Fear-Inspiring Awe

by Rebecca Einstein Schorr on 10 September 2013 @ 12:00 pm

I am now a Jew in the Pew.
But a former pulpit rabbi is never really just a Jew in the Pew.

I am so grateful to have been asked by the rabbi of our synagogue to introduce a prayer of my choosing. Even more grateful because he also invited my former senior, and current (and only!) father, to chant that prayer.



Today is different. Of course, every day is different from the preceding one. But today, these ten days, are intentionally different.

The foods we eat.
The clothes we wear.
The melodies we hear.
The words we say.

It isn’t that there is anything wrong with words, clothes, melodies, and words of our every day lives.

But these ten days are meant to be different.
To be special.

We call these ten days the ימים נוראים (Yamim Noraim) and we often render that as “the ten days of repentence.” While repentance – – is a primary theme of this season, the literal translation of ימים נוראים is “Days of Awe.”

I hail from Southern California. Where the colloquial use of the word ‘awesome’ is used so often, and in so many ways, that it has become meaningless.

“how are you today?” – awesome
“we can seat you right away.” – awesome
“a semi overturned and there’s a SIG alert on the 405” – awesome

But this word, this Old English word that dates back to the 16th century, means something different. It means “fear-inspiring awe.”

That is what these days are about. Fear-inspiring awe.

We don’t often think this way. It feels alien. Or antiquated.

Or maybe, if we stop to think too long, too terrifying.

This prayer, ונתנה תוקף (the Unetaneh Tokef), introduces the notion of a fear-inspiring God. One who not only watches our every move, but records it and judges it. And, as the prayer continues, will determine our fate in the upcoming year. That is terrifying. To me.

So we could zone out, listen to the shimmering and powerful melody that the congregational choir is about to sing, and let the words just wash over us. A legitimate way to experience this section, by the way, as it can certainly stir our very souls and bring us to an elevated plain.

But what if,
as the choir sings,
we turn to the words – either the English or the Hebrew – and confront them.
What does it mean to stand in judgement? What have I done that I don’t want judged? What will I do to right the wrongs of the past and make different choices in my present ? Knowing that I will be here, God-willing, – once again – in a year and confronting these very words – confronting my very soul? And how will I change to live in such a way that when I am called before God, I will be be judged favourabley?

ימים נוראים
That is what these days are meant to be.
“Fear-inspiring awe”
An awesomeness that inspires us to do better.
To be better.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 brianna 10 September 2013 @ 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm

I haven’t observed Judaism in any form in many years now, for a lot of reasons. I’m not proud that I’ve turned from it, but it’s hard to stay focused when I’m the only person in my family who acknowledges being Jewish at all. It’s hard to talk about it or seek that guidance when there’s no support or approval from people I would hope could support me unconditionally.


2 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 10 September 2013 @ 2:01 pm at 2:01 pm

How very sad that you have yet to find support and it is understandable how that might make it difficult to seek guidance.

So start small. Find a passage that speaks to you. Let it move you closer. Be satiated with that first small step. Until you feel it is time to add some other component or person to your team, if you will.


3 Laurie 10 September 2013 @ 3:32 pm at 3:32 pm

Your words, verbal and written, have always provoked such feeling in me. You are such a good teacher.


4 Elaine Reich 10 September 2013 @ 3:59 pm at 3:59 pm

The contrast between today’s commonplace usage of the word “awesome” and the original meaning of the word “awe” is striking. Reflecting on the original meaning is what is needed today, however, and I welcome your post on it. I work as a tutor of both elementary and high school students, so I hear them saying “awesome” a lot. I think I will bring the original meaning to their attention.


5 Michelle 12 September 2013 @ 6:17 pm at 6:17 pm

This post inspires awe. No one does it like you. Thanks for this.


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