Awe and Love in the New Year

by David Jaffe

The Jewish calendar, like all religious systems, has particular ways of marking spiritual time. A weekly sabbath beckons us to stop, prayers for the new lunar month remind us of the constant opportunity for renewal, and the High Holy Days bring us face-to-face with our own mortality. These days are spiritual opportunities pregnant with possibility. We stand at this moment between the two most recognizable and holy days of the year—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Bursting with allusions to life and death, these festivals are collectively known as the “Days of Awe,” but that description is only a half-truth. These are actually the days of Awe and Love.

The balance of Awe and Love is a key to unlocking the spiritual potential of these days. For many Jews, their experience was all Awe, and its cousin, Fear. Talmudic imagery describes Rosh Hashana as the time God sits with the book of judgement open and reviews everyone’s deeds from the past year to determine who shall live and who shall die. I remember sitting in religious services as a child terrified that I might die in the coming year. Indeed, Rosh Hashana, which literally means, “Head of the Year,” is also referred to in the Bible as the "Day of Judgement." Not only that, but ten days later comes the most holy day of the year, Yom Kippur, a twenty-five hour fast that culminated these Days of Awe. To my young self, and to many Jews, these days seemed like an ordeal to get through, rather than an opportunity for profound spiritual renewal.

The missing ingredient was love, and it was there all along. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are like two poles of a battery that exist in dynamic tension, rather than one monolithic experience of religious trembling. While Rosh Hashana is indeed Judgement Day, Yom Kippur is the "Day of At-One-Ment—a day of pure forgiveness and reconciliation. The Talmud calls Yom Kippur one of the two happiest days in the entire calendar. Two thousand years ago Yom Kippur was a great matchmaking day, when young men and women went out to the fields to meet and find their life partners, mirroring on a human plane the love and intimacy being played out on the Divine plane between God and the people. Yom Kippur is a fast day to help limited, flesh-and-blood humans get a taste of what it means to be a pure spiritual entity, without physical needs. While the day is filled with prayers for forgiveness, at one of the very first moments in the liturgy, God emphatically declares, “You are forgiven!” The rituals and poetic language of the day are designed to nurture an experience of deep connection and unconditional love.

Since love is the endpoint of this ritual process, why can’t we do away with the Awe, with all its fear and judgment? The answer lies in the central image and ritual object of Rosh Hashana, the ram’s horn, or shofar. The Bible also calls Rosh Hashana the "Day of Shofar Blasts" and the liturgy, indeed, calls for no less than one hundred blasts over the course of the morning prayer service. The shofar blast is a piercing, haunting sound. While in ancient times the shofar had many uses, including calling troops to war, on Rosh Hashana the blasts are designed to evoke different kinds of tears and wailing. It is literally a voiceless cry when, facing mortality, we are left with no words. The sound of the shofar is like a baby’s cry, designed such that it cannot be ignored. We cannot ignore the blasts, and we hope that God cannot either. The shofar physically and spiritually wakes you up to take stock of your life. This is the spiritual value of Awe. Awe wakes us up, like a splash of cold water, from our spiritual slumber. Once awake, spiritual growth is possible.

The key is not to stay with Awe, but to move to relationship, and Love. This is the move over the period of ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. Now awake, we know we have work to do. But we also know that we are deeply loved and our Divine lover is waiting for us, with a metaphoric hand stretched out yearning for us to reach as well. The Talmud and our later mystical sages teach us that this love is assured, and we just need to make the move toward closeness.

This balance of Awe and Love point us in the direction of a practice for these days of spiritual opportunity. In the Jewish tradition these are also known as the Ten Days of Teshuva, or Return. This is the best time of year to affect a return to our Source and to our highest selves. These are the three steps, and they draw from both the Mussar (applied Jewish Ethics) and Chassidic (practical mysticism) schools:

Step 1: Acknowledgement and Sensitivity

The first step in Return is to honestly acknowledge the reality of your life. How am I living in or out of alignment with my values? Am I being my best self? Is my wife or husband correct in those things they point out about the way I behave? Have I been too defensive to really take it in? Shame and embarrassment can keep us from facing the truth of our lives. We need to work through these powerful emotions to hold with the uncomfortable truth. This step takes courage and honesty with ourselves if we are to develop the sensitivity needed to grow. Awe can help. Awe wakes us up to acknowledge reality. A solid meditation practice is a big help in this stage so we can sit with the uncomfortable feelings as we become more aware. Journaling and chanting can also help own the reality of your life.

Step 2: The Power of Decision

Once you have acknowledged reality, you are in a better position to decide with awareness how you actually want to live your life. This may involve ceasing or starting certain behaviors or patterns of thought. The more work you’ve done to develop exquisite sensitivity to your inner life, the easier these decisions will be. The power of decision is a valuable tool, but it can be a blunt instrument. We want to use it sparingly in the growth and return process so not to extinguish our natural passion and zest for life.

Step 3: Joy and Love

The most refined step in the return process is accessing the deep joy that comes with living into a sense of mission. We all have a certain mission or missions in the world, and our soul knows when it is living in alignment with these callings. Often, the unacknowledged reality of our behavior is just the thing that keeps us from joining the flow of our calling. This is the role of love. Living into our deeply felt mission brings joy to our hearts and gives us access to rich wells of love—both for ourselves and to give to others. God’s love is one way to think of this overflowing well. This is Yom Kippur—the day of reconciliation, At-One-Ment and love. We are reunited with our lover and with our path in this world. We are aligned and ready to head out into the new year.

While Awe and its cousin Fear may be necessary to start a process of return, they cannot be the only guides. The great Mussar master, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, taught that a process of return that is based only on awe and fear cannot sustain. Short-term change may take place, but it will never last. Only return motivated by love will sustain.

May we merit to point ourselves toward love this Jewish High Holiday season and embark on a path of return to our highest selves, to our deep mission, and to our commitment to each other that is not only sustainable in itself, but that creates the foundations of a sustainable future for all those around us.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. He teaches Mussar and Jewish spiritual practice widely throughout North America and Israel. He lives in Sharon, MA, with his wife and two teenage sons.