The ten days in between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are referred to as “The Days of Awe”. It is during these days when Jews reflect on their conduct, make amends for past wrongs, and set intentions for the year ahead.
As I prepare for Yom Kippur this week, which will be this from sundown Wednesday to sundown Thursday, I find myself wondering why these days are referred to as the Days of Awe. What are we meant to be in awe of? That we hurt people? That we messed up again? That people hurt us and we are struggling to forgive? That again we’re back to the drawing board and making promises to ourselves and others that we doubt we’ll be able to keep?
There is no easy answer, and I think that is exactly what I am in awe of–the complexity and mystery of this journey. I am in awe that every year has four seasons when I watch the beauty of nature blossom, whither and then die. I am in awe as I watch babies born and feel the desperation of losing loved ones. I am in awe when I hold loved ones close and at other times feel the pang of loneliness. I am in awe when I feel vibrant and strong and invincible and when I feel broken and hopeless. And I feel awe when I experience the wounds of my inner child crying out to me and when I begin to sense the healing salve of self-love.
I used to seek clarity, a black and white understanding of myself and the world. But after many years of trying to simplify life, I see how much shame and fear were the driving forces behind my need for clarity. I believed that if I solved the problem that was me and understood the complexities of life, I’d find peace. But what if there is no problem to be solved? What if instead life is unfolding with more questions than answers? What if no amount of meditation or prayer or hard work or pithy affirmation magnets stuck to your fridge will solve life’s deepest mysteries? Or heal all my wounds instantly? What if we are figuring it out as we go along?
Then each moment is filled with curiosities, confusion, surprises, opportunities to feel, and plenty of moments to be in awe. I think this is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel meant by the term radical amazement, when we “get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.” This doesn’t mean we are in a perpetual state of happiness. Definitely not! Rather, it means that we meet life on its terms and we enter into dialogue and we listen to our heart and we don’t rush the process.
It’s hard to live in the mystery, and if offered we’d always choose peace over pain. So as I sit back and prepare my heart for atonement–toward others and toward myself, and as I prepare for the year ahead, I am easing up on the need for clarity and simplicity and instead, trying to connect to the awe-inspiring moments that remind me, as Dylan Thomas wrote, of “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”