(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...yir'ah, awe...
(Genesis 26:24) ...al tira ki it'kha anokhi...fear not, for I am with you...
I can remember two times in my life when my emotions completely saturated my body. When I witnessed our first child being born, the first time I had witnessed any child being born, I was exquisitely aware of every cell in my body. The emerging presence of new life animated quite literally every fiber of my being. I could scarcely contain myself; I understood the idiom about jumping out of my skin. In fact, matter seemed to dissolve around me. The world was pure energy, and I was a part of everything. The pervasive joy of the moment was familiar, but amplified beyond the limits of previous experience.
Years earlier, Ann and I visited the Soviet Union to meet Jews who had been denied exit visas to Israel (refuseniks). As we entered the apartment of a family in Kharkov, a phalanx of KGB agents pushed in behind us. This time, the life force seemed to drain out of my entire body – not in a single rush, but simultaneously in every direction. (In fact, only by concentrating all of my energy on not soiling myself did I keep from collapsing in a heap on the floor.) This time, too, boundaries and barriers seemed to disintegrate as unmitigated fear seemed to overtake all of creation.
It is hard for me to accept that these two experiences were in any way connected, and yet they were. In each case the circumstances stimulated such powerful reactions within me that I virtually lost the whole of my self to a part of myself.
I imagine that these incidents are similar to hallucinatory drug experiences or, in a different context, persistent mental illness. When they are inexplicable and unwelcome, such incidents have the effect of throwing the individual into panic and despair. When they are unanticipated and pleasurable, they may inspire mania or a sense of grandeur. Our fascination with such dissolution of the self may be because it is a necessary ingredient of awe.
"Awe" is a word that has been much abused and diminished by recent popular usage, but as an experience it is impervious to the fickle winds of culture. Certainly, awe may be experienced in many contexts, but religiously speaking, it has to do with a sudden consciousness of God's presence in the world. By consciousness I do not mean knowledge or appreciation – those are intellectual reactions. The experience of God's presence is an all-encompassing and overwhelming experience that does not allow for the internal distancing that is a part of reason and logic. It involves a certainty, down to the molecular level, of the interconnectedness of all of life, all of creation. To experience awe, even momentarily, is to experience unparalleled joy.
It is also to experience unparalleled terror. When the boundaries of the material world and the reality we perceive suddenly dissolve, the self is lost, or at least seems to be. The part of the self that is God, that is, the part created in God's image, overwhelms the whole of the self as it is reunified with its Source. It is no surprise that in Hebrew the word for awe, yir'ah, is also the word for "fear."
Who would choose such an experience? What would compel a normal and happy human being to seek out this form of ecstatic madness?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is renown for his discussions of awe. It was Heschel who explained awe as "radical amazement." It is, he contends, the response to mystery. The world we inhabit is filled with reasons large and small to consider life beyond its utilitarian functions – the very "why" of existence. That mystery calls to us, and we cannot help but respond, if we are listening.
"The beginning of awe is wonder," Heschel writes, "and the beginning of wisdom is awe...a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality."
Heschel makes it all sound so simple, though he would have been the first to acknowledge that his unique upbringing at the intersection of Hassidic tradition and European university training, and his front-row seat to history, were the source of his wonder-become-awe-become-wisdom. He heard the call of mystery from an early age and knew it for what it is: the yearning of God for a relationship with God's creations.
What an honor to be called into relationship with God! We cannot help but be joyful. But we also cannot help but be terrified. When God explains to Moses that "no one shall see My face and live," it speaks the truth that to see God face to face, as if it were literally possible, is to obliterate the self. Do I more desire to be conscious of my interconnectedness with all of life or more fear to see myself dissolve for my powerlessness?
To mitigate both extremes, there is Torah. For many, the words of Torah help to explain the nature of God and God's expectations of us. As an adherent of Jewish law, I embrace this notion of Torah, and I am relieved to know a little bit more about the Holy One without the need to provoke an ecstatic state at the risk of my self.
But for many (and me, too), the words of Torah come to illustrate the nature of human beings struggling to be in relationship with God. In this week's Torah portion, the person in relationship is Isaac. When God speaks to Isaac saying, al tira ki it'kha anokhi, "fear not, for I am with you," it comes in the aftermath of Isaac's first two direct experiences of God. His first was when his father Abraham bound him on the altar, and his second was when God told him to remain in the land of the Philistines, where he almost lost his wife and his life. (His plea for Rebecca's fertility is answered by her pregnancy, but God speaks only to Rebecca in response.) Of course Isaac was afraid when God showed up again! How many times could he expect to dodge an upraised knife?
His father Abraham, like our rabbi, Abraham Heschel, seemed to live in joyful awe. But those of us who are the children/students of Abraham do not have the organic confidence to abandon ourselves to God's presence, secure in the faith that we will emerge whole, let alone enlightened. We live in fear of awe.
Torah comes to reassure us. As Heschel quoted, "The beginning of wisdom is the awe of God" (Psalm 111:10). We needn't fear when God is with us; we needn't fear for God is with us.
How does one practice awe? It is virtually impossible for most of us to call upon a sense of awe at will. So often it is the unexpected that enables the experience. I believe that the element of surprise is important to us because we usually have our defenses up to distance ourselves from being consumed by our experiences. So preparation for awe requires training ourselves to be wholly present in the experience of the moment, not always analyzing and evaluating.
I suggest three of many ways to begin to become accustomed to awe. The third suggestion may make you somewhat uncomfortable to read, by way of warning. You will also notice that I have not included suggestions about natural phenomena, such as sunsets or geographic vistas. While awe is present in such encounters, we are almost always observers, not participants in them. True awe requires engagement, not just appreciation.
Alone, you might try tasting something for the sake of tasting it. Mostly, when we eat, taste is not the focus of our meal or snack. We are also satiating a hunger, engaging in conversation (or, if alone, reading or watching television), paying attention to color and texture and many other simultaneous stimuli. Choose something you like – a piece of fruit, a glass of wine, a favorite snack – and sit down in a quiet room with soft lighting and just taste what you put in your mouth. Do not compare it to anything, or think about other times you have partaken of it, or even evaluate it in any way. Be surprised by the intensity and subtleties of the taste itself.
With a partner, listen with complete focus. Forbid yourself from formulating an answer to what you hear; offer only encouragement and interest while listening deeper than the simple words coming from your partner's mouth. Attend to the nuance in voice, movement and vocabulary.
With your spouse, try to experience physical intimacy without any attempt to control your reactions or your spouse's reactions. Give yourself over in gratitude and openness to the dissolution of physical and emotional boundaries between you. Do not be afraid to laugh or cry, relax or tremble. Lose yourself in the interaction rather than anticipating the outcome.