Awe: A Place Where Nothing is Old; Kol Nidre Sermon

by Rabbi Jill Maderer (delivered Kol Nidre “Alternative” service)

A story is told of 3 astronauts who went into space.  Upon returning, they were asked to reflect on the experience.  One said, “I kept thinking, the world looks so small from outer space—the universe is so vast.”  The second answered, “I was astonished to think how much had happened on that globe that I could see: all the wars, the loves, the dramas, all on that small orb.”  The 3rd astronaut shrugged and said, “You know, all I could think was –why didn’t I bring a camera?!”  We take photographs and we take video, but do we pause to take a breath and to appreciate the wonder that surrounds us. Do we focus through our own lens, and open our eyes to the world.

Jewish tradition’s celebration of wonder is rooted, not only in the extraordinary, such as the view from outer space, but in the ordinary and real experiences in our own lives.  About 100 years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook submitted that our experience in this world has everything to do with our perspective. A perspective of wonder “enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending.  This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of Creation.” 

We call these High Holy Days, Yamim Nora-im, the Days of Awe; yet, if our approach allows it, every day can be a day of awe.  We might look at the same spouse that we saw yesterday, the same home we saw this morning, the same brother we saw last week, the same park we saw last month, the same desk we saw last year.  Still, even though things might seem the same, a perspective of wonder renews us, transporting us from a place where nothing is new to a place where nothing is old.  A sense of awe shapes our experience of the beauty of the natural world, the urgency of mortality, or the mundane tasks that fill an ordinary day.  When we open our eyes, awe transports us to a place where there is nothing old.

The marine biologist, Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring would in the early 1960s, launch the modern environmental movement, was inspired by the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the natural world.  One need not be a biologist; any one of us can be moved by nature.  Carson writes, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds, in the ebb and flow of the tides, in the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” 

 The purpose of Rachel Carson’s work is to warn the world about the destructive potential of chemicals.  The method of her work is to create a love letter that illustrates the power of the patterns of nature.  In her perspective, there is nothing old.  How does she do it?  Carson opens her eyes to the breathtaking beauty of the tallest mountain, the smallest seed, and everything in between.  How can we do it?   

A few years ago, our congregation’s leadership began to discuss our dreams for this building.  A part of our conversation focused on our hopes to beautify outdoor space and create a greener property.  Could we create a green roof, a landscaped environment, I remember arguing for some trees.  Someone pointed out that we do have and protect 2 trees.  “What trees?”  I asked.  There’s one in the middle of the parking lot—the enormous oak tree, as well as one in the corner of the lot!  Do you know, those majestic trees had towered over me for years, and I never noticed them, until someone pointed them out.  I needed the reminder to open my eyes, and to see something new. 

The 20th century thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, offers religious language for the awareness we seek.  He calls it  “radical amazement.”  What would it mean to experience the perpetual surprise of creation, to open our eyes to Spring Garden, the Schuykill River or the Delaware, to look upwards for birds, to look around at the numerous farmers markets that brighten our city with the produce of the earth not too far from here.  Imagine moving through life with such radical amazement! 

Rachel Carson’s deep appreciation for nature came through the lens of the scientist; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, through that of the rabbi.  Both approaches can help us to open our eyes and deepen our sense of awe.

When we open our eyes to the world around us, a sense of awe shapes our experience of the urgency of mortality.  In her memoir about grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion undergoes the crisis of mortality.  Having just visited their gravely ill daughter in the ICU, Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne returned home for dinner.  As they sat down to dinner, Didion explains, Dunne was speaking to her and then suddenly was not.  He had a heart attack and died almost immediately. 

Joan Didion’s memoir opens: “Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”   Tomorrow is guaranteed to none of us.  Life as we know it could end at any dinner, at any moment.  

Throughout Yom Kippur, we confront harsh symbols of our mortality.  We drain ourselves of some of our physical life as we avoid life-nourishing activity.   We recite cruel-sounding words of prayer that ask who will die by water and who by fire.  We see the white of the Torah covers and the robes, and for some, a traditional garment called a kittel—reminders not only of purity, but also of the white garment traditionally worn by a corpse.  Yom Kippur is obsessed with death.  This one-day obsession paints a picture of death in order to drive home the message: as Franz Kafka said, that the meaning of life is that it stops.  If we pay attention, this Day of Awe makes us painfully aware of the urgency of mortality.   Yom Kippur brings us to this dark place, not to leave us there, but to inspire us to live with perspective and appreciation for life.   

Dara Horn’s novel the World to Come tells the story of a lonely young man named Benjamin.  In his efforts to connect to his dead parents, to find meaning in his work, to meet someone with whom he can share his life, Ben is stuck.  Until his safety, and that of his loved ones, is threatened by a bomb explosion, that has the potential to jolt him back into life.  In Jewish thought, the phrase, the world to come, implies life after death.  So Dara Horn’s title, The World to Come, might indicate a focus on the afterlife.  But Horn adds a creative twist.  The World to Come refers to the world to come, within this life. 

The World to Come is our future in this lifetime– the world in which we live, when we are re-awakened to life.  Yom Kippur confronts us with the urgency of mortality, in order to jolt us back into a life where there is nothing old, to open our eyes and deepen our sense of awe.   

A sense of awe shapes our experience of the mundane tasks that fill an ordinary day.  A few years ago, I led a discussion with Mercaz Limud Religious School parents about some lessons Jewish texts teach us about parenting.  All of the parents shared challenges they faced.  One comment in particular seemed to resonate with everyone present.  A mother shared that her challenge was not severe or dramatic.  Her children are thriving and her family is just fine.  But in her daily routine with the children, she has trouble appreciating the time and her blessings.  In the everyday, task-oriented rush of getting out of the house it’s hard to relish in the wonder of her children–their growth, their stages, their unique approach to each day.  There are teeth to be brushed, shoes to be velcro-ed, bagels to be eaten, jackets to be zippered—it’s hard to just let those kids take her breath away.  The pace of the day and the rush of the week are tough; yet, a sense of wonder does not necessarily require more time from the day.  Only that we see our experience through a new lens.

There are many names for that lens—that perspective.  Some of the terms open people to new possibilities.  Some names function as boundaries or a turn-off.  Call it spirituality, call it the experience of God, call it wonder, call it awe.  You do not need to have a particular theology or a strong faith to be open to some sense of the experience of God in the natural world, in the urgency of mortality, and in the everyday.   Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, that in the quest for awe, “one only needs 3 things: God, a soul and a moment.  And all 3 are always present.”

Our High Holy Day prayer, the Unetane Tokef, reads “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day!”  Yom Kippur is a powerful day and repentance holds the potential to transform our perspective and to alter our lives. The Talmud teaches: “When I repent, the world repents with me.”  Does the world around me actually mimic my behavior?  Maybe not.  But when we repent, when we change, we see the world differently.  When we leave the house tomorrow, if we are different, then the world will be different as well.  When we open our eyes to something new, we bring ourselves to a place where there is nothing old.

This Yom Kippur, Let us proclaim the power of this day.  May we open our eyes to God, to our own souls, and to every moment.  May we see through the lens of wonder.  And may we come closer to awe—to a place where there is nothing old.  Amen.