Days of Awe

“The Days of Awe,” Susan Ryder

Leviticus 23:26-28 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselvesand present the Lord’s offering by fire; and you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God.

Matthew 5:23-24 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sisterhas something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,and then come and offer your gift.

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God:  Shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem [around 70 CE], when Rabbi Yohanan and his companions had occasion to walk past the ruined temple buildings, Rabbi Joshua had been unable to contain his grief. “Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.” But Rabbi Yohanan replied calmly, “Grieve not, for we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love, and not sacrifice.’” Kindness would replace the temple ritual, compassion, one of the pillars on which the world depended, was the new priestly task.

Rosh Hashanah, which begins this evening, marks the beginning of the New Year on the Jewish calendar. According to legend, as Rosh Hashanah begins, our destinies for the coming year are written into the Book of Life. The Book remains open for ten days, referred to as the “Days of Awe” during which time the blessing, “L’Shana Tovah – May Your Name Be Inscribed in the Book of Life” is offered. These “Days of Awe” are an opportunity to reflect on what one has done with their lives over the past year – focusing in particular on occasions one has “missed the mark” and caused harm to others. During these days Jews are called to hold themselves accountable, and repent for any wrongdoings. Through these acts, they become “at one” with themselves and with God – so that at the last sound of the blowing of the Shofar on Yom Kippur – also known as the Day of Atonement – when the Book of Life for the year to come is sealed, hopefully followers have returned to “right relationship” with all of Creation.

Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary explains its significance: “This festival has evolved through our tradition to represent a season of personal and universal renewal. Every human being needs an opportunity to begin again, to wipe out the past and dream dreams about what his or her life can become. We say goodbye to the old time and hello to the new. In the process we say goodbye to our old selves and hello to our new ones.”

While we are not Jewish, these holy days can offer a time of meaningful reflection because the ideas and truths behind them are universal. One of the characteristics of being a progressive Christian is that we reject traditional theology, doctrine, and dogma. One of the first things to go for many of us is the concept of original sin. And don’t get me wrong – that’s a great one to toss. But as a result we throw the proverbial sinful baby out with the tainted bathwater – meaning that we tend to ignore the notion of sin altogether, to our detriment. When we “miss the mark” – which is the English translation of the Greek word sin, “hamartia” – when we do something harmful to another person rather than seeking their well being, that’s sin. The difference is that Judaism teaches sin is an act of commission or omission, and NOT a state of being, the opposite of what traditional Christianity teaches. For Jews, sin is not something we are stained with at birth, it’s something we do, or don’t do, which causes harm. And when we cause harm, we need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Tikkun Community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives notes that people of any religious tradition, or those with none at all, can also adopt the spiritual practice of repentance and forgiveness observed by Jews at this time of year. He suggests using it as a time for a careful review your life, acknowledging to yourself whom you have hurt and where your life has gone astray from your own highest ideals. “We do not start from the assumption that anyone has become evil. Rather, we vision any ‘sins’ as ‘missing the mark.’ We are born pure and with the best of intentions to be the highest possible spiritual being we can be, as though we were an arrow being shot straight toward God to connect more fully. Yet at various points in our lives the arrow gets slightly off track and misses the mark. Repentance is really about a mid-course adjustment to get back on track.”

In recent years I have found Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe, and the culmination of Yom Kippur to be meaningful and life-giving observances. For not only do these powerful rituals have many advantages over the rote prayers of forgiveness and redemption recited each week in many Protestant congregations, but I appreciate the period of time set aside to intentionally seek out those with whom you’ve had a break in your relationship during the previous year in order to make amends, to clean up the hurts, to heal the divisions that separate us and find atonement – or at-one-ment – with each other and with the Sacred. And by doing so annually, we don’t let past hurts go by indefinitely. There is a rhythm and regularity to making things right. This time of year offers a return to our truest and best selves through a journey of rediscovery during the Days of Awe, which invites an inward reflective gaze of self-evaluation to look at the wrongs we have committed over the past year. It is said that if one even tries to understand and atone for their sins, the Angel of Life must reconsider their fate.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes, “According to Jewish law, the most critical factor is repentance, teshuvah — the work that a person who has done harm must undertake. There are specific steps: The bad actor must own the harm perpetrated, ideally publicly. Then they must do the hard internal work to become the kind of person who does not harm in this way — which is a massive undertaking, demanding tremendous introspection and confrontation of unpleasant aspects of the self. Then they must make restitution for harm done, in whatever way that might be possible. Then — and only then — they must apologize sincerely to the victim. Lastly, the next time they are confronted with the opportunity to commit a similar misdeed, they must make a different, better choice.”

Teshuvah – to turn away from wrongdoing, to repent, and to turn away from sin. It also means to turn and look back on the year, to see one’s mistakes, and to turn toward one another and seek forgiveness. And in the process, the larger meaning becomes evident – to turn our lives back to the center, toward God, or to a path of goodness and generosity. Certainly much easier said than done. Asking forgiveness of another for something we have done is difficult. Our pride may get in the way, or we may justify our actions as being the result of something the other person did to us, or we may be ashamed of what we’ve done and not want to revisit it. Perhaps the other person is no longer accessible to us – either they’ve moved away, died, or cut off contact. Whatever the case, this whole business of seeking forgiveness from another is hard, and involves much more than a simple “I’m sorry.” Though saying we are sorry is a good place to start.

So much of our own mental energy is used to protect our ego, which keeps us from considering “how could I have said what I did? How could I have done that to someone?” Perhaps this is why these days are referred to as “days of awe’. To set aside our own self-protecting biases and take on the momentous task of contrition and repentance is as worthy a challenge as anything to which a human might aspire. It’s up to us; we have to change our way of relating to others – which IS an AWESOME task. Righting our own ship. It is a call to empathy and accountability. What keeps us from scrutinizing our actions, what keeps us blind to relationship we have abused, oblivious to the ways we have brought suffering to others? What would you have to let go of? What gets in the way of seeking forgiveness from others and truly experiencing these days of awe?