Face Fear by Embracing Awe

Face Fear by Embracing Awe

I want to begin tonight with an exercise.
If you are comfortable, I want you to close your eyes and give yourself a mental slide show.
I want you to find images which describe or define awe.
Perhaps you are seeing galaxies and nebulas.
Or lush forests and crisp blue lakes.
Perhaps you are seeing the building blocks of life.
Perhaps you are seeing life itself. The moment a child emerges into the world. A picture of baby giggling. Your once-baby, now-adult getting married.

Perhaps you see a partial image of holding your loved one’s hand.

Keep your eyes closed if you can.
I now want you to envision and create a slide show of fear.

Perhaps you see natural disasters pummeling the landscape.
Or the human-disaster of war ravaged regions. The pleading face of a newly orphaned child.
Perhaps you see fires or flood or blood.

Perhaps you see a partial image of holding your loved one’s hand.

Let us open our eyes and come back to this shared space.

Fear and awe stem from the same root in Hebrew, two sides of one coin, as it were.1Yirah and norah, fear and awe, share the same Hebrew root: yud, resh, aleph – the latter being an adjective, and the former noun. From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we call the entire ten day period “the days of awe.” Yamim nora’im.
During these days, our liturgy is replete with imagery as we are called to work on ourselves through teshuva – repentance.
We belt out Avinu Malkeinu, and are meant to feel insignificant in the face of such powerful moments.
We speak of the gates closing and feel our souls running, gasping for air in an attempt to reach them.
We bemoan our fates with “on Rosh Hashanah is it written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” The intensity of the melody of Kol Nidre weighs upon us as we stare into an empty ark and are asked the impossible: to look into our own mortality.

With all these examples and many more, perhaps these days ought to be called the alliterative yirah yamim—fear days. But fear and awe are not so distant cousins. Let us look into and learn what these words mean.

Researchers2https://sinaiandsynapses.org/content/what-we-can-learn-from-scientists-awe-experiences/ Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, have defined awe thusly: awe is triggered by experiencing something vast that challenges or complicates our understanding of how the world works. While this is wonderful scholarly definition, it may not capture your emotional state of awe.

Rabbi Todd Zinn3https://www.chicagosinai.org/worship/sermons/embracing-awe helps expand these words: “Awe is a word. Awe is a feeling. Awe is an attitude towards the world. Awe is an experience that we can take for granted. At times we use “awe” flippantly [such as the ubiquitous ‘awesome’], and other times we dismiss the feeling and focus on a more detailed set of descriptions that miss the grandiosity, the power, of awe. Awe is the realization that we are inhabiting a much larger space than we are used to inhabiting. Awe is a powerful experience. When we embrace the experience of awe, it has the capacity to change our perspective, to influence our thinking and to propel us forward in new and powerful ways.”

Fear on the other hand, can be paralyzing. Fear keeps us held back.
Fear shrinks us from our space.
Fear makes us want to isolate.

Fear is obvious. We are all very aware of the fear. In our liturgy and in our daily lives, fear is palpable and present. Usually, we don’t need to be reminded to fear. On the other hand, because fear has an overwhelming presence in our lives, we do need to balance that fear with a greater awareness and stronger embrace of the awe in our lives and our world.

In his book, God in Search of Man4God in Search of Man, R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel, pg 77, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us: “Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is ‘a surrender of the succors which reason offers,’ awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary draws us near.”

Awe is an opportunity to be a part of the world around us, to see that we live “under wide horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple.”

21st century science on the study of awe agrees with him. If we start from the basis that evolutionary advantages shape our current human existence, then we can ask: “What is the value of having awe?”
“A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival.” 5https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_feel_awe
Put another way, “being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.” 6Ibid.
We need awe not only for ourselves as individuals, but for ourselves inside of community.

If we think that awe stems from a vastness, then we start to see ourselves less as the center, but as a spoke from it. Not that we are ourselves are insignificant, but rather that there is much beyond ourselves and we have the gift of participating in it. When we are able to view life in this way, as deeply connected to one another, we begin to invest more deeply in each other.

Fear does nearly the opposite. It separates and disconnects us from one another. Fear causes us to put ourselves first. It drives us toward competition rather than collaboration. Fear is so powerful a force that in the Torah, God frequently has to tell the Israelites to not give in to it.

Rabbi Yael Splansky7https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/fear-not gives us a sampling of these instances when she relates:
“In moments of personal transition or trial, God commands individual men and women not to let their fears get the best of them. When Avram sets out into unchartered territory as the first to enter into a personal covenant with God, he is told, ‘al tira.’ God reassures him with promises of protection and progeny (Genesis 15:1-5). When Hagar was about to give in to despair, an angel of God calls out ‘Al tir’i,’ – ‘Have no fear’ – and rescues her son Ishmael from a deadly thirst (Genesis 21:17). When Isaac sets out from the security of home and does not know where the road may lead, God says, ‘al tira,’ and reasserts the blessings promised to his father Abraham (Genesis 26:24). When the elderly Jacob prepares for his journey down to Pharaoh’s palace to be reunited with his son Joseph after twenty years of separation, God encourages him: ‘al tira,’ – ‘fear not’ (Genesis 46:3). In every generation – from Ruth to David to Daniel – so many of our biblical ancestors heard these words just when they needed them most. Just when they felt most vulnerable, most alone, so many of our prophets heard and delivered God’s message of hope: ‘Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be frightened, for I am your God (Isaiah 41:10).'”

Though the commandment to not fear exists, it somehow seems inaccessible. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik admits: “I know that I am perplexed, that my fears are irrational, incoherent. At times I am given over to panic; I am afraid of death. At other times, I am horrified by the thought of becoming, God forbid, incapacitated during my lifetime [or losing my loved ones]. . . I don’t know what to fear, what not to fear; I am utterly confused and ignorant.”

Yet, for all these issues, he desired the inclusion of yirat Adonai: “During the High Holydays, we pray that this great fear will free us from all the lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives.” From Talmudic times through today, this is called yirat Adonai, the fear of God. Or better translated, the awe of God. It removes individual fears and replaces them with awe of vastness. That which is bigger than us. For some that is God, for others that is nature, for others that is humanity, for others that is community and togetherness.

In all of the biblical cases and in Soloveitchik’s lament, the commandment to not fear is ameliorated with the presence of another—be them human or divine.
Put simply, the salve of fear is the embrace of one another. And we can do more of that when we encourage ourselves to seek out awe.

Awe is an embrace of the wonder, the beauty, and the unity of the world. Awe is what we experience when we look over the Blue Ridge Mountains from Jump-Off Rock.

Awe is what we experience when new pictures of faraway galaxies are revealed to us. Awe is what we experience on top of Masada.
Awe is an attitude.
It need not be reserved for those few special moments.

It is not something to be kept in an ivory castle on top of the hill.
It is not some limited natural resource we need to be concerned about depleting.
We might not think of awe as an everyday experience, but we should try to experience awe every day.

May this year of 5783 open our eyes to awe.
May we soak it in and embrace it at every opportunity.
May we embrace togetherness and collaboration over isolation and competition.
May we sense deep vastness and a need to shift our understanding of the world each and every day.
May we face fear by embracing awe.
May this be our blessing and may this be so.

(This sermon was originally given on Yom Kippur 5783, at Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, NC. Rabbi Rachael Jackson, a Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumna, is rabbi at the congregation).


1 Yirah and norah, fear and awe, share the same Hebrew root: yud, resh, aleph – the latter being an adjective, and the former noun.
2 https://sinaiandsynapses.org/content/what-we-can-learn-from-scientists-awe-experiences/
3 https://www.chicagosinai.org/worship/sermons/embracing-awe
4 God in Search of Man, R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel, pg 77
5 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_feel_awe
6 Ibid.
7 https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/fear-not


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