Days of Awe and wonder

Although the term Days of Awe does not appear in the Torah – for that matter the name Rosh Hashana isn’t there either – it might be useful to see how nora is used there.

Rosh Hashana comes early this year – or perhaps we should say that September comes late. This coming week we will begin to observe a period of time that has come to be called the Days of Awe, hayamim hanora’im. What is the implication of the term “awe”? In popular Hebrew parlance today it seems to mean something terrible (ayom v’nora). On the other hand American slang has taken “awesome” to mean something extraordinarily wonderful and fantastic. Which is it?
Although the term Days of Awe does not appear in the Torah – for that matter the name Rosh Hashana isn’t there either – it might be useful to see how nora is used there. The first and most well-known usage is in the story of Jacob’s dream, When he awakes after having seen the Lord, he is filled with awe and says, “How awesome – nora – is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Jacob is not really afraid. He has no reason to be, since God has promised to watch over him and care for him.
Isaiah also had an experience of seeing God. In that vision, he hears the angels proclaim.”Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts!” (6:3). Those two words – nora – awesome – and kadosh – holy – often appear together and seem to have a similar meaning. For example, “His name is holy and awesome” (Psalms 111:10) and in the prayers of the Days of Awe we say, “Holy are You and awesome is Your name.” Moses defines God as “the great, the mighty and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17), a description that has become an important part of our prayers, appearing, among other places, toward the beginning of every Amida.
Just as it is difficult to give an exact definition of the word “holy,” so it is difficult to explain “awesome.” They are both attempts to encompass what it means to be in the presence of the divine. For Jacob, the reaction was not fear.
Rather he was awestruck. It was an amazing and a wonderful experience.
Taken in that way, these are days of wonder, of experiencing the awesome presence of the divine in a positive way.
As I mentioned in a previous column, some have felt that these days are yamim nora’im in the sense of days of fear because they are days of judgment.
This idea of God sitting in judgment at this time on all of humanity is found first in the Mishna Rosh Hashana (1:2) when it describes God as a commander who views all of his troops as they parade before him.
That simple description does not elaborate and does not speak of fear. That element was brought into our liturgy by the third century Babylonian amora Rav in his introduction to the Remembrance Verses (Zichronot) of the Musaf Amida. “All creatures will be visited on this day, to remember them for life or death,” and the destiny of all nations is then determined, “which for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for plenty.”
But the truly terrifying description is found in the piyut Unetaneh Tokef, written much later, probably in the Byzantine period, by an anonymous poet. He made use of the Mishna and of Rav’s prayer and borrowed from various biblical and apocalyptic works describing the great day of final judgment in order to picture the yearly day of judgment, Rosh Hashana.
The prophet Malachi had called that day “the great and awesome – nora – of the Lord” (3:23) and the poet says, “We shall ascribe holiness to this day, for it is awesome – nora – and terrible – ayom.” He has now redefined “awesome” to truly mean something fearful, and describes how all creatures, including the angels, are filled with fear and trembling on this day because on it is determined “who shall live and who shall die.” And any cantor worth his salt will make certain that the congregation is struck with fear and trembling when hearing these words.
Before we succumb to the idea that Days of Awe really means “fearsome days,” however, we should remember that the main designation of Rosh Hashana according to the sages is Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance.
This is based on the phrase in Leviticus 23:24 zichron teru’a, best translated as “a reminder by blasting the shofar,” indicating sounding the shofar to cause God to remember us for good and to fulfill all the divine promises made to our ancestors and to us. Just as God remembered Sarah and fulfilled His promise to her, granting her a son, and just as God remembered Noah in the ark and rescued him to renew humankind and civilization, so shall God remember us for good and for blessing on these yamim nora’im, Days of Awe and wonder.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.