Life Up Your Head! A Yom Kippur Sermon about Awe

Note: This is the sermon that I delivered on Kol Nidrei this year (5781/2020). It is about the importance of “lifting up our heads” to experience what is awe inspiring in the world around us. The text is below, or you can watch it here:

There is a strange story in the midrash. It tells that our patriarch Abraham spent the first years of his life in hiding in a cave. (The reason is actually not pertinent – I’ll tell you that story some other time.) The point is that in those years in the cave, he never saw the world – never saw a tree, or a flower, or an animal or a cloud, or the sun or the moon.

And when Abraham finally did come out of the cave one morning, the first thing he did was look up. Can you imagine being in darkness, and then suddenly being thrust into a world full of wondrous things? He was completely amazed by everything he saw – and he felt the impulse to worship.

Looking up at the sky, Abraham began to worship the sun. All day long, he worshipped it, until the sun went down and he realized that it wasn’t a god. Then the moon rose, bathing the night sky in light. And Abraham worshipped it all night long….until it set below the horizon.

And this is the crucial moment in the story. Because this is when, according to the midrash, Abraham began to realize that there must be something beyond the sun and moon and stars. Some power, some presence, some oneness connecting everything that exists. And Abraham was filled with an enormous sense of awe.

And that was when God called to him: Lech Lecha – time to go forth on your journey.

This is the story that the Rabbis tell about where we come from as a people. Their message is that at the beginning of our journey, and at the centre of our humanity, is a sense of awe, of radical amazement. An overwhelming wonder at the beauty and the mystery of the universe – and of our own smallness within it.

It’s an ironic origin story, because as human beings, we don’t really like to feel small. In fact, a fair amount of what we do in life is intended to help us avoid feeling small: our careers, all our goals and reminders: these are all ways to tell ourselves that we matter – that the universe isn’t really so vast or so mysterious as long what’s expected of us can be enumerated on a daily planner.

And day after day we put our heads down and try to bring meaning to our lives by ticking off those goals and reminders. But day after day we feel an emptiness, a sense of being called to something larger.

This Day of Atonement is an expression of the something larger. Every once in a while Judaism asks us to put all that other stuff away. And like Abraham, to lift up our heads and look up at the sky and wonder at the vastness of it all.

Untaneh Tokeh k’dushat hayom ki hu nora v’ayom.
Let us declare the sacred power of this day, for it is awesome and full of dread.

On this day, we contemplate things that can’t be recorded in our daily task lists – like the meaning of repentance and renewal. On this day we recognize that there are questions that are beyond our capacity to understand and to control. “Mi yichyeh umi yamut – who shall live and who shall die?”

In English, we call these the High Holy Days. But in Hebrew, they are Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe – because our task on this Day of Atonement is to attempt to recapture that sense of awe, that sense of radical amazement, with which our people’s story began.

As modern people we need a little awe in our lives. The midrash says so; science says so; and our souls are crying out for it as well.  In Jewish tradition, no one understood this better than the Hasidic masters.  Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, lived about 300 hundred years ago. He and his followers lived in a time when much of Judaism was focused on the exactitudes of law and practice. On putting your head down and learning the details and getting it right. The Hasidim rebelled against that idea, declaring instead that the goal of Jewish life was to feel radical amazement. It was to find God anywhere and everywhere. And in so doing, to find our better selves.

This is a parable that the Baal Shem Tov used to tell. See if you can figure out what it means. He said:
I once traveled cross-country with three horses, and not one of them could neigh. I was worried that my horses had no ability to make noise or express themselves, and so I drove them harder. Until one day I met a peasant coming toward me and he called out “Slacken the reins!” So I slackened the reins, and all three horses began to neigh.[1]

The Hasidim tell that that when the great Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonya heard this parable he immediately began to cry. Because he understood exactly what it meant.

We also understand. We understand what it is to have reins tightened around us – the reins of our own expectations, our need to produce, our fear of falling behind. The Baal Shem Tov’s point is that when we slacken those reins, when we take off the blinders that face us forward all the time, we give ourselves the opportunity to experience the world, to look around, to feel awe and gratefulness. And then we are able to find meaning, not in what we’ve gotten done today – but in our own sense of radical amazement that we are even here. That any of this even exists.

Before we go any further, it might be worth it to stop and define what we’re talking about. What is “awe?” Fortunately for us, researchers have been studying it from a scientific perspective, and have given us a working definition.

This is from Professors Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. They’ve broken down the feeling of awe into two experiences: “perceived vastness” and “need for accommodation.”[2]

Perceived vastness is exactly what it sounds like – the awareness of something that is “experienced as being much larger than the self.”  It could be physical vastness, like a mountain or a redwood. Or it could be something like prestige, or intricacy, or the vast complexity of a work of art or music. When we experience these things, we feel small, and we feel ourselves to be part of something larger.

The second feature “need for accommodation,” refers to what happens in our brains. It is when we experience something that causes our “conception of the world… to shift or expand in order to make sense of this new experience.” Seeing a billion stars, contemplating the intricacy of a tree – these things actually invite us to rewire our brains, to open up our minds in order to accept the existence of more and greater things in our world.

So what is awe inspiring? Something that makes us feel small, that reminds us of the vastness of the universe. And something that literally blows our mind, that makes us think differently than we did before.

Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever looked up at the stars, or looked into someone’s eyes, or contemplated a leaf or an anthill or a symphony, and then afterward felt like you had been changed just a little bit?

Feeling awe helps us to learn and grow. The book of Proverbs opens by saying:

יִרְאַ֣ת יְ֭הוָה רֵאשִׁ֣ית דָּ֑עַת – Awe is the beginning of all knowledge. (Prov 1:7)

Because the humility that comes from experiencing something vast reminds us that there is so much out there still to learn.

Feeling awe also helps us to connect with each other. Professor Annie Gordon of UC San Francisco teaches that “Feeling humbled…lessen[s] selfish tendencies [and makes] us want to engage….”[3]

Our relationships and our societies are deeply enriched by our capacity to feel awe and to connect with one another.

And while we may not have heard of these Hasidic stories or this scientific research, we probably have an instinctive sense of it. How often have you said to yourself, “I need some fresh air so I can think straight” or “I’m going to get away for a few days to put things into perspective.”

What we are really seeking is the sense of awe, the opening of possibilities and the sense of connectedness and perspective that comes along with it.

In Abraham’s day, all he had to do to get that experience was step out of his cave and look up. In the electronic age, those opportunities don’t always come along on their own. We are firmly tethered to our screens and our daily planners – and even more so since the pandemic. These days, we even work from our cottages. We even make Zoom calls or check the news while we are out taking walks. Even when we are outside, our eyes are often turned downward. We are so engrossed in whatever task is at hand, that we are missing the world around us.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of two Israelites – whom he calls Reuven and Shimon – who also missed something because they were looking downward. They were slaves in Egypt, and they followed the crowd of Israelites toward the wilderness, complaining the whole way.

“What is this muck on my shoes?”
“There’s mud all over the place here!”
“This is just like the slime pits in Egypt!”.
“We might as well go back and be slaves.”

Back and forth they went. Reuven and Shimon never even picked up their heads to look around them. Which means that while all the other Israelites were experiencing the parting of the Red Sea, all they saw was the muddy bottom of the ocean.

How many miracles do we miss because we don’t lift our heads to see them?

In Judaism, there is a blessing for beginning the day:
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu Melech ha’olam, pokeiach ivrim.
Blessed is the Holy One, who opens the eyes of those who did not see.

Traditionally, it’s a blessing for opening your eyes in the morning, thanking God for the physical ability to see. But I want to suggest that it might serve a different purpose – as a regular reminder to us to look around, to lift up our heads and open our eyes and see the world around us.

Researchers tell us that the two most important ways to get our daily dose of awe are by being in nature and by making the effort to learn new things. By doing those things we practice opening our eyes and opening our minds. We remind ourselves, to use Shakespeare’s language, that there are more things in heaven and earth than we’ve ever dreamt of.

One last Hasidic teaching:
The Torah says that when Moses first met God at the burning bush, God said to him:   “Shal na’alecha m’al raglecha– Remove the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught that this is command to remove your shoes is an allegory. It means: “throw off the habitual that encloses [you], and you will know that wherever you stand is holy ground. [4]

On this Yom Kippur, it is worth asking ourselves: what are the shoes, what are the reins, what are the habits and the blocks that keep us from experiencing the wondrous? How might we throw them off? How might we go about lifting up our heads?

On these Days of Awe, may we seek out opportunities to experience awe.
May our eyes be open to the miracles that are all around us all the time.
And may our connections with the world and with one another lead us to a year or goodness and blessing.

[1] Adapted from Buber, Tales of the Hasidim vol 1, p. 57

[4] Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, vol 2 p. 170

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