can choose to live in awe, or we can choose to see everything around us as mundane. Rabbi Hanninah says in the Talmud in Brachot 33b, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.” We do not have as much control over our lives as we would like. But we do have a choice in how we perceive the world around us. In last week’s parsha we were asked to choose life. We can do that by choosing awe. By paying attention, to seeing wonder all around us. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality,” knowing “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” We just need to be open to this.

Paul Piff, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine, suggests several ways we can increase our feeling of awe, including: 

  • Viewing something giant, such as a mountain range or ocean. 
  • Discovering something tiny such as the worlds seen through a microscope.
  • Contemplating a piece of music or (re)discovering a piece of art.

His favorite suggestion: Just take a walk out the door. Once you step outside, pick a random number between 1 and 100. Take that number of steps and look beneath your feet. Look around to find something inspiring.

To this list I will add: really listen to the shofar when you hear its call, feel its vibrations passing through you. Let those vibrations connect you to everything around you. Let it connect you to all of the other shofar blasts happening today around the world, and all of the shofar blasts that have ever been and ever will be, from the sound of the shofar that accompanied the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, to the Shofar blast that will herald in the messianic age. Let the shofar open your eyes, let it open your heart, to see the wonder all around you.

Albert Einstein, in a 1931 essay “The World As I See It,” wrote:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion.

When we choose wonder and awe, we choose life. When we pay attention, and realize that the divine is all around us, we choose life. I would like to conclude my words by sharing with you a poem that illustrates this choice by Ravindra Kumar Karnani called “And a Meadowlark Sang”:

“The child whispered, ‘God, speak to me’
And a meadow lark sang.
The child did not hear.
So the child yelled, ‘God, speak to me!’
And the thunder rolled across the sky
But the child did not listen.
The child looked around and said,
‘God let me see you’ and a star shone brightly
But the child did not notice.
And the child shouted,
‘God show me a miracle!’
And a life was born but the child did not know.
So the child cried out in despair,
‘Touch me God, and let me know you are here!’
Whereupon God reached down
And touched the child.
But the child brushed the butterfly away
And walked away unknowingly.”
We have a choice. We can choose awe. Mystery surround us if only we will hear, if only we will see, if only we will notice. This Holy Day, let us again dedicate ourselves to choosing awe, choosing life.

Shanah Tovah.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Nathan Roller’s sermon was given on day two of Rosh Hashanah 5783 at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, CA).


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