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Category: jewish new year

awake to awe

awake to awe

two holy things happened in synagogue this week, on the night and the long day of prayer that marked the new year: one, the boy who now towers over me, he grabbed my thumb with his, and inch by inch enfolded his fingers over mine. he wouldn’t let go. he leaned in, so much so that i yielded my head to his shoulder. felt the rise and fall of his breathing against the tide of my own. we sat like that, entwined, silent, for long stretches of prayer. it was the holiest prayer i’ve prayed in a very long time. over and over — it never gets old — i remember how unlikely it was, how impossible it was, that he came to me, to us. that in the midst of our believing it would never be, the unbelievable happened: he happened.

a mother’s deepest prayers, sometimes, are the ones she whispers only to herself. those were the prayers i prayed on the new year. each breath was emboldened with the knowing that a year from now he will not be by my side. i will not feel him pressing against my shoulders. there will be miles and miles between us. and it will ache. i will ache.

the other holy thing, the thing that’s washed over me all week, and will wash and wash for days still, is the notion that we carve these 10 days of awe out of the whole cloth of the year, and do as commanded. we are commanded to be awake to awe, to make each passing moment be a prayer, the prayer of paying attention, the prayer of drinking in all that surrounds us, that buoys us, that lifts us and carries us on a current unattached to the dreck of the everyday.

the prayer in my prayer book is this, and the title of the prayer (composed for the High Holy Days in the early centuries of the Common Era, according to the footnote) happens to be How Do We Sense God’s Holiness? Through Awe. here are the first lines…

And so, in Your holiness,

give all creation the gift of awe.

Turn our fear to reverence;

let us be witnesses of wonder —

perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive….

the prayer goes on, and the leitmotif of paying attention arises again and again through the hours of prayer that are rosh hashanah. it’s as if the prayer found my soul, found the soul that had been waiting for just those words, just that command: “let us be witnesses of wonder — perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive.”

and so i’ve done as commanded ever since i walked out of that sacred space where the prayers and the limbs of the boy wound around me. i’ve opened my eyes and my ears and my soul to the majesty — the breathtaking, trumpet-blasting, cymbal-crashing beauty — that is this stretch of time and season-turning, the enflaming of the planet as the last-blast palette engulfs the trees and the nodding heads atop the stems that bend in autumn breeze.

it’s not just a ho-hum isn’t-this-lovely that punctuates my days, it’s a notch beyond. it’s a command from God. “perceive all nature as a prayer come alive….”

there is a certain holiness imbued. there is a sure clear knowing that the hand that created all of this, all of this fathomless wonder, is the hand of the Creator, the one who breathed first breath into each of us. the one who has tumbled the unbelievable into my life — more than once.

my watch-keeping this week feels anointed. as if God is right there over my shoulder, delighting each time i spy one of the wonders. delighting when i pause to drink it in — slow the car, plop down on a stone, tiptoe out the door to count the stars.

i felt God the morning i drove along a field shimmering in golden rod, and the glowing slant of sun streaked radiance like lightning bolts, set the dew drops shimmering — jewels of the dawn.

i felt God when i glanced toward the night sky through the heavy boughs of trees last night and caught the crescent moon winking at me. bright. certain. daring me to slow my dash and pay attention. stop and marvel, i almost heard it whisper.

i will feel the certain hand of God when i first hear the faraway cry of the geese, crossing sky, crossing miles, crossing half the globe in search of thermal sanctuary. leaving us behind to shiver in the winter’s cold.

i am living in a census of wonder. i am living awake to awe. i am knowing that all of God’s creation is prayer come alive. and i am praying right along.

what moments of wonder have you counted this week? begin the litany here….

(i am dashing to drive my sweet boy to school, and clicking the publish button before my litany is done. but so be it. we weave the rest together…..)

awe bee nuzzling

 

improbably, the prayer shawl

will BK AZk bar mitzvah photo

a triptych of prayer shawls: three generations wrapped in sacred thread

it’s as if the voice calls to me from an ancient canyon, a hallowed space carved through time and history. the history of this perpetually-spinning planet and its holy peoples, and, now, the history that is mine, carved across the years.

i yearn to wrap myself in the folds of the prayer shawl. to cloak my shoulders, burrow my arms, to bend my knees and bow down in the way i have long watched my prayerful beloved. a part of me, yes, aches to be enfolded, to feel the soft threads against my bare skin, but more against my heart. to be swept into the incantations of long ago and forever. to confess and call out to the God who is Avinu Malkeinu, “loving parent, Sovereign of our souls,” in the translation of our synagogue’s new prayer book.

i immerse myself in this span of holy time — the days of awe, rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, through to yom kippur, the day of deepest atonement — as if a tide pool that washes over and through me. it’s at once a cleanse and elevation, a surrender to another key, a frequency and melody and language that carries me to another plane. an otherworldly plane.

and yet, it’s one that comes on and through the worldliest of channels: the trip to the butcher shop, the spice jars pulled from the shelves. the chopping and stirring at the kitchen counter. the strolling through the garden, cutting stems to tuck in wide-mouthed jars and pitchers strewn across the table. the gathering of pomegranates, apples, acorns — sweet fruits of the new year, blessed offerings of the season of sacred bounty.

i have always loved the whole-body immersion of judaism, the ancient call to prayerfulness, the stories set in desert and dry land, the image of the sacred quenching that comes through the oasis, the raining down of sustenance from heaven, the voice that calls out, unseen but deeply heard.

these days i seem to be wrapping myself in all sorts of unfamiliar sacred threads, in threads finer-grained in their unfamiliarity, because their language is new to me, the constructions of sentences, the word choice, the tales they choose to tell. i’ve been going all summer to a just-past-dawn service in an episcopal chapel, one presided over and preached by women. wise women. soulful women. women priests.

it is a soul-stirring thing in the landscape of religion to walk into an unfamiliar place, to listen to the unfolding of an unfamiliar script, to feel each word and gesture as if new (because to me it is new). and thus to feel it so deeply fully.

it’s the element of exposure. the eyes-open willingness to surrender. to submit to that which by definition is foreign, uncharted, able to come up and grasp you, unsuspecting. nothing’s dulled; it’s all bristling, and stands at full alert. you never know what might be around the next bend. and thus you enter wide-eyed, scanning. catching every shift and nuance, passing through the sieve of your soul as if the first rinse.

so it’s always been for me in the folds of judaism, the religion i’ve stepped into because my heart and soul pulled me toward this man who is my beloved, my much-tested companion on this long journey called our married life. i feel it wholly because it’s new to me in so many ways, and now, 30 years after i first stepped — quaking — into my then-beau’s synagogue, its refrains come washing over me with decades of resonance. i find my place, i pull familiar threads round my shoulders, taut against my heart. i am cloaked and covered, kept safe, and free to burrow deep inside, to pore over the holy text, to consider prayers and, most of all, the image of the God who puts pause to the mad dash of the everyday. who awaits our urge to surrender. to bow down and pay attention. to hold high the sanctified blessing of the gifts that abound at the cusp of this new and holy year.

in the cry of the shofar, the coiled ram’s horn that calls out the new year. in the minor chords that rise up from our soul’s deepest depths. in the warm notes of spices saved for now. and in the prayers unfurled in each day of the days to come…..

i find my shelter and my refuge, my call to courage, and the certain whisper of the Most Holy. here, in the soft folds and sacred threads, i pull the prayer shawl round my shoulders. improbably, i tumble toward my heart’s deepest resonance.

l’shanah tovah u’metukah — may it be a good and sweet new year…

have you ventured into a sacred landscape that at first was unfamiliar, and did it sharpen all your senses, and draw you deeper into some universal understanding, some fine-grained sense of holy truths? 

p.s. my friday mornings these days include a drive to the far side of this little town to drop my sweet boy off at the faraway high school campus where he is shepherding the new freshmen into their high school adventures. this puts a bit of a pause in my morning writing, and thus delays its arrival in your mailbox, if you’re one who receives this by e-post. apologies for the delay, but this is my last chance, my last year, of dropping my sweet boy at the schoolhouse door, and i am relishing every drop of it. (even the days when we are running late and i am not quite as “chill” as he wishes me to be….)

hope patrol

yellowboots

i’m just in from searching for hope. my boots are a bit muddy. my fingers are cold. and i’m not surprised to report there were no sightings of winter loosening its miserly grip.

sadly, in my corner of the world there is no snow. no drifts of white. no boughs laden with icy meringue. no fat flakes tumbling, tumbling from heaven to earth.

there is, more than anything, drab brown. not even rich brown. drab. drained-of-zing brown. which, perhaps, is apt description for my soul of late. which is why i was out searching.

thank heaven, the heavens responded last night: posted a nearly full moon, a fat moon, a bright moon, a moon that tonight will glow in all its glory. full snow moon. the moon that marks the arrival at sundown of a jewish holiday i’ve come to love. tu b’shevat it’s called, and it marks “the new year of the trees.” in israel, the holy land where all of these blessings begin, it’s the date on the calendar when vernal whisperings begin. when, if you pulled out your magnifying lens, and tiptoed close to the tips of the almond tree’s branches, you’d easily see the evidence: fat buds, fatter by the hour.

the trees are shaking off their slumber. the trees are stirring toward blossom, toward heavenly perfume, toward fruit. (the prescriptions for tu b’shevat i find wholly enchanting, a four-course feast of fruits and wine, so explained by the kabbalists, those deeply spiritual thinkers who believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life. oh my.)

it’s the eternal rhythm of earth and heavens. the inalterable equation of light from above, and richness from deep down inside the earth. it’s carried us forth, a pulsing pull, from the beginning of time. till now. and some winters — some winters inside our soul — we need surrender to the holy earth, to the rhythms that sustain us, move us forward even when we don’t believe we’ve the energy to lift a weary foot.

this winter would be one of those winters. all around the news is drab to worse. we’ve all been holed inside. and around here not even buffeted by snows, by the glory of an icy-painted window pane. we’re worn thin.

so mother earth comes to comfort us. she offers hope. even when we cannot see it.

back before the winter came, my last act of hope came the day i dropped to bent knee, thrust my shovel in the ground, and tucked in dozens and dozens of bulbs. i’d scanned the nursery shelves for blues and whites, the colors of delft, of old willow plates, the colors of sky and cloud. it’s a form of prayer, i’d insist, to tuck hope beneath the earth, to step away, and await the moment when the surge comes, when the tender determined shoot of newborn green comes poking through the earth. declares triumph. offers proof that hope pays off.

it’s too soon for that moment, as my morning’s patrol has made perfectly clear. but i find hope in other ways. i find hope seeping in through the cracks. do you?

i felt hope last night sitting in a circle of prayerful souls. i feel hope as i watch folks far braver and bolder than me pick up the reins and write the truth. i feel hope as all around i see the humblest among us stirred to action. i feel an awakening, even though it’s not yet the one from down beneath the crust of earth, where all the roots are emboldening, the roots we cannot see.

maybe it’s a blessing that we’re all paying attention, maybe it’s a very good thing that we’re being reminded that a democracy is a fragile thing, a living breathing entity that, like the rhythms of the earth and sky, must be carefully attended to. and we must all hold up our corner of its banner. we must all — by little and by little — find our courage, find our voice, think hard, think critically, employ deepest civility, listen with a gentle heart, and wield the purest acts of justice. and not let go — ever — of plain old kindness. the sort that seems to be rising up in some of the loveliest defiance i’ve ever seen.

come to think of it, that all sounds like hope to me. maybe, after all, it’s out there where the winds blow cold, blow certain. maybe my muddy boots led me to the very thing i’m hoping for.

are you sensing any signs of hope? any stories of pure kindness you’d care to share? the more we hear, the more emboldened we become, i do believe….

couple special intentions on this second friday in february. two dear friends of the chair suffered heart-shatterings this week: deepest prayers to pjt, who lost her dearest best friend far far too soon, and pjv, whose sister — last i heard — is on a ventilator and whose hold is fragile at this point. at my house, we are remembering my papa who died this day 36 years ago. i’ve heard from a few of my brothers this morning, who are all mourning his long absence from our every day. 

if you’re curious about tu b’shevat, i wrote about it here a few years back….

and now we pause for awe…

DSCF1354

the lamb has been ordered. the prayer books, slipped from the shelf. soon, i will slice the pomegranate and begin to count the seeds. are there really precisely 613, the same as the number of mitzvot, or commandments, as the sages taught, as i was told in whispers in a kosher kitchen once upon a time?

i have been curious, asking questions, burrowing into the holiness of the new year, the jewish new year, rosh hashanah, ever since i stumbled on that fine bespectacled fellow in the newsroom so long ago, decades ago now. and because i come to this beginning — this pause to behold the wonder of creation, original creation — with inquisitive heart, because question upon question tumbles before me, because one leads to another and another, i can’t help but be drawn deep into what these days offer: these days offer awe.

they are called, quite precisely, the Days of Awe.

awe, my dictionary tells me, is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

awe, my etymologists* tell me, has deep roots in fear, and traces back to circa 1300, aue, “fear, terror, great reverence,” earlier aghe, circa 1200, from a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse agi “fright;” from Proto-Germanic *agiz- (cognates: Old English ege “fear,” Old High German agiso “fright, terror,” Gothic agis “fear, anguish”), from PIE *agh-es- (cognates: Greek akhos “pain, grief”), from root *agh- “to be depressed, be afraid” (see ail). the current sense of “dread mixed with admiration or veneration” is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being. To stand in awe (early 15c.) originally was simply to stand awe. Awe-inspiring is recorded from 1814.

in my own dwelling inside these days of awe, i don’t think too much about fear. i tend toward wonder. the God i know and sidle next to is not one who makes me tremble. truth is, i’m most myself when i draw deep into the hollows of God. when i feel myself wrapped in the arms of the one who gave me breath, and question, and proclivities for awe.

because this pause for holiness is at once still new to me, and now familiar, because in many ways it’s always felt as if i’d been waiting for reason to hold up these days, to hold up these autumn’s-coming hours, i walk through them with all pores open. i love the pungent notes that will rise up from the pot on the stove, the one where lamb simmers alongside onion and celery and garlic, before the apples and raisins and cinnamon settle in. i love the way the molasses morning light pours across the page. i love each sentence i find on the page, especially the ones that startle me, give me pause, give me much to think about during the long hours in synagogue, during the long walks that will punctuate the pause, the anointing that makes the days of awe unlike ordinary time.

because i am always, always drawn to the sage of all sages, abraham joshua heschel, i pulled him, too, from the shelf this morning. i’ve been filling the shelves with heschel for a long long time. even before i knew i’d be the one to share my husband’s bookshelves.

this morning i found this from heschel, along with the pages of prayer that we will tuck under our arms and carry to the pews where the prayers will come. because it speaks to all of us who are inclined to turn in, to refuel in the depths of quietude, i share these fine heschel thoughts as something of a blessing for these days when we pause for awe.

here’s heschel, from “On Prayer,” found in the collection, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996):

Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home. Weary, sobbing, the soul, after wandering through a world festered with aimlessness, falsehoods, and absurdities, seeks a moment in which to gather up its scattered life, in which to divest itself of enforced pretensions and camouflage, in which to simplify complexities, in which to call for help without being a coward. Such a home is prayer. Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where prayer is.

may you find your way home in this sacred span of time, the one that unfolds across the coming hours, the ones i’ve come to know and love as the holy Days of Awe, when i bow my head, my heart, my soul, and pulse with the wonder of creation, and my one small moment to revel in all its glories.

how do you pause for awe? who is your trail guide across the landscape of prayer?

*my etymologists: online etymology dictionary