“Awesome” High Holidays

You can scour any Jewish records before the Middle Ages and you won’t find the High Holidays referred to as the “Days of Awe.” In the grand scheme of Jewish history, it’s a recent term, which of course made me think: Why? Why, around the medieval period, do we suddenly start calling Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur yamim nora’im, the “Days of Awe?”

Today when we say the word awe, it’s typically meant to evoke inspiration and wonder. But the Hebrew word for awe, nora, says more — in some contexts it also means fear. But how can one word mean two arguably very different things. How can something be both “OMG” to “AHHH!!!!!”?

Scholar Ismar Elbogen shares that the source of this double-meaning is the anti-Semitism and persecution Jews experienced during the Medieval period from those that aimed to mute the typically joyous celebration of Rosh Hashanah. And with this, a more subdued tone around the High Holidays was born: a day of awe, a day of judgment, a day of fear. The Book of Life was opened, and our ancestors weren’t just praying, they were fighting for their lives.

Ok, that was heavy. And while it’s a lot to take in, reflecting on this learning is helping me consider how my experience of the High Holidays might change for the better. If we consider not only joy and wonder, but also acknowledge what we’re afraid of, we can reflect on personal fears for productive growth in our holiday experiences. 

So where do we find the awe and fear in our everyday lives that we need to reflect on? The Awe is the easy part:

Nature | Awe in the space around you.

  • Leave your phone at home and take a walk around the block. What flowers do you see? What color is the sky? 
  • Cuddling up on the couch while it’s raining? What noises do the raindrops hitting your window make?

Art | Seeking stories to deepen your connection.

  • While a trip to museums, cemeteries, conservatories, libraries, zoos, historical sites, theaters and arenas may be a go to — right now I’m loving this option, too: Home Awe Repository Resources 
  • Pull out your phone because the possibilities are endless when you start finding recordings of nature, skill, speeches, and music available online. Compile your favorites into the perfect playlist for a reflective moment in your High Holiday commemoration. Start here: Spotify Nature Sounds

The Day to Day | Finding moments in your routine.

  • That “WOWZA” feeling doesn’t require a trek up a mountain. It could be the way the smell of fresh herbs and spices fill your kitchen as you cook Shabbat dinner (shameless plug to host your dinner with OneTable.
  • Brief experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity. Not sure how to feel it? Here are three awesome tips PsychologyToday recommends. 

So now, the part that we don’t often seek out: Fear. While fear is usually something we try to avoid, how can we make it meaningful

Awe and Fear

We want wonder, yes, but we also want fear. This isn’t a time to be fearless — it’s a time to embrace everything that the Days of Awe can mean. With awe can also come fear — of something bigger, of something unpredictable, or vast. But instead of closing ourselves off to it, these days can be for welcoming it. In Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, she writes, “ Feeling all your feelings is hard, but that’s what they’re for. Feelings are for feeling. All of them. Even the hard ones.” 

With that, try some of these journal prompts to address fear in a reflective way (thanks to Writing Forward):

  1. What are five things that make you nervous or uncomfortable?
  2. What is it about each of those five things that bothers you?
  3. Where does this discomfort come from?
  4. Write down one thing that truly terrifies you. Is it keeping you safe or preventing you from living the life you want?
  5. How likely is it that you will encounter this thing?
  6. Why are you so frightened of this thing?
  7. If you did encounter this thing, what would happen next

For me, part of my role at OneTable has been finding awe in you — in the fact that anyone can design, organize, and engage their own diverse communities around the table. When I see your dinners, events, and experiences from OneTable Shabbat dinners to Elul and Simchat Torah events populating Here for, I feel like I’m a part of something much greater.

This feeling emphasizes why this platform for the High Holidays is so important, especially this year during a time when it can seem like we are alone. Real connection is awe-inspiring. While we usually gather in big groups during the Days of Awe, seeing other people who are doing the same things virtually makes us feel like a part of something more.

Inspired? Click here to create a dinner or apply to become a host.

Julia Balick

Julia is a senior at Davidson College and is the Shabbat chair of their Jewish Student Union. In her free time you can find her listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, studying hygge, watching the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, or perfecting her coffee frothing technique.

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